Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Red Letter Book Club. It is an excerpt from Sarah Cunningham’s new book, “The Well-Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good.”
“God has put within our lives meanings and possibilities that quite outrun the limits of mortality. “ – Harry Emerson Fosdick
The problem with being an idealist . . . well, there’s a lot of problems. You’ve figured that out by now, haven’t you?
But one of them is that it takes a long time—your whole life long and then some—to make a dent in some needs.
Some causes are gigantic. To raise your charge, to champion those you advocate for, can be a mammoth undertaking.
If you feed a homeless man some soup, what do you find?
You have one homeless man who is fed. This is good and right and pleasing to God.
But what comes next?
Another homeless man.
And a homeless woman.
And three more homeless people after that.
You feed them all soup. And Jesus’ heart is warmed. It is as if you gave soup to Jesus himself, Matthew 25 suggests.
But is homelessness stamped out? Are the problems of affordable housing, economic disparity, or inequitable welfare policies resolved?
Of course not. Soup is beautiful, soup is a gesture of love, the flesh and touch of a caring Savior.
But soup is also just soup. It doesn’t reverse government policy, it doesn’t erase generations of injustice or right economic structures. It doesn’t impart truth from every noodle or carrot in a spoonful.
So what happens? Word spreads.
And now instead of five homeless people, there are fifty-five.
Well, you scoff, I’m giving them more than soup! I’m giving them friendship, care, I’m helping them in finding work, shelter, and a support system.
Of course you are! And I’m so glad you’re doing that.
But if you rally every agency in town and get all fifty-five of those homeless friends into homes, if you find fifty-five places of employment, and fifty-five counseling support systems, is homelessness wiped from the face of the earth?
Of course not!
What happens if you feed—and create a loving community for those fifty-five? Well, they come back with fifty-five new friends.
But what if you really organize? What if you pull together every social service under the sun, what if you call in favors with every care worker or mission director you know? What if you find a place—not just a home but a rooted position in society—for every person in your city.
Well then, I admire you. And your life is well spent.
But homelessness, you already realize, will not have been eradicated.
Because the next city over has homeless people too, doesn’t it? And the one beyond that. And even if you re-create your efforts in each one of those, stamping out homelessness one city at a time, this big old flawed world works against you.
Brand new people in your home city, and in those first cities, will fall into homelessness. They will lose jobs, become refugees, get divorced, the breadwinners of their families will die. And some of the people you helped get out of homelessness will find themselves without homes again too.
Someone will take advantage of them. Some landlord will turn them out. They will quit a job they don’t like only to find there are not many jobs available to replace it. Or they will lack the life skills to keep up with their newfound responsibilities.
Do you see what I’m trying to point out to you? It sounds depressing and downright discouraging at first, doesn’t it?
But be of good cheer.
Even Jesus’ purpose was not to right every need in existence or stamp out every harmful systemic issue of society.
That kind of offends us, doesn’t it?
You might be thinking, but what about Luke 4? What about when Jesus tells people that he’s been feeding the poor and healing the sick? And that this shows the prophecies of a messiah are fulfilled in him?
Thank God in heaven, it’s true.
How much easier it is to be endeared to an accessible, compassionate Savior than a begrudging angry God who seems apathetic to human suffering!
But think about the pool of Bethesda.
When I was in college, I heard an urban leader speak about the pool of Bethesda.
What really happened about the pool of Bethesda? he asked.
Well, it was this fabulous pool, everyone tells him. A place where sick and injured gathered, because every great once in a while, an angel would come and stir the water and whoever touched the water first after it was stirred, would be healed.
And when Jesus went to the pool, how many people does the Bible record that he healed? the speaker asked.
Well. . . we scramble into our memories of Sunday school lessons, looking up the verse in our Bibles.
One person! Why did Jesus heal only one person at the infamous pool of Bethesda where the poor gathered?
The leader, who was no uncompassionate person himself as he invested decades of life fighting poverty and crime in the inner city, suggests it is because Jesus’ mission was not to stamp out every need on the planet . . . or even on his conti- nent…orinhistown.
Even Jesus, if we notice, did not spend himself chasing after every person in need he could find. He did not launch about cities yelling out, Poor people, please come to me, so I can find you jobs. Hungry people, come out of your houses, so I can feed you! He did not go around knocking on doors, saying, Do you have any sick people here? Do you know anyone who lacks food? Money?
This is sometimes crazy to think. We almost want to argue it, but Jesus just didn’t carry on this way, did he?
Even he, he who is God and who came to save the world in ways we cannot, even he did not wipe out every need in every place.
What did he do? He stuck to his purpose. He’d come to give life—a spiritual life of living water, bread of heaven, fullness, a new way of living that upturned society’s values and called people to love their enemies and care for the poor. And he went about doing this, speaking about it, sharing it, day in and day out.
Now that is not to say Jesus did not help or heal people. To say that would be a sticky, terrible sort of heresy!
When someone in need crossed Jesus’ path, he absolutely met the need.
When the blind called out to him, he made them see.
When the man who couldn’t walk was lowered through the roof as Jesus was teaching, he made him walk.
But even the God turned man who came to save the world, the only one who really could do it, even he didn’t run himself ragged, driving himself into the ground chasing after every need.
Jesus went about his mission, spoke about a better way, and called everyone who heard him to embrace that better way. And when he ran into people who needed help, he helped them.
Perhaps we would be better off if we took up his example.
This post is an excerpt from Sarah Cunningham’s new book, “The Well-Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good, ” currently featured on the Red Letter Book Club.