Hands and Feet
On Monday I talked about my atheist friend’s challenge: how could a good and loving God allow children to suffer and die? For anyone familiar with real suffering this is an inevitable question, and I’m not going to try to answer it here. I am grossly under-qualified, and any answer that would do the question justice would fill a book. If you’re interested I’d recommend reading The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, or If God is Good by Randy Alcorn. Instead of trying to answer that hard question I want to touch on something very specific.
My friend’s challenge reminded me of a story I heard my Freshman year of college. My school, Northwest Christian University is a small one. We don’t have a large campus, a large student body, or a lot of money. So we were all extremely excited when we heard that Tony Campolo was coming to speak at our school. People from all over Eugene came to hear him speak. We had to host the event in our gym just to seat everyone. I’d never heard him speak before or read anything of his, but his name was familiar. I was interested to see if he would be worth all the fuss.
In the opening of his speech Campolo discussed a trip he took to Haiti (you can listen to the entire speech here, it’s well worth hearing). He was there to dedicate a new orphanage and school that would be able to take in local homeless children. When the building was complete they spread word around the city that any orphan boy or girl living on the streets should come to the central plaza at noon to be taken to the orphanage. They estimated that there were around 35 or 40 homeless children in the city. When Campolo arrived at the plaza, however, there were almost 300 children waiting. Campolo explains what happened next:
“You know what I had to do. You know what I had to do. We only had room for 40. So I had to pick, out of those 300, 40 kids, knowing that the ones I didn’t choose would die on the streets. Because they die before the age of 12 if nobody takes care of them. We loaded those 40 kids onto the bus and got to the dormitory and little school that we had built; and as these kids tumbled off the bus there was a church choir there. And they were singing a gospel song that you may know, ‘God is so Good’. ‘God is so good, God is so good, God is so good to me, He loves me so’. And I got to tell you, I was angry. I was angry with God. And I was saying ‘God, you’re not good, and you don’t care. Because if you were good and cared they wouldn’t be dying on the streets, they wouldn’t be dying like that.’ And I sensed the Spirit within me say ‘They will die. But not because I’m not good. Not because I don’t care. But because the people who I have entrusted with the mission of carrying out my love and will in the world have become indifferent to their plight’.”
That’s what I want to talk about today.
It seems that, for some strange reason, God wants to work through people. I don’t know why, but He does. When the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt and cried out to God for salvation He could have caused their chains to disappear and the Egyptians to be swallowed up by the Earth. Instead he used an old man, Moses, to set them free. What’s more, God worked through Moses to do His miracles. I believe God is all powerful: I know that he did not need Moses to place his staff in the Nile to turn it to blood. And when the Israelites wandered in the desert and needed water God could have caused rivers and springs to appear from the rocks as soon as they arrived. Instead He had Moses strike the rock, and then water flowed forth. For some reason God, who can do anything, wants to work through us. We imperfect, stumbling, and weak Christians are the very tools that God chooses to work his will in this world. I don’t understand it completely myself, but it’s true. God has entrusted us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, set the captive free, and teach the good news to all who haven’t heard it. These are all things God could do much more thoroughly and efficiently if he did them Himself, yet he leaves them in our hands. Why he does this is not my concern at the moment, just that we recognize that he has.
So when we see suffering in the world, when we see children starving to death by the thousands, when we hear about genocide and famine and poverty we must not ask first “Why has God allowed this to happen?” but instead “Why have I allowed this to happen?” And understand, you and I have indeed allowed this to happen. We did not cause these evils to occur but if we are capable of stopping them and do nothing then we are allowing evil to advance unchecked. And we are capable. Sixty years ago we did not know much about suffering overseas, and even if we did know there were few ways to really help. Today is different. Today organizations like World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Compassion International, and hundreds of others (both religious and secular) have the infrastructure, the experience, and the capability to help thousands if we’ll give them the resources to do so. You can’t claim today that there is nothing we can do to help: there are opportunities to help all around us.
There are many agnostics and atheists out there who get this, and give generously to those in need. Peter Singer is not a man I admire. I find many of his views (specifically on abortion and euthanasia) abhorrent, if not downright evil. And yet even he, an atheist, seems to understand this concept better than many Christians I know. He writes:
“To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.
“I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.
“Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.”
All around this world there are millions of “drowning children”; people whose lives we could save at only small inconvenience to ourselves. We cannot blame God for the suffering around us if we’re not willing to do anything about it ourselves. Imagine if we found such a child drowning in a pond and instead of diving in to save him began to pray “Oh God, please save this child! I know you are good, and wise, and I know you have the power to save him. Please help!” Imagine if we kept praying until the child finally succumbed to the water and died, and when all hope for resuscitation was gone we then cried out to God “Why, oh why do you allow such suffering in this world?” Or worse yet, said “It must have been part of God’s plan for this child to die, otherwise he would have been saved.” What we should be saying is obvious; “Why did I do nothing? Why did I let this happen?” We are God’s representatives, His hands and His feet to do His good will on this Earth. If we fail at the tasks that He has given us then there will be real life consequences; it is literally a matter of life and death for thousands.
James the brother of Jesus wrote about this. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:15-17).” How absurd such an example sounds! How could anyone turn a person in need away from their home and have the gall to tell them to “keep warm and well fed”? But that is exactly what we do when we pray for those who are suffering overseas and then expect God to take care of it. Out there are lives that will not be saved unless you act. Out there are people who you are meant to save. Your brothers and sisters are without clothes and food: will you wish them will, or will you take them in and help them?
I’d like to close with one final thought. It’s the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Luke records Jesus’s words:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.’” (Luke 16:19-25)
How many of us have heard this parable before and thought “This is justice. The rich man lived in luxury all his life, and every day he had to pass by Lazarus at the gate. He never stopped to help him, even though he had more than he needed. What a callous man.” Well I have some bad news for you: you’re not Lazarus. If you have the capability to read this than I’m afraid you’re the rich man. We live in a society of wealth and luxury that most people on Earth never get to experience. Over a third of the world scrapes by on $2 or less a day: the average in America is more like $150 a day. The world average income is around $7,000 a year: in America it’s around $40,000. Do you own a computer, a car, a cell phone, or a television? Then you’re richer than most. Do you have a roof over your head, food on the table, a warm place to sleep, and have the ability to read? Then you’re living in more luxury than most. And there are over two billion beggars on lying at your gate. Most of us walk right past them without looking. Some occasionally toss them a quarter or two. As Christians, as adopted children of God, we are called to do more than that. We are called to take them in, feed them, clothe them, and tell them about the God who loves them more than anything.
Finally we must remember that this world is not the end. The Rich Man’s luxury only lasted as long as he lived, and his life is but an instant in comparison to the eternity that follows. When we die will we regret giving to the poor? Will we regret feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and healing the sick? I think instead we’ll regret all the chances we had to give that we ignored. What use are fast cars, beautiful houses, or the latest technology in heaven? We can’t take them with us; they will remain behind and turn to dust in the end. In the words of C.T. Studd. “Only one life, twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Use the money God gives you for His everlasting purposes, ones that will outlast our life on Earth and shine for all eternity. Why do you think God has blessed us with so much money and resources in America? Why do you think we live in one of the wealthiest societies Earth has ever seen, while at the same time most of the world lives in abject poverty? Do you think it’s so we can live in comfort, or so we can be God’s hands and feet to satisfy the needs of others who have less?
This has been my longest post on this blog so far. It’s also the post that I think was most worth writing. I’m sorry if my words seem harsh, or if they leave you without hope. I’ll be talking about hope on Friday.