I have previously noted the West’s tendency to project its perception of need on the poor — an inclination many Christians have come to share.
The most obvious problem is that not everyone prefers SUVs, organic tomatoes and modern plumbing in the same order as your run-of-the-mill suburban soccer mom. But the deeper issue is that such an approach elevates material needs and temporary handouts above spiritual vacancy and the ever-necessary whole-life transformation through Christ.
What the poor, broken, hurting, and abandoned really need is discipleship, not some mechanistic plan that tries to leverage Hipster Jimmy’s quest for a unique coffee tumbler into a noble, planet-healing event. Such schemes are mere “spiritual frosting,” as Steve Saint calls them: surface-level gloss that does little to nothing for the kingdom.
Many such errors are due to lapses in our thinking, which is why we often like to lob the reminder that “good” intentions (quotes intended) don’t automatically translate to proper thinking or productive action. (I apply this critique routinely.)
Yet at an even deeper level, we must be mindful that we are called to press further, beyond our God-given capacity for earthly wisdom, knowledge, and prudence. This does not, however, mean that we should return to Hipster Jimmy’s blind consumeristic emotionalism and draw from it where it makes us feel warm and tingly. It means we need to consult with the Divine himself.
Beware when you want to “confer with flesh and blood” or even your own thoughts, insights, or understandings— anything that is not based on your personal relationship with God. These are all things that compete with and hinder obedience to God.
In the end, no matter how promising our earthly schemes for sacrifice may seem on paper, or how effective they may appear in application, we need to ask ourselves who/what we are truly sacrificing for. Our efforts may indeed seem “promising” and/or “effective,” but according to whom?
The answer, as Samuel made clear to Saul, is that our actions must always be in sync with God’s will, but as obvious as this may seem, and as prevalent as many Christians think it to be in their own world outlooks, we often think this imposes far fewer demands than it really does.
When pressed on the spiritual legitimacy of our actions, we react by pointing to verses about loving our neighbors or taking in orphans or feeding the hungry (Jim Wallis, anyone?). Yet while each of these imperatives are important and necessary in the life of a Christian, they mustn’t be where we stop. Far too often we draw on the Bible’s generic calls to action while simultaneously rejecting the Helper he sent to assist us in doing the work. We think the message is his, but the method is ours.
But the Christian life is not about taking bumper-sticker slogans and applying them to our own petty schemes as we wish. It’s about transcending our debased reasoning and transforming our fallen circumstances by bowing in complete obedience to a Supreme Order.
Using Abraham’s shocking willingness to sacrifice his own son, Chambers reminds us that the choice is not ours to make:
Always guard against self-chosen service for God. Self-sacrifice may be a disease that impairs your service. If God has made your cup sweet, drink it with grace; or even if He has made it bitter, drink it in communion with Him. If the providential will of God means a hard and difficult time for you, go through it. But never decide the place of your own martyrdom, as if to say, “I will only go to there, but no farther.”
In other words, if you are sacrificing for others because it makes you feel good, or even because it makes you feel bad (you know who you are, non-showering Clean Water Activism Month participants), you are most simply missing the point. It’s not about you. It’s about God. And if you care anything about them, you’ll get the order straight.
This is the real radical. This is the obedience-centered, sacrificial life that yields real results in this life and the next, requiring all the risk and struggle and faith in the world. This is the life that lives for something more than the awareness bracelet of the week or the inflated coffee bean price of our preference. This is the life that listens up and follows the Holy Spirit whether we like his direction or not.
As Chambers concludes:
God chose the test for Abraham, and Abraham neither delayed nor protested, but steadily obeyed. If you are not living in touch with God, it is easy to blame Him or pass judgment on Him. You must go through the trial before you have any right to pronounce a verdict, because by going through the trial you learn to know God better. God is working in us to reach His highest goals until His purpose and our purpose become one.
We should stop bragging about our personal plans for the poor and listen to God, for without his guidance and blessing, “personal” is all they’ll ever be.