Monday, September 12, 2011

Love: How much is too much?

As we’ve been in the process of helping and serving the homeless here in Orange County, my wife and I, and our house church family, have encountered more than a few challenges.

Sometimes people get concerned that we are doing too much to help people. Some suggest that it would be better for us to allow people to “hit bottom” and sleep in homeless shelters so that they will be more motivated to change their own lot in life. Others feel that we are enabling them to remain in their condition by propping them up from the outside without addressing their internal sin issues more directly. Still others are not comfortable with our helping them in more practical ways because by helping them we might somehow be showing approval to their questionable lifestyles (i.e. – having children out of wedlock, using drugs, abusing alcohol, etc.).

None of these concerns are taken lightly. In fact, over the years, my wife and I have withheld assistance from people who did not take the proper steps towards escaping their condition – whether that be homelessness, or addictions – and we’ve also questioned ourselves at times about whether helping someone does more harm than good.

For example, when the scripture says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17), maybe the question is really about what the real “need” is. Someone might tell you that their “need” is for $100 to cover their rent. But maybe their real “need” is for someone to help them understand how to budget their money so that they can pay their own rent?

Hopefully I can think out loud here and invite you and others to weigh in on this discussion, because it’s something I’m currently still debating with myself, and because I freely admit that I do not know exactly what I am doing all the time.

My reaction at first was to say that most of these people are not followers of Christ, and so I cannot withhold kindness to them based on their sinful behaviors. After all, doesn’t Jesus urge us to be like God and to show mercy to the “just and the unjust” as God does? (see Matthew 5:44-45)

Secondly, my own spiritual calling and gifting is largely in the area of hospitality and service. Showing practical kindness and serving others is how I communicate the Gospel of Jesus to people. I’m not likely to take 45 minutes to attempt to convince someone to agree with me that Jesus died on the cross for their sins. I am not an evangelist in this sense of the word. However, I do feel that I communicate the truth and the power of the Gospel message by doing acts of service and showing mercy to people in my path. For me, this IS evangelism. It is an apologetic that no one can argue with or disagree with (except perhaps for overly judgmental evangelicals who might say that I am a horrible witness).

So, I’m not very comfortable with the idea of imposing my will onto people by threatening to withhold the grace of God to them if they do not take the steps that I want them to take. For example, it has been suggested that our house church family not help people with addictions unless they agree to attend at least one AA meeting a week and find a job. At first blush this seems more than reasonable. They need jobs and so what’s the harm in adding an incentive? They need to break their cycle of addiction, so what’s wrong with saying that we won’t take care of them if they won’t take care of themselves?

Over the weekend, I spent some time listening to college students share their experiences getting to know the homeless at Isaiah House in Santa Ana. As we shared, the idea of imposing our will on them “for their own good” was brought up. I was reminded of a similar conversation I had regarding church discipline in the house church. In that context, I argued for the power of love and relationship to generate the necessary repentance rather than incorporating an external (or internal) authority structure to threaten people to act righteously. This is still my conviction, and now suddenly I could see how my desire to impose my will upon this homeless family – even though it was for their own good – was the equivalent of “bringing in the Bishop” to address ethical or theological errors in the Body. It seemed inconsistent to argue for the power of love and relationships in one context and to deny it in another.

I caught myself saying, in the discussion on Sunday afternoon at Isaiah House, that it’s better to speak to people out of a sincere love for them; out of relationship; to let people know that because we love them we wish they wouldn’t smoke, or take drugs, or remain homeless. I argued that it was more effective than withholding basic necessities from people as a way to gain leverage over them and coerce them into changing their behavior. Suddenly my theoretical discussion was reflected back at me and I realized that I was in the process of trying to apply pressure to these homeless people in just the same way.

Later this week I sat and talked with my friend Thomas Crisp (a professor of Philosophy at Biola) about this same issue. He agreed that it was an abuse of our authority to treat other human beings this way. In fact, he appealed to the exact same premise found in Dallas Willard’s book, “The Divine Conspiracy” as an example. Our interaction with others should be out of sincere love for them, not tainted with manipulation – even if we think we know what’s best for the person.

Certainly, we treat our children this way don’t we? Yes, but I think in the case of a parent to a child it’s appropriate to set expectations on proper behavior and to impose punishments when disobedience occurs. But this is between a parent and a child, not between one brother to another. I mean, for me to exalt myself over another human being outside my actual family (as if I were their father) is insulting and presumptuous. Maybe even sinful?

