by John D. Barry

Once you meet people in deep and extreme poverty, you understand the fury of the prophets. It was in a slum in Bihar, India, where my heart first cried out for both justice and mercy—as the prophets did before me.

I Felt the Injustice; I Saw the Need for Mercy

“This part of the village needs clean water,” the woman in her early 40s remarked to my friend Biju Thomas, the director of Transformation India Movement (Jesus’ Economy’s partner in Bihar, India). The look on her face, as she expressed her people’s needs, will never leave my mind. It was anger combined with pain—she was grateful that some people in her slum now had access to water, but infuriated by the fact that everyone had abandoned her outside of Transformation India Movement.

This woman understood that she needed mercy, but she also understood that she was a victim of injustice.

But where did the injustice the woman felt begin? The scary answer: The injustice she felt is something we all have inflicted upon her—each of us who has ignored the tragedy of poverty in some way or another. The even scarier answer: The reason why injustices in our world continue on is because we, as Christians, are not dealing with our own spiritual poverty—and that’s what is holding us back from tackling physical poverty.

The Incredible Tension between Justice and Mercy

The biblical prophets held in the balance mercy and justice. When they looked at the world, they saw that both must be present for God’s love to be fully known—for his kingdom to arrive. They realized that God is both full of justice and mercy.

The prophet Isaiah once said:

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18 ESV).

God is gracious and he desires to show mercy—and he is also a God of justice. God holds in the balance all these things; we should attempt to do the same.

But for justice to exist, purity must also. Without coming to terms with God, it’s difficult to come to terms with what we must do for others.

“Wash! Make yourselves clean! Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes! Cease to do evil! Learn to do good! Seek justice! Rescue the oppressed! Defend the orphan! Plead for the widow! ‘Come now, and let us argue,’ says Yahweh. ‘Even though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white like snow; even though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool’” (Isaiah 1:16–18 LEB).

At the core of empowering other people must be a deep spiritual awareness of ourselves. God desires for us to learn to do good, and he wants us to cease from doing evil, but we must know him deeply to be able to fully accomplish this. It’s the epitome of the old adage, “You can’t help someone else, if you can’t first help yourself,” but with a twist, “You can’t help someone else (bring them justice and mercy), if you don’t first let God help you.”

Pinpointing the Problem with How We Address Poverty

If forced to pinpoint the primary problem with both local and global development today, I would say: It’s looking at the physical problems without looking at the spiritual issues, and looking at the spiritual problems without a concern for the physical. Our efforts to empower others are almost always focused on either spiritual or physical poverty, when we should focus on both. Most of us have taken half of God’s message to the world and left the other half (see Hosea 2:1–20; Micah 6:7–8; Amos 5:23–24; compare Isaiah 52:13–53:12; John 3:16–17).