A recent poll invited people to suggest their perfect job. The results probably won’t surprise anyone. In reverse order they were as follows;
5. Interior designer
4. Scuba diver
3. Ski Instructor
2. A hotel proprietor in a far off place
1. A bar owner in a far off place
Where on the list do you imagine caring for needy relatives would come?
In an excellent book If its not too much trouble: The Challenge of the Aged Parent Ann Benton offers a Christian perspective on caring for an elderly relative.
Just maybe she argues this is the perfect job for a Christian because it is in such a life of giving that we find ourselves most likely to imitate Christ. It is a huge challenge to offer full-on care for someone in need whether new-born baby or elderly relative. As Christians very few jobs call for such an understanding of what it means to work in God’s strength allowing God’s gospel to transform our thinking and empower our living. But perhaps the greatest challenge provides for the greatest opportunities.
In chapter 2 of the book Benton presents six gospel mindsets that can help us be better carers. They help us serve precisely because they each remind us of how God has served us in the Lord Jesus Christ. We can care because the God who has cared for us is at work transforming us into his likeness.
Whilst Ann Benton is focusing on caring for elderly relatives in the chapter each of the applications seem to work well when it comes to caring for babies and young children too.
1. Money cannot buy it
How easy it is for us to only value the things we can put a price on. We quickly translate the words ‘what is my work worth’ into ‘how much will you pay me?’ Caring for those we love offers no financial reward and thus robs many of any incentive. But for the Christian it presents a perfect opportunity to learn;
the principle of self-interest does not have to rule our lives…the lives of all of us are enriched by something which will not appear on any bank statement.
And so it is with the gospel. We have been freely served by our God.
Come, all you who are thirst come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! – Isaiah 55:1-3
Money cannot buy peace with God, forgiveness of sins, entry to heaven or everlasting life but God freely offers these things. He so loved the world.
2. It cannot be reciprocated
How much of life is an ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine’ relationship. We feel an obligation to return the favour when others have been generous to us. We are disappointed when we have given much and feel taken for granted.
No wonder it is hard to keep on giving when caring for a needy person who cannot give back in return.
But the gospel of Jesus Christi is a non-reciprocal arrangement. We do nothing, Jesus has done everything; he gives, we receive.
When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. – Luke 14:14
3. It is lowly work
It is lowly work to clean and replace dentures, wipe a dribble from a chin, scrub at a stain on the carpet. Especially to those whose hands are more accustomed to tapping at a computer or turning the pages of a book.
Yet no task that we may be called on to perform for the sake of another can possibly compare to that of our Lord and master. If we call ourselves Christians then this perhaps is how we learn that
‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus; Who, being in very nature God, Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.’ Phil. 2:6
4. It is hidden work
How many carers work with little or know recognition let alone reward. It can seem so utterly insignificant. How easy for resentment to build and for life to seem a wasted life.
But now the gospel challenges and changes that mindset.
Most of us will not make a name for ourselves; we will not be remembered on earth one generation on. But our secret deeds will have made a difference and our Father will have seen them and smiled.
When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. – Matthew 6:4
5. It uses our gifts
Benton begins this point with a striking example.
‘I’m a teacher, not a nurse,’ I sometimes muttered to myself as I emptied urine out of a catheter bag.
But there is a much more significant gift which all Christians have received. That gift is the love of God the Father lavished on us through our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is this gift of love that we are to pass on.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. – 2 Cor. 1:3-4
6. It respects the image of God
In a culture where we discriminate against all sorts of people on the basis of education, ability, age, gender or colour the Christian gospel calls on us to view everyman with every dignity.
The motive for care and concern for elderly people is that each one is made in the image of God. And though time and wear and tear has made some of these folks unattractive or cantankerous, they still are worthy of respect because they remain God’s creation and bear his image.
Thank God I’m a Christian
It’s not that it’s impossible for non-Christians to care for the needy it’s just that we have so many more reasons to care and we have a divine power at work in us resourcing us for the task.
Of all the jobs you could chose would you ever chose the role of a carer. And yet as Benton concludes
What job is more suitable to those who follow the one who died for them?
Dr. Peter Saunders certainly thinks there is a case to answer to.