For someone in the Body of Christ, authority rests on Jesus and the Spirit of God and the Scriptures, not on me or any other authority figure. Outside the Church it should still be the Word of God and the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin – not you or I. And to be more blunt, what these people need more than a job and more than to be legally married, and more than to be free from their addiction, is Jesus. Only Jesus can change their hearts and only Jesus can convict them of sin and give them a real hope to escape their situation.

So, for me, by showing love for people in practical ways – even in the midst of their sin – we ARE showing them Christ. We are bringing the Word of God and the Spirit of God to them as we continue in relationship with them, as we pray for them, and meet with them, and even as we model right behavior for them.

As we serve people in this way, many of them have made comments to us about the difference our service and mercy and kindness has made in their lives. Even seeing how people love one another, how husbands treat their wives in our fellowship, how children are given a voice, how the poor worship alongside the rich, has challenged them to be more understanding and patient and loving of one another. So, we’re not at the finish line yet, but we have cleared several hurdles in our lane so far.

To be fair, I can understand when someone says that they’re not comfortable helping people who are living in sin. Those are all pretty huge issues for me. Do we, as a church, send the wrong message to people when we bless them in practical ways, even when we know that the entire relationship is outside of God’s perfect will?

If we are called to show extravagant love to those on the edges of society like this, we will have to continually confront these issues and answer these challenging questions. To be honest, anytime you buy a cheeseburger for a homeless person you – potentially – enable that person to spend the $5 they would’ve spent on food to buy alcohol or drugs. So, maybe you should just never help anyone ever again because potentially your help – even a cold cup of water in Jesus’ name – could result in further sinful behaviors.

Maybe it seems I’ve already made up my mind about this, but let me assure you I have not. I am still wrestling with this question. For now, I am inclined to continue to love and serve whoever Jesus puts in our path. Right now I’m leaning towards showing the unconditional love and praying for God to work on their hearts, but even as I write this article I am still not 100% sure.

What do you think?



Mark Lake said...

I don't think it is an either/or distinction. It's not something we can put a label on and say this way is right and that way is wrong. Jesus said He does only what He sees the Father doing. It's a moment by moment living by the indwelling life of Christ.

This song tells a beautiful story:

jonathanparham said...

My family has been ministering to some around the corner from us. Shes late 40s, lots of medical needs, and on medicaid. We have listened, prayed, brought groceries, brought her in her wheel chair to our family events, and I've taken her to emergency when her pain has been too overwhelming. We given money and haven't kept track, but she has to the penny.

My wife and I decided to close the bank. We asked to psy for a specific need. In her case it was a state ID so she can 'function' in the insurance and medical world as some of her prescriptions are narcotics. We gave money for the ID, and offered to take her to the city agency to get the ID (we've done this before).
A week later, she rings our doorbell, recites how much she owes us, and asks for more money. I tell her my wife and I have decided no more money - atleast till the id is obtained.

I felt bad, but my wife had disciple and literally walked another single mom thru the process and we knew that the ID is essential for any assistance in our town including jobs for fast food. She hung her head and left.

I didn't feel the Holy Spirit saying I was wrong. Over the past few weeks. My family had visited her, talked to her on the street, prayed, and been around for her. I felt we had enough face time with her to say, 'No' to the money request.

I told my wife well the only other way I could thing to materially help is carry her up the stairs to our place for some meals.
Don't have the answers Keith, just along for the journery with you. There are several folks in my neighborhood like the woman I mentioned. There's an overwhelming material need.

This is also where I see the simple vs institutional church in terms of resource. But I've seen several churches regardless of denomination go so social justice that they lose their own saltiness so to speak. Now some of this is us fogetting that Jesus said the poor you will have with you always. In the US we have taken this to mean, there will always be someone I can write a check for. But I'm sure Jesus meant, that the poor are my friends and hang with the poor. We're way too class segregated. My wife and I are coming from a church that has class/race reconciation written into its constitution. But after five years, I see you have to live this stuff, not just agree with the theory of it.

Keith Giles said...

Jon- Thanks for sharing your story. I agree, I don't think there is any one answer. I think we take each situation and person as they come to us and we do our best to love them and to serve them as the Holy Spirit directs us.

