If you were to define the basics of the Christian life and what makes a person a follower of Christ, what would you say? What attitudes and actions would characterize the lifestyle of a faithful disciple of Jesus?
Most of us would focus and agree on trusting Christ for forgiveness of sins and gaining eternal life, Bible reading, praying, attending church and sharing the gospel. There’s another important, even essential element to a Spirit-filled life — serving the poor.
The goal of the Christian life is that we would become like Jesus and live that out by treating others the way He treats us.
“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners” (Romans 5: 6, New Living Translation).
Our relationship with God is not one of equals, rather it is a holy, righteous, loving God reaching down — way down — to sinful, cursed and helpless people with love and mercy. We are the impoverished, vulnerable creatures and He is the omnipotent, magnanimous Creator who has redeemed us and adopted us as His blessed children.
So just like God through Jesus Christ reached out to us in our condemned and helpless state, He wants us to show His heart of love and compassion to others by caring for the “least of these, His brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:40, NLT).
In a previous blog post, “What Does God Care About: The People on God’s Heart,” I wrote about who God cares for and how He judges our righteousness by how we care for those people.
“I want you to show love (mercy), not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6, NLT).
In Psalms 146:7-9, we have a list of the people God cares about — the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoner, the blind, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. We could add the elderly, children, the unborn, those with chronic illness — physical or mental — and those impoverished by circumstances beyond their control. Some individuals fit into more than one category.
The thing all these people have in common is vulnerability. Whether they are financially poor or not, they are vulnerable to those who would take advantage of their precarious situation. Just as Jesus came to rescue and protect us when we were vulnerable due to our sinful nature. He wants us to be guardians, protectors of those in society who cannot help or protect themselves.
Throughout Scripture, God measures righteousness and holiness by how we treat and care for the vulnerable in our communities. In pleading his case for innocence to the Lord, Job recounted his care for people in need around him. He cared for the poor, orphans, the hopeless, widows, the blind and lame, and strangers. He talks about fair treatment of his servants, feeding orphans, providing wool clothing for the homeless, and avoiding physical abuse toward his servants (Job 29:11-17; 31:13-20).
In Psalm 72, Solomon prays that God will help him be a just and compassionate ruler who defends and cares for the poor and oppressed, ensuring justice for the defenseless.
As we move into the New Testament, we see that the key to the normal Christian life is the filling and empowering of the Holy Spirit. In Luke 4, after being baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit, Jesus declared He was sent by the Spirit to minister to the poor, the oppressed, the captive and the blind (Isaiah 61:1-2). In the Spirit’s power, Jesus fed, healed and freed people trapped in sin and oppression.
“And you know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38 ).
In Matthew 25:31-45 Jesus says we will be judged by God according to how we have either cared for or neglected believers in need.
Jonell Permenter has partnered with Inner City in Atlanta, Georgia for years. This faith-filled grandmother has painful memories of a childhood scarred by hunger and deprivation as her widowed mother struggled to raise six children alone. Many times their meals came from scavenging in grocery store dumpsters.
Growing up in the constant company of hunger caused Jonell to be sensitive to others in the same dilemma.
“We didn't have anything to eat,” she said. “That’s why I try to help somebody else along the way. If someone asks me for a dollar I give them two.”
That sensitivity transformed to compassion after coming to Christ through the ministry of her son. Using evangelistic training and Compassionate Products™ she received from Inner City, she meets the physical and spiritual needs of people she encounters in her daily travels.
“I try to help,” she said. “If I’m out, people don’t have to ask me for nothing. I see people alongside the road and you can tell if they really need help. I’ve packed my clothes up and gave them.”
Such was the case with Jenny, a young mother and her three young children, standing in front of their van with a sign saying, “Hungry, Help.” Seeing and feeling their need, Jonell went home and got two Boxes of Love®, filled with food, a gift card and gospel literature. Jonell gave her the boxes, provided through a partnership with Inner City, and pulled a Scripture book from among the contents. As they looked it over, Jenny began to cry.
“She was beginning to lose faith,” Jonell said. “And she did not know how she was going to feed her family because she was a single mom.”
Jonell invited the little family back to her home for lunch. As they ate, Jonell revealed her own childhood struggle for survival, and then shared the love of Christ with her. Jenny and her children left with full stomachs and renewed hope and faith in God. You can read the whole story here.
Two important things about Jonell; she is not an ordained minister with a degree in theology, and she is a person of modest if not small means herself. Jonell does have a heart for God and for people in need and the will to flex her compassion muscle.
We often hear that faith is like a muscle and must be exercised regularly to grow. Compassion is like that — the more we exercise care, grace and mercy toward others, the more our compassion for the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters will grow. And the more like Christ we will be.
But where do we start? Here are practical ways to make serving the poor a normal part of your Christian life.
One important note: it’s always important to be wise and safe in the ways you choose to meet needs. I have walked away from some situations because I did not feel safe as a woman alone. Follow the leading of the Spirit and use godly common sense.
As you can see it only takes a willingness to be available to God and whomever He wants to serve through you. Just like we plan to have a devotional time, go to church and do other “normal Christian” things, we can make serving the poor and vulnerable a normal part of our daily Christian walk.
“You are the salt of the earth... You are the light of the world... Let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:13-16, NLT).
Michelle A. Melchor is a writer and lead editor for Cru Inner City. She has served with Cru for 48 years.
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