To Love Mercy
As we have seen, the Bible is filled with passionate descriptions of God’s concern for the poor and oppressed, as well as calls for His people to work in their behalf. Despite the attention given to these issues, this biblical mandate has seen just sporadic and partial fulfillment and will be made complete only with the return of Christ and the supernatural events that follow.
Until then evil persists in many forms, fueled by the dark spiritual influences of the devil and his angels. This evil is often made most visible in poverty, violence, oppression, slavery, exploitation, selfishness, and greed. In such a world, our communities, our churches, and our families need to stand up against these evils no matter how hard at times it is to do so. In response to the love and commands of God, living in light of the ministry and sacrifice of Jesus and empowered and guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit, we must be compassionate, creative, and courageous in seeking “ ‘to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God’ ” (Mic. 6:8, NIV).
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, September 21.
As was made clear in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament writers, those who choose to live as members of the kingdom of God live by a different set of values and priorities than does the world.
Jesus taught that “ ‘life [is] more than food, and the body more than clothes’ ” (Matt. 6:25, NIV). These things are important, of course, but we must see them in light of the kingdom of God, which means we must reprioritize our lives in real and practical ways. When we recognize the call throughout the Bible to lift up and care for others, this call also becomes one of our priorities as we who seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Ideally this call should help us focus less on ourselves and more on others.
This different set of priorities also changes our relationship with those in power over us and over the oppressed. While the Bible instructs Christians to respect and obey their governments, as far as possible (see, for example, Rom. 13:1–7), there comes a point where we need to echo the words of Peter: “ ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’ ” (Acts 5:29, NIV). Jesus put these two principles in balance in His answer to those trying to trick Him on this question: “ ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ ” (Matt. 22:21, NIV).
Those who have power, whether in government or otherwise, often enforce and maintain that power by threats or force. As we have seen in the life of Jesus, faithful living does not always and in every situation require passivity in the face of evil. For example, dealing with slavery in America, Ellen G. White wrote: “When the laws of men conflict with the word and law of God, we are to obey the latter, whatever the consequences may be. The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law. The slave is not the property of any man. God is his rightful master, and man has no right to take God’s workmanship into his hands, and claim him as his own.”—Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, pp. 201, 202.
Resisting the possibility of letting our good intentions be overwhelmed by “all the trouble in the world,” many of us would like to do more to make a difference in the lives of the suffering. There are a number of attitudes and actions that can help us make positive responses to those in need.
Compassion: As we have seen, recognizing and empathizing with the pain of those who are hurting are first steps toward action. We need to grow and maintain our sensitivity to the suffering. Today, people talk about “compassion fatigue,” the idea that we are so exposed to sorrow and tragedy that many of us become weary of the many causes that call for our emotional energy and financial support. Jesus was keenly aware of the evil and pain around Him; yet, He remained compassionate. So must we.
Education: Because many situations of injustice and poverty are complicated, listening and learning what we can about these situations is important. There have been many examples in which wellintentioned people have caused damage to other people’s lives by trying to help. While this is not an excuse for inaction, we should seek to get involved in ways that are informed and thoughtful.
Prayer: When we see a problem, our first thought is to take “practical” action. But the Bible reminds us that prayer is practical. We can make a difference in the lives of the poor and oppressed by our prayers for them and for those who have power over them (see 1 Tim. 2:1, 2), as well as seeking God’s guidance for how we can best respond further in offering help (see Prov. 2:7, 8).
Expectations: Another important element in working to alleviate suffering is to have proper expectations, given the complexity of social, political, and personal circumstances. Our hope should be to give people choices and opportunities that they might not have had otherwise. Sometimes what people do with these opportunities will disappoint us, but we must respect those choices. In whatever way we might try to work in behalf of the suffering, our guiding principle must be to “ ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’ ” (Matt. 7:12, NIV).
“God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7, NIV), and generous giving is an important aspect of the Christian life. While we must allow the Bible to challenge our giving and financial priorities, generosity is more than just throwing money at a cause, no matter how worthy.
Instead, generosity is one of the largest of life attitudes and a key quality of “those who fear the Lord,” as noted a number of times in Psalm 112: “Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice” (Ps. 112:5, NIV).
In his New Testament letters, Paul regularly cited the generosity of God—expressed most fully in Jesus’ giving His life for us—as the source of the Christian hope. In turn, His death for us also was the motivation for our living a life of generosity toward others: “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ” (Philem. 1:6, NIV).
Generosity is an attitude toward life that is large, bold, and embracing. So much in our individual lives, societies, and cultures prompts us to focus on ourselves, to keep as much as we can for ourselves. And let’s face it, for most of us the default mode is always self, self, self anyway.
If it is real, our faith will cause us to die to self and live more for others. Our faith helps us imagine the world and its people as God sees them, in both their goodness and their brokenness, and it impels us to seek to help those in need, to whatever degree possible.
