When Love Hurts
By Steve Quinlan
March 2, 2014
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” 1 John 3:17 NRSV
It’s been almost twenty years now since the publication a little book by Loren Mead of the Alban Institute. The book caused quite a stir when it first appeared and it continues to have an impact in the church today. The book is called “The Once and Future Church,” and in it Mead describes what 20 years ago was a predicted, but now is a full blown paradigm shift in the way the church thinks about and does mission.
You know what I mean by a paradigm shift? It is a radical and often dramatic change in how we think about something and as a result, how we behave. Think about how people thought about the origin of species before and after Darwin, or about the working of the mind before and after Freud, or about the relationship between energy and matter before and after Einstein. You get the idea. In the same way, the Christian church had for a long time thought of Missions as something done by professional missionaries in faraway places. But today things have changed. Today we understand that the place to do mission is not so much far away – though that work is still important – but today we understand that the place for us to do mission is right here – right outside the front door of the church – and maybe sometimes even inside the doors. And the work of missions is no longer done mainly by clergy or other professional missionaries, but by every follower of Christ – you folks.
But what does it mean to do missions? That’s a huge question, but it means at least this: our mission is to love one another and all our fellow human beings with an eye toward helping people know God and live well. That is the mission of Christ. As Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
I don’t think that this means that God wants people to have an abundance of material things, or an abundance of money. Rather that people would have a deeply meaningful life – a rich relationship with God and healthy relationships with others. An abundant life means a life full of hope and full of possibility. It means a life free from poverty of soul and poverty of body, if you will. An abundant life is, in my mind, a life in which human needs, the needs of spirit, mind, and body are met. This is what God’s love is about. God is Love, and God is creating a humanity that has everything it needs and can flourish in the image and likeness of God.
So I return then to our passage for this morning. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
The question in my mind is this: if the focus of our mission is right here in our neighborhood or our community, then in terms of the immediate mission before us, what are the world’s goods, and what is the human need?
This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and it is what I really want to talk with you about today. To put the question simply, can we help in our community, and if so, how? What are the needs and do we have the goods to help right here where God has put us – in Peru, Miami County, Indiana?
This is where we can engage in a little conversation today. But before we do, I’d like to take a minute more to talk to you about another book I’ve been reading. In the last couple of years there has been a spate of books published addressing the question of how Christians can best help meet the needs of people. How do we best show the love of God? At the top of the list of those books is one by Robert Lupton. Lupton is a Presbyterian and an inner city mission worker in Atlanta, Georgia, and his book has the very provocative title: “Toxic Charity, How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It.” His premise is this: one-way charity – that is charity that gives or serves without requiring or expecting the receiver to do anything – often does more harm to people than good. “How?” Lupton asks. By creating dependency, by destroying personal initiative, and by robbing people of human dignity. Lupton says, “when we do for those in need what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves, we dis-empower them… While one-way giving may seem like the Christian thing to do… Such charity subtly implies that the recipient has nothing of value [to contribute to their own well-being or to the health of their community.]”
Lupton goes on to describe how charity related dependency occurs. It goes like this: “give once and you elicit appreciation; give twice and you create anticipation; give three times and you create expectation; give four times and it becomes entitlement; give five times and you create dependency.” After that, continued giving just deepens dependency.
Of course this has nothing to do with emergency or short-term giving. There are times when people face a genuine emergency and need help right now with no strings attached. It’s altogether appropriate that we should come to the aid of people in those situations. It’s also clear that we don’t want people to stay in those situations and that once we address the emergency we need to take the next step and address the cause of the emergency and discover if there are ways to help people get back on their feet and become self-sufficient once again.
It’s also clear that we are not talking about people with genuine disabilities or incapacities that make it impossible for them to take care of all their own needs. Again our call is to act compassionately and provide the necessary support. But even people with disabilities are not usually unable to do anything. Many persons who are facing challenges in one way have extraordinary abilities and capacities in other ways.
So here’s the point. It cannot be disputed that most of the giving and serving that Christian people do is well-intentioned. We feel compassion and we want to help. We give and we serve from our hearts. But sometimes that is not enough, we also need to give and serve with our heads.
Now then, let’s use our heads a little bit this morning and have a little conversation. As you look around in this community, what are some of the greatest needs that you see?
Okay then. Now let’s talk about our goods. What are the things we have that might be used for the long term benefit of those in need? Here I don’t want you to think only about material goods, but other goods that we have. For instance, many of us have good educations. Many of us have tremendous practical knowledge and know-how. Many of us have great interpersonal skills.
Before I finish, I think I need to say a word about politics and economics. The kind of loving that I am advocating is not an extension of a political agenda. I don’t really care if somebody is a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent. By definition, politics is about getting and holding the power to govern, and that’s not what I’m talking about. Neither is loving an outgrowth of an economic philosophy. People can be kind-hearted and fair or ruthless and exploitative whatever economic system they prefer. Christian compassion may demand that we get involved in government or economics in some way or another, but Christian compassion is not an ideological position – it is a living expression of the God who is self-giving love.
So there it is. Mission starts right at our doorstep and Christ calls us to love God by loving and helping those in need. But the help we offer should not only be well meaning, but well thought out. We should work with those in need to help them break out of the humiliating and dehumanizing cycle of dependency that many are caught in. Our purpose in doing mission – in giving of our goods for others it not to make us feel good about our helping – we will feel good I think and that’s fine, but it’s just a byproduct of loving. Our purpose in helping is that others would discover that, as the saying goes, God loves them just the way they are but doesn’t want to leave them that way.
This kind of mission hard. It is a long-term, hands on commitment to walking with people on the path to dignity, integrity and an abundant life. May God guide and inspire us as we seek to obey Christ’s commandment to love. Amen.