When the apostle Peter wrote a letter to Christians who found themsevles increasingly on the margins of society, mocked and even insulted here was his advice;
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
In our increasingly secular society how do we respond to the growing numbers of people who are not just sceptical about Christianity but are downright hostile? How do we answer militant atheists who think no good thing comes from believing in God and that the only good religion is a dead one?
Well we should answer their arguments and there are good books worth reading and giving away on why Dawkins and Hitchens et al. are wrong. But maybe we have one knock-down apologetic argument that atheism cannot answer – the power of a transformed life.
The great defender of the Christian faith, Francis Schaeffer, said ‘the greatest apologetic is love’.
The one thing that atheism cannot explain or understand or rubbish is the extraordinary power of a transformed life.
So when the Guardian this week ran a story on the remarkable work of a church who decided to pour out their lives in sacrificial service of drug-addicts and prostitutes it was a great reminder that maybe Peter was right. When the pastor of a bible-teaching, Jesus-preaching church also says ‘”The real issues are how we should express and find love for the outcasts and the downtrodden” the world even as it accuses Christians of doing wrong still sees our good deeds and acknowledges something remarkable is going on.
John Harris author of the Guardian piece writes;
A question soon pops into my head. How does a militant secularist weigh up the choice between a cleaned-up believer and an ungodly crack addict? Back at my hotel I search the atheistic postings on the original Comment is free thread for even the hint of an answer, but I can’t find one anywhere.
The last Roman Emperor who viciously persecuted the church was Julian. He hated Christians with a vengence but even he conceded;
[Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
Generous Justice by Tim Keller is subtitled ‘How God’s Grace makes us just’ and the subtitle is itself very telling because the book is not just a biblical defence of the idea that Christians should be concerned to uphold justice in our communities by sharing God’s concern for the needy or vulnerable. The book is also written to measure our grasp of the gospel and our desire to live in obedience to it.
The main argument of the book can be summarised in the following statement;
A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith.
For Keller the gospel both shows that Christians have unique motivations for social justice and also that Christians alone have unique power to demonstrate this justice in a radical way that is made possible by the gospel. Keller comments;
The Bible gives us not just a naked call to care about justice, but gives us everything we need – motivation, guidance, inner joy and power – to live a just life.
Elsewhere he comments
We can see what an important and powerful resource the Bible gives us when it provides not merely the bare ethical obligation for doing justice, but a revolutionary new inner power and dynamism to do so. The Bible gives believers two basic motivations – joyful awe before the goodness of God’s creation, and the experience of God’s grace in redemption.
If Keller is right it seems inevitable that the Christian ought to be more engaged in Generous Justice than his non-Christian neighbour because he has both unique motives and a unique power.
My goal in this post is not to rehearse all of Keller’s arguments. But I would like to highlight a few examples of what it looks like when the gospel is applied to our attitudes to the poor and to matters of justice.
Keller says that Micah 6:8 as ‘a summary of how God wants us to live’. The Chrsitian is ‘to do justice (mishpat) and love mercy (chesedh).’
Justice is at it’s most basic meaning ‘to treat people equitably’. And God is concerned to defend those for whom justice is hard to come by. So
‘if believers in God don’t honor the cries and claims of the poor, we don’t honor him, whatever we profess, because we hide his beauty from the eyes of the world.’
But justice also calls for radical generosity.
Keller cites Matthew 6 and Jesus description of giving alms as ‘acts of righteousness’.
‘Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law.’
How does the gospel dynamic work to renew our minds and transform our lives so that the gospel leads to generous justice. I want us to briefly look at five examples from the book.
1. The gospel empowers us to be radical neighbours.
If we are to be committed to our communities we need our care and concern to be motivated not by pity for the poor or guilt because we’re more affluent but we need our compassion to be motivated by the conviction that we ourselves have received from Jesus the love that we are seeking to share. As Tim Keller writes reflecting on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan
‘According to the Bible, we are all like that man, dying in the road. Spiritually, we are ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:5). But when Jesus came into our dangerous world, he came down our road. And thought we had been his enemies, he was moved with compassion by our plight (Romans 5:10). He came to us and saved us, not merely at the risk of his life, as in the case of the Samaritan, but at the cost of his life. On the cross he paid a debt we could never pay ourselves. Jesus is the Great Samaritan to whom the Good Samaritan points.
