In mercy ministry, often Micah 6:8 is used for motivation and guidance for obvious reasons.
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
So many churches and relief agencies want to be merciful and give every indication of being those who “love kindness.” But what about that justice part?
The liberal gospel of the last century has fueled several generations of mercy work in ecclesiastical, missions, relief work, and government quarters. Generally speaking, this influence has created a mercy paradigm practiced in the West that has resulted in such things as aid without accountability, food without thought instead of food for thought, and works that make us feel good but do not help people become good.
However, one cannot be one dimensional in mercy work. To truly help others out of the pit of poverty, a triple-corded “justice-doing, mercy-loving, humble-walking” rope must be offered to them.
In this “I-just-want-to-be-loved” age, that justice strand can be the most difficult one to cultivate and intertwine with the others. What are some ways “doing justice” can be encouraged in mercy ministry? Here are five ideas.
Preserve initiative. Often mercy ministries dim the drive and initiative God has placed in each soul made in his image by building dependency on the agency. Programs can be evaluated by asking the simple question, “Are our actions teaching the participants to develop their own resourcefulness and trust in the Lord, or are they encouraging people to be dependent on us?” Think of mercy ministry like helping someone do their homework. If a tutor does the math for the student, then the student only learns to come get answers. But a good tutor helps him progress in the subject. So it is in mercy ministry. In a letter about providing Bibles for the poor people of Scotland in the nineteenth century, the reformer Thomas Chalmers wrote:
The peasants of Scotland purchase Bibles for themselves. This is too fine a habit to be repressed or tampered with. Our people think a Bible worthy of its price. They should be left to make the sacrifice. It endears the Bible more to them.
Even in the good work of Bible distribution, Chalmers was concerned an existing sense of responsibility in his native people not be dulled by good intentions. If only we would be so thoughtful in our own work with others.
Encourage work. Wanting to appear compassionate, many mercy ministries treat work as a four-letter word. Yet men and women, as well as boys and girls, are made in the image of God and were fashioned to work in ways appropriate to their abilities. As I heard in a sermon this weekend, Ruth and Naomi were as destitute as could be, seeing that they were two widows without means. Yet from dawn to dusk Ruth was out in the fields doing the hard work of gleaning, and the Lord greatly blessed her. Not only every mercy ministry but even each mercy request needs to be evaluated at the very least to see its relationship to work and whether work should or should not be required. Paul told the Thessalonians, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Why do so few mercy ministries not follow this principle? Because in our land of abundance, it’s much easier to put food on a plate than a shovel in a hand.
Advocate for the poor. So often the impoverished are facing systemic treatment that imprisons them in a cycle of repression that they do not know how to escape. Government and business regulations can create a labyrinth that a poor person does not know how to navigate through. Certainly working with the influential in the community to bring change in law and policies is one way to do justice. But on a more personal level, people in the church can help simply by walking alongside the poor and helping them work their way through – and sometimes even out of – the system. On one occasion, we were helping a single mother by providing childcare, rides to work, budgeting help, etc. Yet her employer at the fast food restaurant made it almost impossible for her and us by giving her crazy split shifts, five hours of work one week then thirty the next, etc. We simply went it to the restaurant, asked to speak to the manager, explained the situation, and pleaded with him to help. He kindly listened and took it upon himself to be more sensitive to her situation and gave more regular, consistent hours.
Say no readily yet kindly. A man stands on the side of the street holding a “Homeless – Disabled Vet” sign and a can for donations. A knock at the church door brings yet another request for “$20 so I can pay a guy to take me to the next town to see my grandmother dying in the hospital.” The phone rings at the church asking for money to pay this month’s electricity bill. These situations all pull at our heart strings. Yet so much more often than not they are ploys by people wanting money for alcohol and drugs, or who have spent all their resources on substance abuse and then expect others to pay for their necessities. At the heart of the Christian life is self-denial. We must practice this principle when it comes to doing something that might make us feel less guilty but is not truly helping the person in front of us. No money should be given directly for requests like these, but that does not mean that we have to be unkind. Instead, if you desire to help time should be taken to ask questions, have a discussion perhaps over a sandwich you have provided, and prayerfully ascertain what are the true needs. We may help a person far, far more than some coins in a can would by putting them in touch with true gospel ministries or even sending them off with a warning of where their deception will lead them.
Protect the innocent. Many folks on the streets and in need are women who have been abused, children without parental care, or those who are mentally slow or ill. As those who serve the One who spreads his wings over the lowly, the church must work to protect such people. Abusive husbands or boyfriends must be confronted and, when laws are broken, civil authorities called in. Those who prey upon the unsuspecting, such as the adult child who misused the credit cards of a widowed senior citizen we were helping, must be thwarted in their attempts. Men using child pornography or involved in sex trafficking must be exposed when we have knowledge of it.
Do justice, and may the Lord help us fulfill this wisdom from Proverbs 24:10-12.
If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength is small.
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?