Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
As a Christian, I am on a journey of growth toward the Christ-like ideal. It’s a journey that I began in high school, at a time when my life was already teeming with moral failings and selfish pursuits. From those first days, my newfound faith called me to make drastic changes to my lifestyle and outlook, and concerted choices to take greater ownership of my faith over the twenty years since has yielded growth.
But progress can be slow. Sometimes God’s inner working seems so profound that I can tame my heart’s rebellion in short order. At other times, I stagnate.
One thing I have learned, however, is that the obstacles I encounter reveal my shortcomings in such a way as to provide a roadmap toward the Christ-like ideal.
To be a Christian requires a denial of one of people’s most basic drives—that is, to be their own master and commander. Christianity says one must die to selfi so that the focus of the faith—Jesus—may have a platform through its adherents to amplify his name and mission. Soren Kierkegaard proclaimed that a Christian becomes a sacrifice to call attention to Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice.ii When Christians allow God to shepherd their wants and desires to mirror his, this in turn leads to their deepest satisfaction because they bring glory to God and help for a suffering world.
But amplification of Jesus’ teaching in one’s life is immensely difficult. Jesus gives an analogy through the Parable of the Sower as to why this is.iii In one part of this parable, thorns grow alongside the Sower’s crops and begin to crowd and eventually choke out the yield. Later, Jesus explains that the cares of life and the deceitfulness of wealth prevent those who hear his parable from fully following through and living a life in line with his teachings. In other words, competing messages and paths can dull or drown out one’s commitment. As moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it, everyone has rival desires that are “conflicting and mutually incompatible.”iv
What this means is that life, or how we perceive life through our often self-aggrandizing lens, gets in the way of what Christ says is life’s ultimate aim—to love God and others.v
Two Kinds of Poverty
Enter a man I will call “Jeff,” whom I met years ago at church. He epitomizes the struggle many impoverished Americans face. He has rampant health problems that are exacerbated through a poor diet, decades of recurrent substance abuse, and lack of access to healthcare. Jeff’s cognitive functions have been laid low through decades of drug abuse, compounding the challenges of an education that capped out sometime in junior high. Jobs come and go. His income usually comes up short. Suffice it to say, Jeff’s body and mind are failing, and he is consistently a hair’s breadth from homelessness.
But Jeff’s struggles with poverty reveal a different kind of poverty within my own heart. You see, I tire of Jeff’s continual failings. He is like a sieve. I and others pour spiritual and material aid into his life, only to watch it empty out with no seeming progress. Jeff wears on me. My stamina wanes. Sadly, I sometimes contemplate limiting our interactions. I am in danger of the thorns as I start thinking, in line with the cold bromides of capitalism, that I should find investments that are easier and more likely to bring a return.
The heart of the matter is not Jeff’s tangible poverty but my own poverty of compassion. How quickly I overlook his intrinsic value. Or more pointedly, how quickly I forget that he is made in God’s image and likeness.
A myriad of authors and philosophers have warned their readers along similar veins. Václav Havel, in The Power of the Powerless, called technology the modern metaphysics that “has enslaved us and compelled us to participate in our own destruction.” It has a way of removing us from “being” and casting us into a world of “existences” devoid of meaningful participation in life. Will Samson, in Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess, notes that American over-consumption, driven by messages of inadequacy, shifts us from a focus on communal living and care for the poor into self-destructive activity such as non-necessity spending, debt, and lifestyle diseases brought on by sedentary living and poor diets. And Francis Schaeffer in How Should We Then Live notes that prizing personal peace and affluence results in selfish pursuits of comfort and convenience at the expense of personal responsibility and concern for the substance and direction of society.
For Christians in first world countries, the thorns growing in our crops are things like the worship of technology, consumerism, comfort, and convenience. We get caught up in the day-to-day rat race, and pretty soon, our lives look just like those of every other middle-class American. Christians, however, are not called to pursue the American Dream, but the example laid down by Christ that emphasizes emptying of self to fill others, especially those in need.
An epiphany came several months ago. What I am experiencing with my cyclical aid and Jeff’s seeming inability to make lasting changes is but a glimpse of what God must experience day in and day out with a humanity that fails to follow his ways, cannot retain the most basic instructions, and yet continually asks him for help.
