“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matt. 22:34-39, ESV
In Scripture God bids us to “love our neighbor” no fewer than eleven times. Yet centuries later the church still struggles with its calling to do so. From the pulpit to the pew, Christians interpret this command in a variety of ways. In his book Word vs. Deed, Dr. Duane Litfin, president emeritus of Wheaton College, addresses this struggle writing, “The gospel is inherently a verbal thing, and preaching the gospel is inherently a verbal behavior. If the gospel is to be preached at all, it must be put into words” (20). Though this is not a new topic in theology, the Evangelical church in the West is seeing the urgent necessity to find the balance between word and deed in the dynamic culture of the 21st century. The church is more aware than ever of the pressing needs of the world. Technology has given us unprecedented access to seeing the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs that exist worldwide. On our smart phones and computers we can watch natural disasters destroy cities and wars and violence destroy lives. While knowledge of the needs of the world is growing, there is a great necessity to understand how the church is to respond. What is the biblical view of how the church is to care for others, particularly in light of the growing awareness of the pressing needs both near and far?
Westerners have often sought answers that focus on the physical needs of humans. For instance:
- When faced with illness, we seek medical solutions.
- When faced with hunger, we seek to provide food.
Scripture is clear that we are to care for humans’ physical needs. Christ helped the sick and fed the hungry (Luke 7:22, Mt. 14:13-31) and calls us to do the same. (Mt. 25:34-40, Lk 3:11, Jn. 14:12-13) Is that the full answer, however? What does it mean to truly flourish as a human?
Brain Fikkert and Russell Mask address human flourishing in their book From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance. Though this book primarily seeks to help equip the church to alleviate poverty through financial solutions, it aptly points out that a biblical vision of human flourishing is fundamentally different from “simply producing and consuming more material things.”(85) Our end goal should not be to provide materially and turn poor nations into wealthy ones. If this were the solution, then the West, which has seen unprecedented levels of material wealth in the last half of a century, should be experiencing profound flourishing. As Fikkert and Mask point out, however, hopelessness and brokenness have dramatically increased in the West. This is evidenced by the 137 percent increase of suicide amongst American youth between 1950-1999.
Medical experts from Dartmouth Medical School correctly assessed the reason that American youth are struggling, writing:
We are hardwired for other people and for moral meaning and openness to the transcendent. Meeting these basic needs for connection is essential to health and human flourishing. Because in recent decades we as a society have not been doing a good job of meeting these essential needs, large and growing numbers of our children are failing to flourish. (85)
As Scripture points out, we are made for more than a consumer society can provide for us. We are created to live in right relationships with God, others, and creation. From the very beginning, as Scripture points out, we were created in God’s image, to reflect our Maker, by caring for creation and others. Poverty is a result of a break in these relationships. If we are to truly love God and our neighbor, therefore, we need to focus on fostering healthy relationships in all of these arenas of life. In the West, we need to seek to do this in a way that not only provides for our neighbor’s material needs, but also their spiritual needs. As C.S. Lewis wisely put it, “God cannot give us peace and happiness apart from himself because there is no such thing.” Likewise, we cannot offer anyone peace and happiness apart from the good news of the Gospel. Jesus Christ came to heal our poverty, both physically and spiritually and calls us to participate in his work. (Matt. 9:12, 18:11).
The question is how do we practically fulfill this calling?
It starts by devoting ourselves to God and to others well being and living a life of compassion. This includes understanding that God rightfully owns all and that we are to generously share what God has given us. This means giving of our goods, finances, time, talents, and hearts. It does not stop there, however. We are to also seek to enable others to do likewise, moving them from a place of dependence back to a place of dignity. We can only do this by sharing Christ’s salvific work in both word and deed. As 1 John 3:17-18 puts it, our words are not enough:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.