What's the Root Cause of Suffering and How Does this Impact our Charity?
Today I'm happy to feature an interview with my good friend, Aaron Armstrong, who blogs at Blogging Theologically. This a blog I subscribe to and thoroughly enjoy as Aaron features a breadth of theological content.
Besides blogging, Aaron is an itinerant preacher, and a writer for an international Christian ministry focused on caring for the needs of the poor. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition’s “Voices” blog and RelevantMagazine.com’s “Deeper Walk” column. Aaron, his wife Emily, and their children worship and serve at Harvest Bible Chapel in London, Ontario.
Today I want to talk to Aaron about his new book, Awaiting a Savior, which rightly identifies the root cause of so much suffering in the world and how this truth informs our efforts to alleviate it. I had the privilege of reviewing the manuscript and writing an endorsement:
“In our highly activist, solutions-oriented generation, we easily think that we ourselves are the solution to the world’s social ills, particularly poverty. But the problem of poverty is the problem of sin and its solution lies in the heart of the Gospel. Aaron Armstrong brilliantly brings us back to Genesis and delivers a theologically robust vision for obeying the Scriptures' command to help the poor while living in anxious anticipation of Christ’s coming Kingdom.”
Here is today's Friday Five with Aaron Armstrong:
1) In Awaiting a Savior you address the tension between the church's mission to preach the gospel and the mission to alleviate human suffering. Seems the pendulum swings wildly between these two missions, but can the church do both?
Great question. When examining the Scriptures, I don’t see the either/or that we, particularly in the West, seem to be stuck on. In the Bible and throughout history, we see the Church both proclaiming the gospel — verbally — and performing mercy ministry. Word and deed went hand-in-hand as men and women’s hearts were regenerated and they placed their faith in the person and work of Christ.
Where we tend to go off course is when we confuse the place of each. We elevate one at the expense of the other, and that just won’t do, as it misses the reality that our efforts to care for the poor are the natural outworking of a regenerated heart. It’s an act of worship.
2) You argue that the problem of poverty goes much deeper than we admit, that the root is the problem of sin. Why is this so important for activists to understand?
We all, not just activists, need to understand this because sin is deeply ingrained into who we are. We have to remember that the world was originally created good and it was a world in which poverty could not exist. There was no spiritual, relational or material need. Everything was “very good,” according to God.
Then the man rebelled and his sin destroyed all of that; effectively what happened was that all that was intended for our good and God’s glory became subject to futility and in a very real sense poverty became the world’s default setting. This means poverty will persist as long as the heart of man is ruled by sin.
Understanding this reality prevents us from fighting blind, using methods and strategies that only impact the surface, but fail to get to the heart of the issue.
3) How might a doctrine of original sin alter our poverty-fighting efforts?
There are numerous ways that having a working doctrine of original sin would alter and I believe improve our efforts. The primary way it helps is that it allows us to better understand what we’re really up against and therefore persevere. When setbacks come, when suffering persists despite our best efforts, we need this truth in order to actually move forward and not be crippled or quit.
4) Has your experience working for a large, worldwide relief organization informed your views?
Absolutely. One of the great temptations that exists within the whole conversation about social action in the church is for it to become an academic exercise. My experiences have made me painfully aware of the reality that people are impacted by our theology, for good or ill. And that is one of the things that motivates me to strive to approach this subject as faithfully as possible. False hope shatters lives. It crushes those working to alleviate poverty because it’s a burden too great for them to bear — and it devastates those who live in the midst of it. I don’t want to be guilty of presenting a promise that God hasn’t.
5) What is the one take away you want readers to get from Awaiting a Savior?
Throughout the book, one of the recurring themes is the grace of God. In one chapter, I explained that the gift of love always precedes the demands of love — God’s grace always precedes His commands. It’s the pattern we see all throughout Scripture, from the giving of the Law to the Sermon on the Mount. We desperately need to remind ourselves afresh of this reality, because God’s grace is the only thing that truly sustains and empowers any of our service to the poor.
Grace allows us to witness the horrors produced by natural disasters and human dysfunction without despairing or becoming discouraged. We can read that the poor will always be with us (cf. John 12:8) and understand, without disillusionment, why this must be true. Grace reminds us that while there’s a definite place for social action, our hope is not found there. It’s found in Christ. Hope in Christ is what drives us in all we do as the Church. Our desire to see Christ’s kingdom come in all its glory allows us to persevere in caring for the poor, not expecting that we will end poverty, but that we will be able to minister practically to those who suffer in it.
I hope that readers will be captivated once again by the promise of Christ’s return, when he will put an end to all suffering once and for all and will let that hope sustain us as we seek to care for those in need.