Karl Marx famously called Christianity the opiate of the people, but I think it’s actually the smelling salts. Because when you really understand God’s grace, you wake up to injustice and you are moved by compassion.
The reverse is true, as well: When you are blind to the needs of the poor, it raises the question of whether or not you’ve actually ever believed the gospel, because you are unaware of your own pressing need for God’s merciful attention to you in your sin.
A failure to show concern for the poor shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel.
When the prophet Amos confronted the nation of Israel about their neglect and oppression of the poor, the excuses they gave may sound familiar to us today.
First, the Israelites said, “But we are God’s chosen people” (Amos 3:2). In other words, “We’re forgiven; we’re God’s favorites.” But God responded, “That makes your sin even worse! You not only knew me as lawgiver; you knew me as Father and Redeemer. To whom much is given, much will surely be required.”
Then they tried their second excuse: “Our religious zeal makes up for our moral shortcomings” (Amos 5:21). At this point in their history, Israel went to church all the time and put on a bunch of feasts. But God responded, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”
We use the same excuses today when we fail to show a concern for the poor: “Well, thank God that he accepts us by grace,” or “We’re not perfect, just forgiven.”
But we can’t excuse ourselves with grace. If we’ve really been forgiven, we’ll be more passionate about caring for the poor and fighting injustice, not less. Forgiveness is not a license to avoid these things. It’s a catalyst to drive us deeper into these things.
Amos 6:1 says, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion”—those who are playing through life when so many around them are suffering.
Charles Spurgeon identified three groups that are “at ease in Zion”:
- The apathetic: They just don’t care. They are not cruel and vicious people; they just don’t think much about things that don’t affect them.
- The self-indulgent: Maybe they care, but they love creature comforts too much to actually sacrifice anything for anyone else.
- The procrastinators: These people know they are supposed to do good. But they’re “slactivists”—they care enough to retweet and repost things that matter, but they never really do anything about it.
We may not think we belong to any of these groups, but how many of us have failed to acknowledge the most desperate need of all that surrounds us? This is the greatest position of privilege all of us occupy: We know the gospel that has saved us from sin, death and hell. And yet there are people around the world who have never heard it. Don’t we owe the gospel to them? How could it not be unjust to keep it from them?
I wonder if God would look at us today and say, “Woe to you who are at ease in the kingdom of God while so many perish! Would he look at all the attention we give to our worship services and say, I hate, I despise your church services. I take no delight in hearing your sermons. Though you offer me a moving experience of worship music, I won’t accept it.” If we’re busier playing church than we are getting our hands dirty for the poor, that verdict is entirely possible.
The apostle Paul said he was a debtor to people everywhere who never heard about Jesus (Rom. 1:14). Why was he a debtor to a bunch of people he’d never even met?
Paul knew that he didn’t deserve to hear the gospel. He was not worthier or less of a sinner. It was a gift of grace. And with that gift of grace comes the obligation to share it with others.
I recently heard a great example of this attitude. The first American missionary was an African-American named George Lisle. He had been born a slave in Virginia. When his master became a Christian and liberated him, Lisle could have simply sat on his newfound freedom. Instead, he sold himself back into temporary servitude to board a ship to Jamaica, where he became a missionary to the slaves there.
If there were ever anyone who might have said, “I have a right to be at ease in Zion,” to turn the attention back on himself and use his freedom to make something of himself, it was George Lisle. But Lisle realized that hearing the gospel had made him an extremely privileged person, and with the privilege of hearing the gospel came the responsibility to take it to others.
Every saved person this side of heaven owes the gospel to every unsaved person this side of hell. The way you can tell you have understood this gospel truth is that you see people in need—physically, emotionally and spiritually—and you instinctively pour yourself out for them.
J.D. Greear is the lead pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina (an Outreach 100 church—No. 98 fastest-growing and No. 36 largest), and the author of several books, including Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send. This article was originally published on JDGreear.com.