Jackie Pullinger asked once, "If you don't bring them money, what will you bring them?" For me that's the key. Money isn't what they need. It's Jesus. And our love, time, attention, and yes, maybe even money, are demonstrations of His Love for them, but money itself is not what they need most.

Blessings to you, my friend. I'm going to get on the phone now with one of our more challenging people now. Pray for me.


Kent C. Williamson said...

Keith - reading your post and thinking of the struggles we face when trying to bless others reminded of this prayer that a friend shared with me recently. It was written by Thomas Merton...

My Lord God

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following

your will does not mean

that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that my desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope that I have that desire

in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything

apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this

you will lead me by the right road

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always

though I may seem to be lost

and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear,

for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me

to face my perils alone.

- Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Anonymous said...

I am a missionary in South America and this is a topic that arises regularly for us especially since the great expansion of Short Term Missions. We recently did a book study with a group of interns using the book "When Helping Hurts" by Stephen Corbett.

It has a ton of very practical advice and is really geared more toward what you are doing. It touched on missions but in reality it is written to a church who wants to minister in their own area.

Great thoughts. I don't think you can go wrong when your decisions are filtered through His love.

Unknown said...

My only point of contention is the distinction you make between relating to blood relatives versus relating to spiritual relatives. I think you are excusing yourself to serve as the means of proper discipleship when you say that it might be sinful to enforce biblical consequences. The point that you have no authority is well taken, but what do you do with the authority of Christ? The only true love is the love which Christ showed us, laying down his life to reveal the Father. People in sin need to be served by both the law and grace, otherwise grace is taken for granted. Gift becomes dessert, and allowing this wrong understanding to take root would be to hate the brother or the stranger. My 2c.

Beth Foster said...

Hi Keith, I come from a former "tough love" stance as I was trained that way as a counselor. Over the past 10 years, the Lord has softened me to a "meet them where they are" approach. There are 6 stages that someone would present in and I choose to meet them where they are and not make my interactions conditional upon presenting in just the seemingly "healthier" stages.

Stage 1--Precontemplation (no perceived problem)
Stage 2--Contemplation (considering that may have a problem)
Stage 3--Preparation (researching how to tackle the now perceived problem)
Stage 4--Action (addressing the problem)
Stage 5--Maintenance (recovery from the problem is now a Godly habit)
Stage 6--Termination (healing occurs where able to move on to fully focus on Kingdom work)

It helps me to see people this way so I don't get frustrated with Stages 1-3. I am to plant the seed and the Lord will tend to it. However, with Stages 1-3, always being discerning in the Spirit that I am not casting pearls before swine.

Thanks for sharing your struggle as it one that the newly formed Organic Life groups in PA (that I participate in) will be wrestling with as we live and plant seeds in our neighborhoods.

D. L. Webster said...

The passage about God sending rain on both the good and the wicked came to mind.

Anonymous said...

When we consider anything in regard to how far we should take it, the cross is always where we start. we love not or own life even unto death. So what could be left. When we wonder about the effects of our love, we are really wondering about our love, will it be enough, will love work? I will be taken advantage of, I may not be helping them! I am not Jesus anyway. Most of these reasons are about my relation to another person, they concern me, how I look, and what will someone think, I boldly say fuck all that. we belong to God do the next right thing, the people of the USA are confused at best, show them love, love wins, Faith hope and love the greatest of these is love. He has seen every vile thing tweakers have done, He knows the crazy shit done while under the influence, He knows before it happens and is still merciful, The people who live across the street from me have become my friends. Just before we moved into our home earlier this year two of the kids across the street age 16 and 19 shot and killed two kids aged 16 and 18. For some reason it is believed that punishing these two kids with enough prison, and all that goes with it, will be of some relief or closure for the family that lost two loved ones. We know the truth, only forgiveness can heal, the effects may never go away, but the right thing to do is forgive. The right thing to do is show mercy. I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
God teaches the lessons, we are his people so he uses us, the trick to the whole thing is, our Father is in charge of the results, He after all sees a much bigger picture. Is cocaine good, is there any Kingdom value in cocaine? Cocaine has driven more men than myself to follow Jesus, Like a talking donkey God uses all things. If we do the next right thing, trust that we have the mind of Christ, it will save a lot of wondering. We have had plenty of time to think things through. In the spirit of Elijah, we know it is time for action get fit for the age to come.