Is Loving Our Neighbor Merely a Means to End?
I would really appreciate a few specific questions to help me measure whether or not I am part of the problem. I read this commentary, and I’m moved by it in a few different directions. I believe I’m not totally off-base in having convictions about the moral problems of these years and about the relevancy of political involvement. But it is difficult to really examine that without some objective input, and that might be assisted by some thought-provoking specific questions.
I so appreciate the humility of this man as he considers seriously the questions that my article attempts to raise. Frankly, this is rare. I hope I have a similar humility when considering any challenge to my own thinking. That doesn’t mean that everything I write and say should be taken as gospel truth, certainly not! I am simply trying to provoke deeper thinking and discussion into matters of faith and culture by asking difficult and sometimes controversial questions. This is one of the many purposes of the Body of Christ. The Church should diligently wrestle with and discuss the Scriptures, the mission of the Church, and how we are to express our faith in the various cultural contexts into which we are placed. This is often what I am trying to do as it relates the area of contemporary American culture.
In grappling with the questions raised in my article, this very thoughtful man articulates what may be a common obstacle to the missio dei. He writes:
My tendency is to desire more direct proclamation of the Gospel and a discussion of its relevance in the broader social turmoil around the value of human life, covetousness and materialism, lust for pleasure and self-gratification, and our nationalistic pride and presumption. The latter tends to place me in the camp of being against many things, and I've recognized that before, so my practice has been to strive to be relational and compassionate. However, this can be frustrating because our society rather accepts compassion as the value of every good citizen, so it does not differentiate the service of a Christian from that of a non-believer. I don't feel right about assuming that because I follow Jesus, others are going to take notice of Him when I am doing what, in their pride, they believe every good person should be doing anyway. And yet to differentiate myself, what can I do but return to the ubiquitous personal sin problem and how the Gospel message both answers the human need and also recognizes God's justice in judging sin and calling for repentance. It is a difficult problem.
This brother raises an important question: “Do ‘good works’ and loving thy neighbor fall short if they are not accompanied by a direct proclamation of the gospel?” I think there is much confusion on this point and many may feel as if they are guilty of compromise if they fail to use such opportunities to share the gospel.
The first thing I would offer is that we place everything we do under the sovereignty of God. Meaning, we do “good works” and love others because we are commanded too, not merely because we are trying to create opportunities to “share the gospel.” We work to alleviate pain and suffering because God cares deeply about those who suffer. We are, by grace, given love for people because they are all precious to God. We should avoid the ulterior motive of doing good in order to “differentiate” our service from that of a non-believer as this is often seen as inauthentic and self-righteous. It can be received as if “You are only doing this so I’ll join your church or religion” when the response should be “Why do you care about me”?
I would add that unbelievers are equally capable of compassion and mercy because they still bear the image of God and we should be the first to celebrate their good works when they do. However, we often we look at these with suspicion as if their good works are not equal to ours. Granted, their motivations are different and sometimes self-serving but the God who is sovereign also uses them to bring relief and comfort just as He uses us.
We do good because we are called too and not as a means of orchestrating some outcome of our own design. We are not God and we cannot know our part in God’s redemptive work in the life of another—some sow and some harvest.
As Christians we work to mitigate the effects of sin in the world and trust that God, in His sovereignty, will reveal Himself to others through us as He so chooses. This is the essence of what it means to be “missional.” Certainly, we want our lives and actions to point to Christ and whenever possible, we share the story of God’s redemptive work on behalf of humanity through Jesus Christ. We love others because “He first loved us” and so we focus on meeting real needs of real people in His name and we do NOT reduce this to a means to an end. According to Jesus, loving our neighbor is an end in and of itself. It is a part of our being obedient to Christ. I think we often get this wrong.
I think this very attitude can make the church look false. People are smarter than we give them credit for. They know when they are being manipulated and when we approach them through acts of “love and mercy” as merely a means to an end, they know it, and this is not love. It is when we say nothing about their lives that they will often open up. (We form a relationship first.) We love and accept people and sometimes, this is when we can share the Truth. This is when we have earned the right to speak into their lives and we do so waiting on the Lord, “always being ready to give an answer for the hope within us.”
Again, God is sovereign and it is God who saves; we simply love Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – if we do this they will soon know whose name we come in – and we love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus doesn’t say “love your neighbor so you can share the plan of salvation,” simply “love your neighbor.” Furthermore, we know that in order to do this, we need His grace—THIS is what bears testimony to the Truth; not us.
So, again I offer these words for consideration: Do good works and loving our neighbor necessarily have to include a direct gospel proclamation to be worthy, or is it enough to love our neighbor as ourselves and trust the Lord to assign our part in His redemptive work?
© 2008 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the founder and President of the Center for Christ & Culture. The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to recapture and demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.