Before you can give this neighbour-love, you need to receive it. Once we receive this ultimate, radical neighbour-love through Jesus, we can start to be the neighbours that the Bible calls us to be.’
2. The gospel changes the identity of the well-off so they have a new respect and love for the poor.
Again a powerful motivator for compassion and respect is that the gospel teaches us to identify ourselves with the poor as Jesus did. We share not just a common humanity but we share even the status ‘the undeserving’ poor.
My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating toward the materially poor.
And what this means is
To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need.
When we see that we too have bankrupted ourselves spiritually if not financially and we recognise that it was our own fault and that we too are in need of great mercy it will lead to Generous Justice.
3. The gospel declares that God identifies with the poor.
Where would we be if God had not identified himself with the poor? Physically he choose to become poor and marginalized in that he came as a working-class Palestinian Jew not a King or a Lord. He chose not to own a home or to seek the comforts of life.
He stood in the place of us all when he recognised our own spiritual poverty and bankruptcy (Matthew 5:3) and paid our debt.
4. The gospel enables the Christian to sacrifice, take risks and even disadvantage themselves to the advantage of others.
Keller reminds us that the real love that we have received in Christ entailed risk and sacrifice. For the Christian it is a Christ-like love that we offer in return.
The Christian is ready to give not out of his riches but even out of his poverty. He quotes a section from a sermon by the great Jonathan Edwards to demonstrate;
We in many cases may, by the rule of the gospel, be obliged to give to others when we can’t without suffering ourselves…If our neighbour’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not like to be relieved, we should be willing to suffer with them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves.
5. The gospel enables us to overcome racial bias.
The Bible provides deep resources for racial rapprochement. Its depiction of creation cuts the nerve of racism at its source.
And the gospel of grace also serves to kill off any racist instinct.
Racial prejudice is wrong because it is a denial of the very principle that all human beings are equally sinful and saved by only the grace of God. A deep grasp of the gospel of grace, Paul says, should erode our racial biases.
What is at stake?
1. The glory of the gospel in transformed lives
What should we conclude when Christians fails to engage in acts of social justice? Keller would argue we should conclude that Christians have failed to grasp the gospel in all its dimensions and that we need to relearn and reapply the gospel in our attitude to the poor.
I would like to believe that a heart for the poor ‘sleeps’ down in a Christian’s soul until it is awakened.
2. Our witness to the world
Surely the gospel would have a much greater impact if the world saw the power of the gospel at work in the lives of Christians who are motivated to do justice? An awakened heart is a powerful witness.
Deeds of justice give credibility for the preaching of the gospel. When our deeds contradict our words, our words have no power.
The book Generous Justice is a great example of what happens when we allow the gospel free reign to do its work into all of our lives and every aspect of our thinking.
A true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to seek justice in the world.
The 2020birmingham initiative to see 20 churches planted in the city of Birmingham by the year 2020 would never have happened without the vision and generosity of Redeemer City to City. If the work of Redeemer is new to you then take a look at the video and join me in thanking God for its ministry.
Former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson, recently reviewed Niall Ferguson’s new book, Civilisation: The West and the Rest. In his review he includes a remarkable quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which on it’s own website describes itself as ‘the highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences as well as a national center for comprehensive studies in the People’s Republic of China‘) in which he describes the remarkable impact of Christianity in shaping Western civilization.
He said: “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.
“We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.
“Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system.
“But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.
“The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
It does seem remarkable to me that it takes an Atheist state (you are required by law to be an Atheist to be a member of the ruling Communist Party) to remind us of our Christian heritage. Maybe we just take for granted everything that we have and we simply don’t realize where it has all come from. We don’t ever stop to think (dare I say to thank God) for how much the Bible and Christianity has done to bless the West. Perhaps we might be willing to wake-up to all of this before it is too late.
The historian, television and radio presenter, David Starkey is gay and an atheist. He is also an honorary member of the National Secular Society. You might therefore expect him to be clearly in favour of the ruling in the High Court this week that banned a Christian couple from fostering children because of their religious beliefs. Watch the exchange of views amongst the five panelists on this weeks Question Time and you may be surprised.
