The Impractical Gospel

“They will know we are Christians by our love.” This line ends each verse of a popular Christian hymn from the 1960s.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love

We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah, they’ll know that we are Christians by our love.

I saw a post today – a first-hand post from an American reporter team escaping from Ukraine – about American Christians at the border of Ukraine, preaching at the refugees escaping the invasion of their homeland, and it got me thinking about how we should show love in difficult situations.

I’m sorry to say I used to think the most loving thing I could do for needy people would be getting them saved, and that would lead to any necessary physical benefits in their lives. After a couple years of spiritual overhauling, however, now I see the depravity in that thought process. I failed to understand that the Father’s love, which I should have been modeling, is selfless and practical and person-oriented. “Be warmed and fed, and get saved” is not that.

When you live in a world of prosperity gospel thinking, where your God exists mainly to meet your needs and your desires, it’s unfortunately not a stretch to believe that the most loving thing you can do for people is to deal with their soul first. From that mindset, once they’ve accepted Jesus, then God can go to work in their lives and meet their physical needs and bring healing and comfort.

The prosperity-oriented gospel is inherently transactional. It places conditions on God’s grace for others, conditions that say “you must first believe, so that these good things can come to you” or “You must first tithe, so that God is free to bless you.” It’s a quid pro quo gospel, which bargains with God as if we’re equals and we can force His hand. It’s devoid of a real understanding of the first-giving nature of God, who “while we were yet sinners,” sent His Son to die for us. It denies His desire to bless us even when we don’t deserve it. The sacrifice and the blessing came first. God didn’t wait for us to repent before blessing us.

In fact, Jesus explicitly condemned those who focused on His deity, yet failed to do the good works of blessing the poor and needy and oppressed. Not once in the Gospels do we see Jesus saying “Do you accept me as your savior? Good, now I’ll heal you.” He simply went about teaching and proclaiming and healing.

One of the things often expressed in this transactional gospel is the concern that our efforts would be wasted on those who don’t choose to turn to Christ. As a result, too many Christians are unwilling to generously give to charity or to the homeless person asking for a handout or to support welfare efforts, and when asked to explain, they say that they cannot be sure the money or goods won’t be wasted.

This is foolishness.

For one thing, it implies that God is limited in His ability to supply our charitable efforts. Of course, that’s very much in line with a prosperity gospel thought process, which is inherently orphan-like thinking: “I might not have enough to go around, so I must conserve my resources for the truly deserving.” In what way is God limited? He can easily supply what I need to bless others – and in truth, He is more likely to provide me with what I will give away, than to provide for what meets my own comfort concerns. He is invested in our outreach efforts that demonstrate His nature to a dying and lost world, not our self-provision efforts.

Secondly, that thought process implies that we should only focus on those who we believe will benefit from it. It makes us their judge. It lets us decide who’s worthy of our (or God’s) blessings. That’s not a decision we’re qualified or asked to make. We cannot withhold our grace from those we don’t judge as deserving.

Third, this selective thought process ties our ministry to what we believe will result. We see no evidence that Jesus was selective in His ministry, even though He knew some of those He healed and delivered would turn on Him. How many of those to whom Jesus ministered did ultimately chose to follow Him? Many of them soon enough participated in celebrating His crucifixion. Yet in Matthew 8:16, He healed “all who were sick,” not just those who deserved it. It’s up to God to oversee who it is that follows Him; we are simply called to give, period. In fact, Jesus said to give to “anyone who asks” of you. He didn’t say “Give to those who ask of you and don’t look like they’ll waste it.”

And fourth, I’m convinced that in many cases the Lord gives us the opportunity to bless others not just to bless them – because He could do that just as easily through anyone else, or even without any person involved – but instead to test His people’s willingness to trust Him and obey Him. It reveals the presence – or lack – of His character freely expressed in and through us.

So when I see stories of Christians going to the border of Ukraine and greeting those refugees streaming across the border with calls to repent and give their hearts to Jesus, even though some of those refugees do probably need to repent and give their hearts to Jesus, I find it deeply offensive.

It’s predatory, for one thing. It’s going after someone in their most physically and emotionally vulnerable and needy moment, when all they need is physical security and food and clothing, and abusing that situation in an attempt to gain a foxhole conversion – as if that will produce a Jesus-following disciple somehow. In reality, most such conversions are opportunistic and manipulative, pretended in the hope that appearing to respond will result in real tangible benefits to the physical needs that exist. Their stomach will override their ears every time.

It’s also a massive wasted opportunity. The cost of that expensive globe-hopping plane ticket could have provided a huge amount of actual tangible assistance to dozens of those needy.

It also misses the fairly obvious point that Ukraine is actually well-churched, and full of believers – a far higher percentage, in fact, than in America. Many of those crossing the border already know Jesus as Lord.

And finally, I believe it’s harmful to the Kingdom. Those refugees are neither stupid nor blind. Such things as I am saying are self-obvious to many in that situation, and these actions will never win the unbelievers to the Lord. If anything, it does the opposite. Furthermore, the hypocrisy is also obvious to the watching world.

So, what then should we do?

I’d say, stop sending missionaries. Start sending servants. I know that missionaries are servants too – but there’s a focus issue at play. If the goal is leading people to salvation, I suspect that the focus will be salvation instead of serving, gospel instead of giving. What’s needed is the practical gospel, not the spoken gospel. Now is the moment for workers, not preachers.

Better yet, stop sending people at all. There are already people there, doing good work; generously and richly enable and facilitate them in the work that they already know HOW to do, and are already THERE to do. Don’t waste money on travel costs that could be spent filling stomachs and buying tents or other temporary housing.

Sometimes, the best way to tell people about Jesus is without any words at all.

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