Think of Israel coming out of slavery in Egypt to receive the Promised Land. They saw God’s power and majesty manifested through plagues, the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, manna falling from the sky, and God’s presence in the cloud by day and fire by night.vi And yet, their hearts still wandered and rebelled, often complaining that God was not doing enough.
Or think of Jesus’ disciples. They walked with him for three years. They witnessed the blind given sight, the lame made to walk, and the multitudes being fed.vii Jesus shared radical teachings that upended what the disciples thought they knew. No one had ever been able to do what Christ did. And yet, they scattered at Jesus’ most desperate hour, when he needed his companions most.viii One of his chosen, Judas, betrayed him despite having seen Christ’s power and majesty firsthand.ix Jesus had to face his trial and execution alone.
Whether it’s Israel’s or the disciples’ failings, God still remained faithful, offered forgiveness if they genuinely sought it, and wanted the relationship to not only continue but to flourish. It’s no surprise to God that we will fail again and again. He knows that we, too, are like sieves that he has to constantly refill. Despite our brokenness, he is long-suffering and works continually to rescue us from shirking our accountability to him.
Where the Golden Rule Leads
The Almighty’s ability to endure the most hard-headed among us and forgive if we have true contrition is something I marvel at—especially when I compare God’s forgiveness to my own response to Jeff’s repetitive lapses in judgment. I can be short with him and diminish my expectations of him. I’ve arranged two small jobs for Jeff, only to have to correct or finish the work. Another friend employed him but had to limit the scope of responsibility. Sometimes it’s illness or his aging body that sidetracks him; other times I suspect it’s withdrawal. On one occasion, I walked Jeff through the application process for government assistance; we went through several rounds of communication over several weeks, only for me to find out he already signed up over two years ago but forgot how to access his benefits. Instead of seeking a solution, he went without the additional assistance and suffered in the process. Again and again, I, as well as others, have counseled him on wise use of the little money he has. Despite this, he frequently seems to be unable to pay his bills or buy food.
And yet, I have to remind myself to get beyond my judgmental attitude and desire for ease in helping others. Why? If I reject Jeff and stop trying to help him through his struggles, then how hypocritical of me to expect the Creator—not to mention other people—to be patient and forgive me. Treating others the way we ourselves want to be treated, according to Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, should be an outflow of the goodness we receive from God. This is the summation of Scripture.x
None of Us Have Reached the Ideal
While Jeff may seem on the surface to carry much more baggage than most of us, we all fall short in some regard. Whether we fail like Jeff with addiction or place our pride in our accomplishments, our spiritual depravity is the great leveler. It puts us all in the same boat—whether rich or poor, saint or felon. But here comes the beauty of God’s rescue plan: that we, when recognizing the spiritual poverty we all suffer from, can turn to Christ for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jeff makes excuses. He also admits his own physical and spiritual weakness. He asks for my forgiveness and apologizes often. At times I accept gladly. Other times, I still harbor resentment and hear the Sirens telling me the comforts of my home and the ephemeral joys of my middle class lifestyle would not be as troublesome as Jeff.
When the disciple Peter asked how often he should forgive others, Jesus essentially told him forgiveness was limitless.xi Kierkegaard took a complementary view, with an admonition that God’s forgiveness to others was more about the totality of forgiveness for the whole person versus focusing on pardoning particular acts.xii Jesus’ response to Peter and Kierkegaard’s rendering both relay the sense that the well of forgiveness should never run dry for those who genuinely seek it.
Jeff has taught me a lot. Above all, two lessons stand out. One is that I need to recognize my own spiritual poverty, so that I may be more forgiving. The other is that my dependence on God needs to be constant, so that the thorns don’t choke out my faith. Otherwise, I too may find myself suffocated—a field sown with seed that bears no yield.
i Luke 9:23-25
ii Provocations: Spirituals Writings of Kierkegaard (2014)
iii Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
iv After Virtue (1981)
v Matthew 22:34-40
vi Exodus 7-16
vii Matthew 15:29-39
viii John 16:32
ix Mark 14:10-11
x Matthew 7:12
xi Matthew 18:21-22
xii Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (2014)