A few years back Greenpeace produced a leaflet that went as follows:
Planet earth is 4,600 million years old. If we condense this inconceivable time-span into an understandable concept we can liken the earth to a person of 46 years of age.
Nothing is know about the first seven years of this person’s life and whilst only scattered information exists about the middle span we know that only at the age of 42 did the earth begin to flower. Dinosaurs and the great reptiles did not appear, until one year ago, when the planet was 45. Mammals arrived only 8 months ago and in the middle of last week. Man-like apes evolved into ape-like men and at the weekend the last ice-age enveloped the earth.
Modern man has been around for four hours. During the last hour man discovered agriculture, the industrial revolution began a minute ago and during those 60 seconds of biological time modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise
He has multiplied his numbers to plague like proportions, caused the extinction of 500 species of animals, ransacked the planet for fuels and now stands like a brutish infant gloating over his meteoric rise to ascendancy on the brink of war to end all wars.
A human life in this timespan lasts a mere 18 seconds. Let’s not waste anymore precious time.
I wonder what you would say as a Christian if a Greenpeace spokesperson knocked on your door and pushed that leaflet into your hand. As you sat down together over a herbal tea I guess that whilst you would disagree on much you would want to agree on that one statement of theirs:
‘Modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise’. We would agree that human beings really are to blame for spoiling a good world.
Human beings cannot escape the fact that together we have exploited the creation – harmed and abused it – plundered its resources, and so on. But as we munched on our carrot cake together we would want to help our Greenpeace activist to think a little bit further – for we would want them to see that at the heart of the environmental crisis is actually a spiritual crisis.
1. Environmental crisis or spiritual crisis?
For the message of the Bible is that behind our treatment of this world lies a bigger issue – our treatment of God. This world has been made by God and belongs to God.
‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ – Psalm 24v1
‘For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine’. – Psalm 50:10-11
If you’ve ever hired a car, maybe on holiday or something like that you know about the inspection. To ensure that you return the car in the condition you received it before you drive off you walk around the car with the clip-board inspecting it – looking for bumps, dents and scratches.
But imagine that when you come to hire a car your luck is really in – you are the first driver of a brand-new hire car – there it sits in pristine, mint condition, and you sign off the paper work.
You enjoy your holiday and a week later you return it – but as you hand the keys back you have to confess it’s not quite the car it was. You have to admit to being a bit reckless in the way you’ve driven it, a bit careless in how you parked it because the fact is that it is almost unrecognisable as the same car you drove away.
Now the damage done to the car is a real shame, and you’ve certainly spoilt the pleasure for future users by your selfish behaviour, hopefully you’ve not damaged the car beyond repair for future users. But the man at the Easycar counter will probably have a more immediate concern because the real offense is not against the car itself it is against the owner of the car. Easycar will seek some kind of recompense.
And that is the problem behind the problem. That is why the environmental crisis is really a spiritual crisis. Human beings made in the image of God were given responsibility to rule over the creation. To bring glory and honour to God by making this good world fit for purpose – to display the goodness of God as we work it under his rule.
In Genesis 2 Adam is told to work the earth and take care of it. He is to develop the world by working it and conserve the world by taking care of it. And we have failed in our duty.
So as we look at what we are doing to our world we need to remember that our problem is not so much our CO2 emissions as our S-I-N emissions. When we damage our world by harming our environment we are sinning against God.
The BIG inconvenient truth is not that we are destroying the planet but that we are demonstrating our rebellion against God and our resistance to his rule.
As we grapple with questions of climate change and what on earth is really going on we need the creator to help us interpret the creation.
Jesus said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? – Luke 12:54-56
Today across the world millions of pounds is being spent predicting weather patterns and evermore complex models are being written to try to forecast further into the future but Jesus’ warning is that it is possible to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky and yet not know how to interpret the present time. In the Palestine of Jesus day they knew that a westerly wind meant rain was coming – as moisture from the Mediterranean sea carried by the clouds would fall on the land as rain. But southerly winds meant something different – heat from the desert was on the way and temperatures would rise. Yet without God’s word to interpret God’s world they could make no sense of Jesus.