As a quality of living, generosity is readily appreciated by fundraisers and charities. Such generosity is measurable and directly practical. But large donations do not necessarily indicate a generous life (see Mark 12:41–44). A generous life is larger and more valuable than any donation. We need better to appreciate and cultivate a generous spirit in all that we do. For most people, generosity doesn’t come naturally; it is grace that we need to express in our lives proactively and purposely, regardless of the pull of our sinful, selfish humanity.
Violent conflict is a significant cause of suffering. Included in the costs of war are the direct victims and shattered lives, the attention and resources devoted to military machinery that would be better diverted to alleviating other human needs and the ongoing suffering of war survivors and veterans, even among the “victors.” Then there are the many smaller conflicts that scar countless lives in families and communities. As such, a passion for justice cannot ignore the mandate to peacemaking.
At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is God’s gracious and grand act of peacemaking, reconciling sinful human beings to their Creator (see 2 Cor. 5:18–21). And the reconciliation we receive becomes the pattern for us to be “ambassadors” for this reconciliation for others, as well.
The gospel of peace also becomes the motivation, pattern, and resource for working for peace in our violent world: “The heart that is in harmony with God is a partaker of the peace of heaven and will diffuse its blessed influence on all around. The spirit of peace will rest like dew upon hearts weary and troubled with worldly strife.”—Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 28.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “ ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ ” (Matt. 5:9, NIV). Taking this further, not only did He affirm the commandment against killing, He said that we should not be angry or hold a grudge (see Matt. 5:21–26) and that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (see Matt. 5:43–48), meaning that we should take active steps to seek their good. There are many inspiring stories of people who have devoted their lives to peacemaking in the world’s trouble spots, bringing glimpses of reconciliation and healing, and often alleviating much of the injustice and suffering these conflicts have brought.
Solomon wrote that there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7, NIV). He was right, and finding that balance is not simple for any of us. However, when it comes to speaking for the oppressed and being a voice for the voiceless and seeking to overcome evil with good, is it possible that as a church we have erred on the side of too much silence when our voice should have been heard?
Christians have often talked about being the hands and feet of Jesus, referring to the call to practical service for others as Jesus would have us do. But in the prophetic role as demonstrated in the Bible, God’s first call is for men and women to be His voice—and in speaking on behalf of God, also speaking up on behalf of those God wants to defend (see Ps. 146:6–10).
The prophets’ call to justice was never a path to popularity. But motivated by their commission from God, understanding God’s passion for justice, sympathizing with the plight of the poor and oppressed, and seeking the best for their society, these prophets dared to be a voice for the voiceless in their time and place, despite opposition, discomfort, and danger (see 1 Pet. 3:17).
Based on our understanding of the gospel and the call to reflect Jesus to the world, Seventh-day Adventists also have many good things to offer in regard to dealing with the evil in the world.
Such as: “Seventh-day Adventists believe that actions to reduce poverty and its attendant injustices are an important part of Christian social responsibility. The Bible clearly reveals God’s special interest in the poor and His expectations as to how His followers should respond to those who are unable to care for themselves. All human beings bear the image of God and are the recipients of God’s blessing (Luke 6:20). In working with the poor, we follow the example and teaching of Jesus (Matthew 25:35, 36). As a spiritual community, Seventh-day Adventists advocate justice for the poor and ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves’ (Proverbs 31:8 NIV) and against those who ‘deprive the poor of their rights’ (Isaiah 10:2 NIV). We participate with God who ‘secures justice for the poor’ (Psalm 140:12 NIV).”—Seventh-day Adventist Official Statement on Global Poverty, June 24, 2010.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “A Higher Experience,” pp. 503–516, in The Ministry of Healing; “Duty to the Unfortunate” and “Man’s Duty to His Fellow Men,” pp. 511–526, in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3; “Doing for Christ,” pp. 24–37, in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2.
“Search heaven and earth, and there is no truth revealed more powerful than that which is made manifest in works of mercy to those who need our sympathy and aid. This is the truth as it is in Jesus. When those who profess the name of Christ shall practice the principles of the golden rule, the same power will attend the gospel as in apostolic times.”—Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 137. “Supreme love for God and unselfish love for one another—this is the best gift that our heavenly Father can bestow. This love is not an impulse, but a divine principle, a permanent power. The unconsecrated heart cannot originate or produce it. Only in the heart where Jesus reigns is it found. . . . This love, cherished in the soul, sweetens the life and sheds a refining influence on all around.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 551.
Summary: Becoming a follower of Jesus will change our lives in many ways, including producing in us a passion to join in with God’s active concern for the poor and downtrodden. Never an easy task and rarely popular, this will change our priorities and motivate us to take active steps to heal the hurt in the world around us.