Beyond Social Justice

What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”  Luke 3:10-11

It is a time of great vulnerability in the world.  Older people and immunosuppressed people are particularly vulnerable to the novel virus spreading across our planet.  Hourly wage earners are vulnerable to layoffs as workplaces close.  Family-owned businesses, particularly in the service industries, are vulnerable to bankruptcy as revenues plummet to near zero and fixed costs continue their inexorable demands.  Even Fortune 500 companies, if they rely on a consistent throughput of customers like airlines or entertainment venues, are facing an existential threat.

Our central banks are seeking to prop up financial markets.  The healthcare industry is struggling to expand capacity.  Our national governments are seeking to control borders and our local governments to limit our movements.  These are all good things. 

But what about us?  Many of us who have been called into the community of Christ are wondering how we should respond to these harsh circumstances.  We have come to God in prayer for our families, our communities, and our nations.  We have repented of our sin and dedicated ourselves to His calling.  Now what?  What does God ordain for His children when they look to Him for direction?

John the Baptist can help us on that question.  In our text for today, he provides a clear directive to those who would be true to the calling of God.  One instruction we have clearly from his message is to love our neighbors.  Not just to pray for them and wish them well, although those are required also, but to love them in spirit and truth.  To love them is to treat them as if they are us and to share what we have with them.  To be family. 

This is not a question of social justice.  We don’t conduct our families on a principle of justice.  We conduct them on the principle of love.

Christians, love your neighbors!

Who Speaks for God?

But you must not mention ‘a message from the Lord’ again, because each one’s word becomes their own message. So you distort the words of the living God, the Lord Almighty, our God.  Jeremiah 23:36

The whole world is under some measure of crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Some areas are hunkered down, waiting for the crisis to hit them, nervously watching the news and hoping they have enough supplies.  Others, closer to the origins of the virus, are in full-on emergency mode.

In times of emergency, it is the impulse of some people to draw spiritual connections between the crisis and the prevailing culture or their own views of eschatology.  Some of those people call themselves prophets.  I have seen people publishing messages to the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic is punishment for our watching too many sports on television, that it represents one of the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse, and that it is a tool of the Enemy to drive us further into his “technological” clutches. 

The Lord’s use of His prophets to warn, comfort, and call His people to repentance in times of crisis is a common Biblical theme.  The disposition of others to falsely prophesy during times of crisis also has many Biblical examples.  The prophets of God are exclusively seeking to deliver God’s message.  Sometimes they put themselves at great risk to do so.  They are often unpopular with the establishment.  Oh, and also, everything they prophesy comes to pass. 

False prophets will have other agendas.  Some of them are looking for fame or even to make money from their messages (Micah 3:11).  Others just have an axe to grind about current culture and see an opportunity to bring others over to their “righteous” ways (Jeremiah 23:16).  Sometimes they can be unhealthy people who normally would be ignored but who gain an audience due to extraordinary circumstances (Mark 1:21-26). 

The Apostle John warns us to test the spirits (1 John 4:1) because there are a lot of false prophets out there.  Let’s take his advice during this season of uncertainty.  Before you buy into anything you read on the internet about God’s message during this crisis, ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Is the message consistent with Scripture?  God is consistent in His nature and the Bible is our best data on His nature.
  2. Is the message consistent with the character of God?  God is not about hatemongering or fearmongering.  Messages designed to blame the crisis on a social minority should be reviewed with particular skepticism. 
  3. Is the message accepted by your pastor?  The Lord has given us under shepherds to help us avoid wandering off after false doctrine.  If you are in doubt about something you have read or heard, ask your pastor to help you.  He or she knows you, loves you, and wants only the Lord’s best for you. 

Mourning the Little Deaths

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Romans 12:15

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an endless supply of horrifying news.  The number of people infected or dying doubles every X days, depending on the country in which you are located.  The number of people suddenly rendered unemployed in the US hit record levels.  There have been business closures, retirement funds wiped out, and strains on healthcare provision that resulted in triage normally reserved for the battlefield. 

Most of us can muster the goodwill to feel sorry for people who have experienced such losses.  We reach out to the ones we know personally and encourage them as we can.  We pray for the ones we do not know well enough to enter into their private grief.  These are good things.

