I’m reading a book right now called What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, by Kevin DeYoung (who also wrote the gem of the little book Just Do Something) and Greg Gilbert. I’ve been reading it for a while, not because it’s hard to get through or boring, but mainly because I kept pausing to read things like Sports Illustrated. And other things with slightly more meaning. And also, it’s a well-written and thought-provoking book, which means…well, it means that it provokes thought, which tends to make it take longer to get through. But it’s been well worth it.
Anyway, I’m not finished yet, and will have to do more of a full book review at that point, but a [very] brief synopsis is that, as the title indicates, this book dives into the idea of the loaded word of “mission” as it relates to the church. What does it mean and what doesn’t it mean? What is it that the church is placed in the world to accomplish? What does social justice have to do with that, and how do evangelism and social justice interact? It’s a lot of questions my team wrestled through during our time living and working in Africa, and around which we had a lot of profitable, and sometimes heated, discussions. But they’re important discussions to have and it’s an important question to define, as it lies at the heart of the role and impact of Christianity in the world.
There were powerful and excellently written statements in the first few pages, and I meant to sort of blog my way through the book, sharing some of those as it went. But of course I continued to read and when the writing didn’t quite keep pace it got abandoned by the side of the road until now, 200 pages in. So I have to give you a little bit of context:
The authors are in the midst of a two-chapter section on social justice. The first chapter was a straight exposition of 12 common Biblical passages on social justice, and then the second chapter is seven proposals drawn from the exposition of those passages. The third proposal is “Accept the Complexities of Determining a Biblical Theology of Wealth, Poverty, and Material Possessions.” and it highlights just that difficulty. The Bible has a lot to say about wealth and poverty, the rich and the poor, generosity and justice. So much so that if we try to take just one perspective, one aspect of the Bible’s teaching in these areas and make it the universal law, we end up with a twisted, one-sided representation of the truth, which is of course no longer the truth, or at least not the full truth. As DeYoung and Gilbert emphasize, and as is true in all Biblical study, “we must understand individual passages within the larger narrative.”
Life is clearly given us to enjoy, and through that enjoyment, glorify God. Yet life is also clearly given us to sacrifice, and in that sacrifice, glorify God. Those truths lie in tension with each other. I love the tensions in Scripture. And one of the reasons for these, as DeYoung and Gilbert emphasize, is that our very existence as Christians is a tension:
“Part of the problem is that we live in the proverbial already and not yet. Heaven will be all abundance, but we’re still on earth. So the enjoyment of God’s good gifts must always be tempered by the call to share with those in need. Yet on the other hand – you knew there was another hand – the call to simplicity must never silence the good news that God gives us all things richly to enjoy (1 Tim 4:3-4).”
There is danger on both sides. Within the social justice gospel (and I use that term not to denigrate social justice by any means, only some of the ways the term has come to be used and abused. This requires a much fuller discussion and I would probably refer to earlier areas of the book, because they present an incredibly clear and balanced explanation of this, but basically any extension from and of the gospel has the danger of being over-extended and overtaking THE gospel as the central aspect of our faith, and in that lies the danger) there is a tendency to over-glorify poverty, and within the prosperity gospel there is a tendency to over-glorify wealth. And as the book describes, neither of these is virtuous in and of itself. Then DeYoung and Gilbert quote from Gilbert Meilaender, whose beautiful summary is what I’ve been building up to,
“Christians can, therefore, adopt and recommend no single attitude toward possessions. When they attempt to understand their lives within the world of biblical narrative, they are caught in the double movement of enjoyment and renunciation. Neither half of the movement, taken by itself, is the Christian way of life. Trust is the Christian way of life. In order to trust, renunciation is necessary, lest we immerse ourselves entirely in the things we possess, trying to grasp and keep what we need to be secure. In order to trust, enjoyment is necessary, lest renunciation become a principled rejection of the creation through which God draws our hearts to himself.”
Trust. Somehow it always seems to come around to that. So often in the Bible, and in life it seems, the answer to the question, “Is it this or that?” is, “Yes. Trust.” It’s frustrating at times, because there’s not a black and white principle to hold over any given situation and act appropriately. This is true in many areas, with issues of wealth, justice, and generosity being just one. We live in an increasingly inter-connected, global society which is therefore increasingly aware of the disparities within, and needs of, the world around it; and the church of the last 50 years has mirrored society in that awareness. The church of this generation, however, didn’t invent social justice. We didn’t even name it, and we certainly didn’t develop the principle. This is an age-old tension from the pages of Scripture and has required different things from every individual person within every society throughout every period of history. And the universal message from the Lord to His people through that history is that of trust. Do that which I ask of you and trust. This requires an everyday searching of and submission to the Lord in these questions of possessions and wealth and generosity, and, in all honesty, is much more difficult then a clear procedure and set of rules to follow. But at the same time, what freedom lies within it!
I live in suburban, middle-class America, but I’ve lived overseas on the generosity of others and in the midst of abject poverty. I’ve given money to beggars and children on the street, and I’ve withheld money from beggars and children on the street. (And which one of those is more difficult to do is by no means simple…) I’ve spent periods of time racked with guilt over adding one possession to my relatively wealthy life, and I’ve spent periods of time and money on enjoyment without a moment of second guessing. Many, many others with much more experience and wisdom than me have wrestled with these same questions, and I know I am by no means done wrestling. The point is none of these specific circumstances or actions. The point is to be aware of the tension, as maintaining it will require different actions for different people. Be aware of the good gifts of the Lord, be aware of the needs of others, and be aware of all things in light of eternity. Then trust.
As DeYoung and Gilbert close the section, “To be a Christian, then, is to receive God’s good gifts and enjoy them the most, need them the least, and give them away most freely.”
amen. I pray for that.