But Jesus point is that it is possible to understand the world around you and yet miss the bigger picture – the fuller forecast. That’s why the church equipped with God’s word need to speak into the issues of our day. One church leader put it this way, – the church is ‘to understand the events of earth and seek to address them with the message of heaven’
James Lovelock and the revenge of Gaia
Lovelock is the author of The revenge of Gaia a book Andrew Marr described as ‘probably the most important book for decades’. John Gray in the Independent described it as ‘the most important book ever to be published on the environmental crisis’
Central to the book is the warning that our relationship with the world is a delicate, two-way or symbiotic relationship between humanity and the world.
It is a relationship that can work for good or ill. When we care for creation – the creation cares for us. Its systems are ideal for human flourishing and when we work with the world we are blessed by the world but when we abuse the creation we find that those very self-same systems act against us and so to speak creation pays us back in kind. But when we chop down a Continue reading »
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi….It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
Parris is a journalist known for his refreshing honesty and this piece is a fine example. What’s not clear to me is, as an atheist, what Parris attributes the profound change in people’s hearts that he observes to and what therefore he means when he says ‘the rebirth is real.’ My prayer is that he and many others will not only recognise the life-change that alone the gospel can bring but see it for what it really is – the work of a gracious God. My hope is that he will see and come to share the sure and certain knowledge that at the heart of this universe is a God of love who in his Son has loved us and through his son offers us life and peace, joy and hope and that this message is not just the need of Africa but the need of all nations. That the gospel is the power of God to not only forgive sins but to transform people, societies and the world.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. – 1 Tim. 2:1-4
Have you ever thought what extraordinary words those are? When Paul wrote them there was not one King anywhere in the world who was a Christian ruler. For Paul then there is no secular government and that means for the Christian there cannot be secular government.
What is even more extraordinary is that Paul’s prayer focuses on the fact that God has put secular rulers in place not just for the common good of man but God calls upon the state to serve the church by upholding freedom and justice and thereby allowing Christians to get on with their lives and their evangelism!
We find other early church leaders calling on Christians to pray in the same way.
Clement writes in the second century:
Grant them Lord, health, peace, harmony and stability, so that they may give no offence in administering the government you have given them.
Tertullian writes in his Apology:
We pray also for the emperors, for their ministers and those in power, that their reign may continue, that the state may be at peace, and that the end of the world may be postponed.
If we are to learn how to pray for the state the heart of all of these prayers is the recognition that rulers are appointed by God to rule in such a way as to enable Christians to ‘live peaceful and quiet lives’ and by so doing enable the church to be God’s agent in the world bringing salvation as it preaches and lives out the gospel.
John Stott writes:
Here is important apostolic teaching about church and state, and about the porper relations between them, even when the state is not Christian. It is the duty of the state to keep the peace, to protect its citizens from whatever would disturn it, to preserve law and order and to punish evil and promote god (as Paul teaches in Rom. 13:4), so that within such a stable society the church may be free to worship God, obey his laws and spread his gospel.
There is therefore a great deal at stake in how a government governs. Paul’s prayer implies that when a government fails to uphold the freedom of the Christian it is actually failing in its God-given duty! For many Christians around the world this failure of the state to live up to it’s calling is all too apparent. In recent months in the middle-east in particular the state has failed in its role of protecting the church from harm. Witness recent bomb attacks on churches in Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt.
Whilst the church should and must turn to God in prayer at such times the leaders of other nations do have the opportunity to challenge government that is failing to protect it’s people, including Christians.
The article reports:
A meeting of EU foreign ministers failed to agree on a condemnation of sectarian attacks over the Christmas period that targeted Christians in Egypt and Iraq.
Talks ended angrily when Italy accused Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign minister, of “excessive” political correctness because she refused to name any specific religious group as a victim of attacks.
Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, demanded an EU response on the persecution of Christians after a New Year suicide bombing at a Coptic church in northern Egypt in which 23 people were killed.
The Egyptian bombing followed attacks in Baghdad and fears, expressed by the Vatican, of persecution leading to a Christian exodus from the Middle East.
Mr Frattini, backed by France, said it pointless to issue statements defending religious tolerance without any references to the specific minority, Christians, that was under attack.
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