A bad thing that sometimes accompanies our empathy, however, is our willingness to weigh the losses of others on some internal scale.  We decide, unilaterally, whose losses are greater than others.  And, we determine based on that internal scale who is worthy of our compassion and who is not.  Families who have a member in ICU are worthy of our prayers; families who have to stay indoors and homeschool their children are not.  People who lose their jobs and can’t make their rent this month deserve our sympathy; people whose routines were turned upside down but are still getting paid do not.

I agree, some of us are way too invested in having our own way and the Lord is giving us this opportunity to grow in trust and perseverance.  But is it really my place to look down on others based on how I value their loss?

Somewhere in the world, there is a young person who dreamed all year of asking his or her crush to the prom – now cancelled.  Somewhere, there is an older couple who had their retirement “trip of a lifetime” planned, years in the planning – only they can’t retire now.  Somewhere, there is a growing young family ready to make an offer on their first house – only now they don’t qualify for a mortgage. 

None of these people are sick or destitute.  But are they not worthy of our compassion?  Have they not suffered loss?  Their hopes and dreams also died.  During a season of great loss, let’s not withhold our love from those whose suffering we decide is insufficient to merit our compassion.  Christ is concerned for all our rejoicing and our mourning.  Let us be as He is.

Fear not!

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”  He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.  Matthew 8:23-26.

In our text for today, Jesus poses an important question, “Why are you so afraid?”  We should start with the assumption that Jesus is not asking for information here.  He knows all things and all our hearts are transparent to Him.  The question is not for the disciples to answer but for them to ponder.

Likewise for us.  Why are we afraid?

I have been afraid of many things in my life.  I have feared running out of money to support my family.  I have feared a serious illness might inflict my wife or one of my children.  I have feared being failed, being fired, and being victimized.  I have feared the people I loved most in the world deciding not to love me back.  I have even been afraid of storms.  Perhaps you can relate.  Most of us have been afraid of something – true?

Jesus’ question bothers me, because it seems to imply that my fear is an affront to a powerful, loving God.  My fear is a declaration that He is either unwilling or unable to care for me and those I love.  I may say I believe He loves me and is more than capable of taking care of me but my fear says something else.

Our fear does not reveal what we say.  It reveals what we believe.

We often try to deal with our fear using a pathological approach.  We excuse it in ourselves as a weakness, as a condition, almost as an illness.  We prescribe reassurance for our fear and warm reminders of our good God’s love for us.  Jesus’ words indicate our fear has more in common with sin than with disease.  In that case our response to fear should be more in the vein of repentance than reassurance.

The issues are too complicated and our experiences too varied to lay down consistent rules in a context like this devotional.  Suffice it to say here that when we find ourselves in fear, Jesus may have words of admonition for us as well as comfort.  If you hear that admonishment to “fear not”, I hope you will act on it and marshal your faith to obey the Lord’s call on you.

Our Very Own Medals

Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.  For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?  1 Corinthians 4:6-7.

It is the nature of humankind to revel in our own accomplishments.  We take pride in the titles we accumulate at work like vice president, partner, or director.  We may brag about the money we have made or the exotic trips we have taken.  We may flout our academic degrees or the awards, medals, or trophies we have won.

All of these things of which we are so proud may be good things indeed.  Lofty titles at work may be an indication of having been faithful in past responsibilities.  Wealth of money or experiences may be (though is not always) an indicator of good stewardship.  Our other achievements may be indicative of contributions we made to important causes or events.

Our problem may not be in seeing these as good but in seeing them as somehow our own.

I have known people who worked harder than I ever have for many years longer than me but who were never rewarded with important sounding titles.  There are whole people groups in the world who have stewarded there resources with extreme fastidiousness and yet remain in poverty.  Some people have saved 100’s of lives at great risk to themselves, and never been recognized for it.

Nothing that we have accomplished would be available to us but for the grace of God.  It was all received from God, both the opportunity for the accomplishment and the rewards or recognition that followed its completion.

This is true even in the spiritual realm.  Paul’s words might be directly applied to scriptural knowledge, holy wisdom, and theological understanding.  If you are blessed with each of those, I promise none of them came to you by your own hand.

Rather than reveling in our own accomplishments and celebrating our own aggrandizement, let’s praise the God who gifts all good things to us and glory in His mercy.