Made in God’s Image, Understanding Human Activity in God’s World

Part 10 of 11

Last post we spent some time examining some verses which include commands or imperatives concerning caring for the needy.  Verses such as Deuteronomy 15:11, which says:  “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’”

Related to this, there are two main subjects to cover in this post:  First, we shall look at how secondary causes – or human agency – relate to and bring about God’s promises to act on behalf of the needy; and second, we shall examine some of the roadblocks or barriers which can prevent us from action.

So firstly, let us consider the promises of God to act on behalf of the needy and afflicted.  When we speak of the promises of God to act please remember what we have talked about concerning the real effect of secondary causes.  When we read that God “…raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap…” (Psalm 113:7) we should see in this statement an imperative to us as His body – that we must raise the poor from the dust and the needy from the ash heap.  We can see a similar relationship between God’s promises to save a people for himself and His promise to call a people who were not His, with the activities of preachers such as Peter and missionaries such as Paul.  God promised to save and to call aliens (viz. non-Jews) into the family of His people and He does it through the activities of people who were called to this task.  “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) provides an imperative to preach the Gospel for “…how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard(Romans 10:14)?  So in the same way, hear the imperative when God promises to be “…a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a rain storm against a wall.” (Isaiah 25:4)   He shall do this most often through His body, the church.

Some further promises of action include:

God acts on behalf of the needy:

  1. I Samuel 2:8:  “…He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with nobles…”
  2. Job 5:15,16:  “But He saves from the sword of their mouth, and the poor from the hand of the mighty.  So the helpless has hope, and unrighteousness must shut its mouth.”
  3. Psalm 12:5:  “’…because of the groaning of the needy, now I will arise,’ says the LORD…”
  4. Psalm 35:10:  “…LORD, who is like You, Who delivers the afflicted from him who is too strong for him, and the afflicted and the needy from him who robs him?”
  5. Psalm 68:9, 10:  “You shed abroad a plentiful rain, O God; You confirmed Your inheritance when it was parched.  Your creatures settled in it; You provided in Your goodness for the poor, O God.”
  6. Psalm 69:33:  “For the LORD hears the needy…”
  7. Psalm 107:41:  “But He sets the needy securely on high away from affliction…”
  8. Psalm 109:31:  “For He stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from those who judge his soul.”
  9. Psalm 113:7:  “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap…”
  10. Isaiah 25:4:  “For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a rain storm against a wall.”
  11. Jeremiah 20:13:  “Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD!  For He has delivered the soul of the needy one from the hand of evildoers.”

Promises for the needy:

  1. Psalm 9:18:  “For the needy will not always be forgotten…”
  2. Psalm 72:12-14:  “For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, the afflicted also, and him who has no helper.  He will have compassion on the poor and needy, and the lives of the needy he will save.  He will rescue their life from oppression and violence, and their blood will be precious in his sight…”
  3. Psalm 132:15:  “I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her needy with bread.”
  4. Psalm 140:12:  “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted and justice for the poor.”
  5. Isaiah 14:30:  “Those who are most helpless will eat, and the needy will lie down in security…”
  6. Isaiah 25:4:  “For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress…”
  7. Isaiah 26:5,6:  “For He has brought low those who dwell on high, the unassailable city; He lays it low, He lays it low to the ground, He casts it to the dust.  The foot will trample it, the feet of the afflicted, the steps of the helpless.”
  8. Isaiah 29:19:  “The afflicted also will increase their gladness in the LORD, and the needy of mankind will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.”
  9. Isaiah 41:17:  “The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them.”

So again:  when we hear these promises of God to act on behalf of the needy, let us hear the imperative in them.  Now some of you may say:  “But what about miracles?”  We certainly affirm that God acts in direct miracle for the needy and the afflicted as He did for the widow living at Zarephath when Elijah told her to “‘Bring [him] a morsel of bread in [her] hand.’  [In response] she said, ‘As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.’  And Elijah said to her, ‘Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son.  For thus says the LORD the God of Israel, “The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.”’  And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days.  The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah” (I Kings 17:11b-16).

