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If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
James 2:15-17 (NASB)
We are approaching that time of year when the poor and needy are on the mind of almost everyone who is not poor or needy.
For many of us, it is our annual opportunity to feel good about ourselves through our perfunctory gestures of altruism toward those who are “less fortunate” (as we are prone to coldly label them as if they have no names.)
As the weather turns and the temperatures cool, I often wonder if there is any other time of year when Christians say “I’ll pray for you” more often than the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, but when nothing is actually done by us to meet the practical needs of those for whom we have committed, with our mouths anyway, to pray.
It is as if our theology of God is such that we believe in a spiritual sense that He would have us help the poor, but that somehow the actual meeting of the need, the practical aspect, is up to Him to bring about completely apart from any direct involvement from us.
So, we (only) pray…
…and we (only) pray…
…and we (only) pray some more…not genuinely, if we were honest, wanting to part with the material possessions God has provided for us, while making Pharisaical pretense to want Him to do for those who are “less fortunate” than us what He has graciously done for us.
I don’t mean to sound cynical or negative, but the reality is that for many of us the faith we profess to have is merely an ivory tower faith that is based in our own materialism, comfort and ease. We offer prayers with our mouth for those who are in need, but in our heart we couldn’t care less about them because meeting those needs might actually require us to have to do without.
How ironic that we hesitate to meet the needs of those less fortunate than us because doing so might end up making us less fortunate than we are now.
I grew up in the 1970s and, by today’s standards, I was materially poor.
There were many times during my childhood, too many to count in fact, when either the electricity, gas, or both, were turned off because my parents could not afford to keep them on and at the same time pay the rent each month.
My mother worked for years as a cook in the cafeteria of the public school I attended, and had it not been for her being allowed to bring home some of the government-provided, white-labeled food the students received during lunch period, I and my two siblings would not have had anything to eat on many nights.
I mention this not out of a need for pity or compassion because of the circumstances of my upbringing, but because all too often, Christians have a propensity to think of the poor and needy as people who live over in “deepest, darkest Africa” or in someplace devastated by earthquakes like Haiti, as opposed to the person sitting right next to us in church or who lives next door to us in our tony suburban gated communities.
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
– Stephen Colbert
We often think of the above text in James 2 solely in terms of the soteriological relationship between faith and works, and the extent to which each of those components plays a role in God’s plan of salvation through the propitiatory work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Notwithstanding the theological implications of the text in James 2, the dynamics of which I do not wish to delve into with this blog post, what is of greater concern to me is that we spend so much time engaging in theological debate that we completely ignore the practical work God has called us to in “daily food” (James 2:15) to those whom He has sovereignly ordained to cross our path in this life.
This brings up an issue I have with Reformed believers, of which I am one, in that many (not all) come across as being so focused on the academics of doctrine that meeting the needs of the poor, if they even know anyone who is poor, seems like a foreign concept to them.
I don’t say that to be judgmental or to make anyone feel guilty, nevertheless, as much as I appreciate the significance of getting the Bible right, to be fluent on systematic theology or the Doctrines of Grace doesn’t put food on people’s table, clothes on their backs or keep their utilities turned on.
The question posed by the apostle James is not a seasonal one. It is not an inquiry that should garner our attention only when it is financially advantageous or as a means to stroke our ego in an effort to enhance our personal reputation among those we might be trying to impress by our misguided benevolence.
As Christians, we can all pray until we’re blue in the face, but if we’re not willing to augment our words with actions motivated by the sacrificial example of Jesus Christ, as the apostle James said rhetorically, “what use is that?”
We who profess the name of Jesus are commanded to meet the needs of the poor because it’s right, not because it’s convenient.
Humbly in Christ,
Image credit: magforliving.com