There are two words that we seldom think about when it comes to mercy ministry. Those two words are empowerment and emergency. As Christians we want to do our best to “help” people out but how does that “help” really work and more over, what are the long term implications of that help?
In the beginning, God created all things to include man and woman. Before sin, God provided them with purpose, self-worth, and dignity. Purpose, self-worth, and dignity came action and motion through productivity. The relationship between God and his creation was perfect, and it moved in concert with one another. Things were happening, and relationships were as strong as ever. Everything was seemingly perfect.
The truth behind that picture provides us with a bit of context for what God’s real idea was. His creation was designed to have purpose, self-worth, and dignity and it was intended to be productive. Sin naturally sent that, and everything else sideways. God sent Jesus into the world to reconcile his creation back to him. That reconciling is supposed to take us back to something as it was at some point before. That point before was “in the beginning” when everything worked the way God designed it too. When Jesus said “it is finished”, was that true or not and if it is, how are we as Christians walking in that truth?
In mercy ministry, we spend a great deal of time “helping” people in ways that temporarily alter a situation and provide a feel good for all involved. If we provide someone financial assistance for a bill that they can’t pay, did we help them? That is a loaded question that I don’t intend to completely have “the” answer. But, when we frame things up against scripture, and we start to look at what purpose, self-worth and dignity are supposed to resemble, we see a much different picture.
Our Christian, American churches spend about $4,000,000,000-$5,000,000,000 dollars per year on mission trips around the world. Most of those dollars are spent in transporting people from one place to another, buying supplies, building things (that local people could more than likely do and get paid for it which helps), share Jesus, come back and talk about how this trip was life-changing for them. We then morph back into our daily routine, and soon this “life-changing” trip becomes a mere memory at best with little thought about people. Many of these trips have become more about life change for the people that take the journey versus actually helping to change situations for people that we are visiting. We carry many of our preconceived notions about how life should be based on our context into other cultures and almost enforce them as right and the indigenous people wrong.
Something about that isn’t right because it does nothing to restore purpose, self-worth and dignity.
In the beginning, we see empowerment. We see Gods creation flourishing as people are filled with purpose, self-worth and dignity. We see productivity as things happen and earlier God called all of those things “good” and called mankind “very good.” When humanity was empowered, things were efficient, perfect and on purpose. Think about what it might feel like to be empowered. Let me introduce another word, entitled, and everyone has entitlement in the DNA, whether rich or poor. The content I am speaking more about here is the poor side of entitlement and what it brings.
Entitlement strips a human being of purpose, self-worth, and dignity. It debases a person to believe that they don’t deserve anything of substance and that they should be happy with what they get. Entitlement strips people of the very things that God placed inside. Those who find themselves in poverty find themselves deprived of what could be and into what is with all promise and hope stripped away. People are forced to live off what they are lucky enough to get according to government design. Some say that poverty is a choice. I would say that I am not sure that is true, but I will say that I have met people on both sides. My goal is not to talk about the difference, instead talk about how we engage healthily and humanely and empower and promote purpose, self-worth, and dignity.
As a church and Christian body, we are concerned about the soul of a person, and we should be. That being said, when we are not worried about the human being, and we overlook the day to day challenges, are we engaging the right way? The soul is essential, yes but so is helping someone become empowered to be all that God designed them to be. When we give a check to help with a bill but we never actually build a relationship with them are we honoring the real dignity of a person?
What we need to be concerned with is the whole of a person and not just the transaction. Transactional relationships are almost always toxic. Once the giver stops, the receiver deems that they don’t care and they don’t like them or even more “they aren’t Christian.” Relational ministry and mercy are difficult because it forces us to become involved beyond just a financial transaction. When we strive to empower someone, we spend time in helping someone reclaim their purpose, self-worth, and dignity. This is a process, not a transaction and it is the only real way back to empowerment and the original design that God intended. Anything short is a temporary fix, much like a drug addict finding solace from a temporary high.
How we define emergencies is critical as well. When someone needs a light bill or water bill paid for, we need to be asking some questions. Some of those might sound something like:
“tell me about the circumstances that led to why you can’t pay your bill?”
“do you have a monthly budget?”
“how do you intend to pay your bill next month?”
“are you currently working?” (If ‘no,’ why not?)
“long term, how can we best help you become empowered?”
If we care, we need to ask questions. Sure the person wants their bill paid and that is probably all they care about. Part of the problem lies in that statement and don’t we want people to know that we care about them and not a bill? If we are going to help someone, we need to care for the individual and sometimes that requires some questions. There is nothing wrong with asking questions and letting someone know that we care about more than a transaction or quick fix. Most will respond well to this, and some won’t, and that is ok. People need to know that we are concerned and we want to help, but we believe in more than just a check or payment for something.
Emergencies need to be defined. Emergencies come in many shapes and sizes. They are usually determined by the person that has it which can create a few hurdles. So what is an emergency? Typically, a crisis happens through a sudden change. Losing a job suddenly could create an emergency. An earthquake or some other natural disaster could create an emergency. Something suddenly happens that completely changes things for an individual or family.
Making choices that influence an outcome is not necessarily an emergency. Let me give you an example. Each month I know that I am going to have individual bills that are going to come. Either I can plan and prepare for them by making them a priority, or I can choose to ignore them and spend my income on other things. Let’s say that I decide to do the latter and I spend my money on things that I want versus saving some on for my bills. While that might seem like an emergency, is it? Did a sudden event cause that situation like I lost my job or a disaster of sorts or was it caused by my choice to not save money to pay for something I knew was coming?
A lack of being responsible doesn’t create emergencies. Sudden events create crises. My house burned down… that is an emergency. My kid broke their arm… that is an emergency. Me not putting money aside to pay a bill that I know is coming… that is not an emergency although it might feel like it to the person with the problem.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t help someone in that situation. Instead, we need to find out why the case occurred and try to determine how this came about if we really care about the dignity of the person.
Resources that don’t restore the dignity of a person and take a long term approach need to be carefully looked at and thought through.