So although we affirm that God acts by direct miracle from time to time as the needy and afflicted are cared for, we also affirm that the majority of the activities of God as He cares for the needy and the afflicted are done through the agency of His people.  Which leads me to the second subject for this morning which is:  what are some of the roadblocks or barriers which can prevent us from action?

Barriers exist which deter us from our duty to care for the needy.  The first one to consider is the resistance to give care to the needy and/or the afflicted because of negative past experience.  When we care for the needy, it will not always go the way that we expect.  From our perspective, there are times when we have cared for the needy, that it did not go well at all.  There are two things we can affirm in response to this.  First, since we are unable to see the whole picture, what we see as “didn’t go well” may in fact be used by God to bring about good results.  Second, we are called to care for the needy without the qualification of previous experiences (without ignoring the learning and skill that proceeds from previous experiences).  Proverbs 31:9 does not say:  “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy…unless some of them kick sand in your face.”  It simply says to defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.  Therefore, even if we suffer according to the will of God, let us entrust our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (I Peter 4:19).

A second barrier is the thought that some of the needy ones don’t deserve care because they are needy and/or afflicted because of their own bad decisions.  Please notice that when the Bible calls us to the needy, it does not make reaching out contingent upon the reason why a person is in need.  We are called to care for the needy and the afflicted, and no less to those who we would categorize as being in their situation because of their own bad decisions.  We are not called to those in prison only when they have been imprisoned unjustly – we are simply called to those in prison.  We are not to distinguish between who is worthy and who is not worthy to receive care.  At the same time, we must be aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and remain wise in how we extend care.  In short, we must not withhold care on the basis of the needy being a sinner.  Instead, we are called to practice wisdom in giving care so that our activities will result in the benefit of the needy one instead of enabling he or her bad behavior.  As the Proverbs say:  “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21, 22)

A third barrier is our own sins of omission – the inherent weakness of humanity exposed in not doing what we know to do – in other words:  own weakness and tendency toward sin.  Let us not be hearers of the word only, who deceive ourselves, but doers of the word (James 1:22), bearing much fruit, and so proving to be His disciples (John15:8).  Let us not be guilty attending church gatherings, and tithing, and singing Psalms, and hearing the Word preached, while neglecting the weightier provisions of the law:  justice and mercy and faithfulness; for these are the things you should do without neglecting the others (Matthew 23:23).  Let us often cry out to the Lord:  “Search me, O God, and know my heart!  Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23,24)!

A fourth barrier is the existence of structural evil and a lack of structural good.  What I mean by this can be most readily seen in the contemporary system of state-sponsored care.  Their motto seems to be:  give them food, but no Gospel.  These structures are entrenched in society and for many, engrained in our minds as the way to help the needy and the afflicted.  Unfortunately, our modern welfare system does not in many cases help the needy out of their state of affliction, but instead sinks them deeper into it.  So how do we change the organizational structures of our society from those which promote evil to those which promote good?  First, what we do not do:  we do not seek to break down the structures which currently exist through legislation.  In doing so we would create a vacuum where some structure previously existed.  What do we do?  We structure our personal ministry and the ministry of our church based upon the imperatives of Scripture.  As we do so, we will begin to take back some the ground lost to the kingdom of this world.  We will, through caring for the needy, decrease the need for government programs intended to care for them.  Instead of fighting against what currently exists, we will replace the structural evil with structural good and do so to the extent that the programs which were intended to help the needy without God and without the gospel will decrease because of a reduction in demand or fade away for lack of participants.  If this sounds impossible, consider two things.  The first is this:  kingdom matters always have the appearance of the “lost cause.”  We hear them and say, “That sounds great, but it won’t work.  We are a small church, how could we take on so much?”  We must remember whom we serve, and His commands and promises to us and to the needy.  The second thing I want you to know is that it does work.

