The magazines arrive in my mailbox. On their covers are pictures of people who look a lot different than I do and who live in a world a lot different from mine. Their eyes are vacant, their bodies shabbily clothed. They often look poor. And needy. I wonder, Am I supposed to meet such great need?
Then there are those missions trips I’ve taken to Chicago, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Zambia. I’ve seen people suffering—from poverty, injustice, violence, and destruction—firsthand and returned home troubled by the question, What does God want me to do?
And added to these experiences, are the articles in this magazine about believers in South Asia facing obstacles and trials that I probably never will. Again, How does God want me to respond?
The words of James hauntingly come to mind: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
So sometimes I write a check or click the “donate now” button. It’s loving; I sense God’s pleasure in it, and I view it as one way for me to care for others out of my own abundance. But the reality is that most of the time I do nothing. And I’m acutely aware that these needs are way beyond my limited monetary gifts.
Then how should we respond to world needs that we encounter? How can we avoid apathy (because we tune them out), spiritual dullness (because we don’t use them as an opportunity to turn to God), and heavy guilt (because we do nothing or because we don’t experience them in the same way as others do)? When we encounter stories of suffering, what might God want us to do?
And guard ourselves against feeling nothing. Scripture speaks of having “tenderness and compassion” for one another, even towards those we don’t know or will never meet (Philippians 2:1). In Matthew 5:7, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” which implies a heartfelt awareness of the needs of others, and Romans 12:15 instructs us to share in one another’s sadness and joys. Just as Christ took on flesh and endured the suffering of humanity, so should we strive to walk in the shoes of others, that we might gain insights into love.
Compassionately act in the best interests of others (Romans 12:10–13). This can feel overwhelming, especially when we see news stories of thousands or even millions of people who are suffering. But we should remember that not all expressions of love need to be complicated. A place to start might be the simple gift of feeling their sorrow and not reducing their experiences to a news-bite. They may never know you joined them in this way, but it is one way to honor people’s humanity and enter into the story with them. At the same time, true love will be open to other expressions—like giving money, working to correct social injustices, and sometimes offering comfort and support through direct communication, visitation, and service. God knows we can’t do every one of these things each time we hear of a need, but we must regularly respond, even if it’s in small ways.
Through this act, we bring the needs we know of to God, telling Him what’s on our hearts. Then, we listen, letting God say what’s on His heart. We let Him speak to us about how we feel (or don’t feel) and how we love (or don’t love). Through heart-to-heart conversation with God, we ask for His kingdom-will; we cry with Him; we confess our apathy; we pursue the heart of Jesus in us (Ephesians 6:18).
We must allow every encounter to shape our minds and hearts. Romans 8:28 says that God works good things out of bad when we love Him and embrace His purposes. God is not the author of evil, sin, and suffering—they’re the results of twisted free will and a groaning fallen world—but He can redeem them. He can show up, with mercy, power, and even redemptive judgment. And in the midst of it all, He desires to change us. The Lord wants to use these encounters with pain to make us more merciful, more sensitive, more globally-minded. He desires to increase our awareness of evil so we can fight it, to show us our own failings even as we see those of others, to move from self-centeredness to selflessness, even to increase our convictions so that we might increase our courage to take radical actions on behalf of the oppressed.
A wide path of freedom
I find it helpful to understand God’s will as a wide bike path, rather than a narrow, single-file trail. Most of the time, I believe God is not trying to get me to discern one single, God-pleasing response to human suffering. Rather, He’s pleased if I stay on the wide path of compassion, moving forward and not going off to the left or the right. The four guidelines above assist me in this process.
For example, my wife and I seek to practice these responses when we encounter hurting people in our church and community. We discuss human needs and pray for them with our children and grandchildren. For a broader perspective, I set my homepage to a site that highlights world events. I subscribe to secular and missions-oriented magazines that inform me of global, regional, and local issues, and I try to periodically visit places where I may encounter these issues. I also do my best to engage and be open to different voices that propose spiritual, social, or political solutions to needs.
In all of these things, our main call is to follow Christ. In the words of the worship song “Hosanna,” we must ask Jesus to:
Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things unseen
Show me how to love like You have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause
As I walk from earth into eternity.*
*Lyrics by Brooke Fraser