Jesus calls and transforms us who follow him to be salt and light in an often dark and decaying world. This is a remarkable responsibility and an unmerited privilege.
But it isn’t easy.
Looking back over a decade of activism and advocacy, I wrote Doing Good Without Giving Up about the challenges I encountered and what I learned facing them. Many who care about making the world a better place struggle deeply with disillusionment and disaffection. Too often, these struggles lead to cynicism, bitterness, and disengagement.
I’ve seen numerous friends and people I look up to phase out of social action, settling for the broken status quo. There are many reasons for this: getting burned by the culture wars, expecting instant results from our efforts, juggling the weighty responsibilities that come with having a family, and more.
In the face of all these challenges, how can we persevere in faithful activism and advocacy over the long run? Why should we choose to keep going, and what can help us continue in the struggle for justice, peace, and change?
I wrote Doing Good Without Giving Up to share perspectives, postures and practices that have been valuable to me and others throughout our journeys. But what I’ve learned really comes down to two questions a wise advisor challenged me with when I was about to jump into a new initiative:
The first question is simply: “Why?”
Why are you engaging in social action? Why are you advocating for prison reform or raising awareness about human trafficking or planting a community garden? The initial answer that comes to mind might not be the root answer. Instead, ask “why?” repeatedly, each time digging down a layer deeper until you reach the heart of your motivation.
Which should be God. Anything else reveals a false idol in our lives.
It’s all too easy to do the right things for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, as A Rocha founder Peter Harris puts it: “Our work is primarily a response to God, and not to either our needs, or those of the world, however acutely we may feel them. Only as we listen to God’s wisdom and find it in prayer, scripture, the advice of friends (and sometimes the criticism of enemies!) and the shared sense of God’s Spirit who speaks to us, can we find the ways forward.”
Social action done faithfully is an act of worship, and that only happens if God is at the center.
The second question flows from the first: “How will you define success?”
The overwhelming norm is to define success by effectiveness: number of people mobilized, amount of money made, passage of a particular piece of legislation, and so on. No results, no success. This often leads to the lie that the ends justify the means, which results in all manner of corruption and damage.
But if our work is primarily a response to God, then we ultimately don’t define success by worldly metrics of effectiveness, but rather by faithfulness. It’s not up to us to fix or save the world—we couldn’t if we tried. The results are in God’s hands.
But out of God’s great love we get to be partners in the process. If we truly want to make a difference, we must be faithful to God. Faithfulness, the Bible says, is what leads to fruitfulness: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Our goal is to be faithful to Jesus, the true Savior of the world… and us. We trust that God will use our efforts and bring them to fruition, even if we don’t see the results. Sometimes, the results are quite different than what we expected.
Mother Teresa put it this way: “I am doing my work with Jesus, I am doing it for Jesus, I am doing it to Jesus, and therefore the results are his, not mine.”
Amen. May God give us the grace to stay rooted together in Christ as we strive to faithfully seek first his kingdom and righteousness in this good but groaning world.