Here is a short story about a man named Thomas Chalmers who accomplished what I am describing:  In Glasgow, Scotland Thomas Chalmers made one of his greatest contributions to the life of his own time by his experiments in parochial organization.  His parish contained about 11,000 people, and of these about one-third (about 3,700) were unconnected with any church.  He diagnosed this evil as being due to several shortages: personal influence; spiritual oversight; and the lack in the number of parochial organizations, which had not kept pace in the city – as they had done in rural parishes, with the growing population.  He declared that twenty new churches, with parishes, should be erected in Glasgow, and he set to work to revivify, remodel and extend the old parochial economy of Scotland.

The town council consented to build one new church, attaching to it a parish of 10,000 people, mostly weavers, laborers and factory workers, and this church was offered to Dr. Chalmers that he might have a fair opportunity of testing his system.  In September 1819 he became minister of the church and parish of St John, where of 2,000 families more than 800 had no connection with any Christian church.  He first addressed himself to providing schools for the children.  Two school-houses with four teachers were established, where 700 children were taught at the moderate fees of 20 to 30 cents per quarter (which would be $2.50 to $3.60 per quarter today).  Between 40 and 50 local Sabbath schools were opened, where more than 1,000 children were taught the elements of secular and religious education.  The parish was divided into 25 districts embracing from 60 to 100 families, over each of which an elder and a deacon were placed, the former taking oversight of their spiritual, the latter of their physical needs.

Chalmers was the mainspring of the whole system, not merely superintending the visitation, but personally visiting all the families, and holding evening meetings, when he addressed those whom he had visited.  This parochial machinery enabled him to make a singularly successful experiment in dealing with the problem of poverty.  The English method of compulsory assessment (taxation to help the needy) was rapidly spreading.  Chalmers believed that compulsory assessment actually swelled the evil it was intended to mitigate, and that relief should instead be raised and administered by voluntary means. His critics replied that this was impossible in large cities. When he undertook the management of the parish of St John’s, the poor of the parish cost the city $2,600 per annum (about $31,300 today), and in four years, by the adoption of his method, the pauper expenditure was reduced to $534 per annum (about $6,450 today). The investigation of all new applications for relief was committed to the deacon of the district, and every effort was made to enable the poor to help themselves. When once the system was in operation it was found that a deacon, by spending an hour a week among the families committed to his charge, could keep himself acquainted with their character and condition.

Amazing, profound and deeply instructive to our current situation!

Among the ideas communicated by this account, I want to highlight two.  Firstly, as I said before, we do not seek to legislatively destroy the structures which exist, but function outside of the principles of Scripture.  Instead, as the account depicted, we act in accord with the principles of Scripture and in time bring about a shift in the way a society understands the true functions of God’s visible church.  Secondly, as is depicted by this account, we must have in place deaconal structures which create opportunities for care to be extended by the members of our church to the needy and the afflicted.  If these structures do not exist, then the care we extend will usually be passive and occasional instead of consistently deliberate and organized.

A fifth barrier to extending care to the needy and afflicted is impatience.  The results of caring for the needy and afflicted will often be long-term.  It will be easy to lose heart if for no other reason that our cultural standard of results now!  The work of God through His church is on a time table much longer than any one person’s life.  So, therefore, the individualistic focus of modern life makes it difficult for us to view ourselves as part of something bigger, and greater, and more long-term than ourselves and our lives.  To cause a shift in the structures of a society as I have described above will probably take two or three generations.  Are you willing to embark on such a great journey?  Not only are we members of Christ’s body, we are part of a very long history of the story of the redemption of a people.  The length of which is, in part, due to the patience of God, who does not want any to perish but for all to come to repentance.  We do not primarily reach out to the needy and afflicted to get results.  We do so because we have been called to it, knowing that God has promised to do His good work.

The barriers identified so far can fit into the categories of the world and the flesh.  The sixth and final category of obstruction to extending care to the needy and the afflicted is the Devil.  Satan works to disturb the ministry of the church to the needy.  And besides the loss of preaching a biblical understanding of the gospel, what greater loss could the church suffer than the loss of our understanding of the call to minister to the needy?  The church must be actively:  gathering for worship, studying God’s word, reaching out to the needy and afflicted, and praying for those both within and outside of the church.

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