I heard a speaker at last year’s L’abri conference tell a story about something he saw while spending some time in Africa. He went to a missionary compound and it was obvious to see the quality of the facilities there that they had invested many resources on their bright buildings. He also saw that just outside the missionary compound there were Africans living beneath tarps strung up between trees. His point in telling that story was that often when the gospel has gone out it has focused solely on spreading a message of spiritual redemption and any kind of physical redemption has been completely neglected. The story is made particularly poignant (and tragic) by the fact that the missionaries had been there for thirty years. In thirty years their faith had driven them to do many things (and probably most of them were very good things) but had not compelled to provide a better shelter than tarps for the people within arms reach.
Another story (that I can’t help but think of paired with the story of the missionary compound) happened one night after a friend and I saw Blood Diamond and we got into a long conversation afterwards about what the responsibility of Christians was in light of the fact that there is so much injustice and suffering happening in the world, like the things going on in the film. He was frustrated with the fact that sometimes Christians can act like physical things don’t matter and said that it was pointless to act like all the problems were fixed if you share the gospel with someone who is starving and then walk away without giving them any food. “They don’t need Jesus,” he said, “they need food!”
Both stories illustrate a message of what the Christian’s priorities should be in the world. One message is that the spiritual is what is most important, and the gospel should heal people’s greatest needs, which are first and foremost spiritual needs. The other message is as the gospel goes out it should focus on the physical needs and have the healing of those as the first and foremost priority of Christians, as it is the foremost priority of the gospel.
I want to say that both viewpoints taken to the extreme are distortions of the gospel and in danger of committing opposite errors. It should never be a choice between either physical or spiritual needs and, in a sense, we have already gone wrong if the debate is even going on. It is a false dichotomy and an unbiblical one. But before I go on, let me add that in saying that I don’t mean that it is never appropriate to correct the one with the other. That is, perhaps, what is needed in cases where Christians have gone so far down the one direction they are completely neglecting the other. For example, what whoever makes the decisions in that missionary compound needs is to see is that they are misrepresenting the gospel by only caring for spiritual needs at the expense of the physical and begin to repent of that distortion of the gospel, starting with doing what they can to provide those people living in tarps with four walls and a roof. But that does not mean that it would be best for them to turn 180 degrees and commit the opposite error, neglecting people’s spiritual needs. What they need is to return to the practice of biblical Christianity!
As I said, I think it is a false dichotomy that is not present in the Bible. Look at the life of Jesus, who alone lived perfectly in line with God’s agenda for the world. What do we see him doing with his life on earth? We see him healing lepers, restoring sight to the blind, raising up people crippled for their whole lives, feeding thousands, casting out demons, having compassion on the pain of others, and showing that God cares for the physical hurts, afflictions, and suffering of all people. We also see him correcting people’s theology. He calls 12 men and travels everywhere with him for 3 years and teaches them about the kingdom of God. He gives sermons to thousands proclaiming the truth and correcting their false beliefs. He gets into countless conversations with people who come to him with questions and challenges them (with narrative AND propositionally…) to believe more truly. He shows that God cares about the landscape of every individual’s beliefs and the kingdom of God is one where people are growing in their theology and learning the truth more and more.
The two ways of thinking of the kingdom of God are really part of one whole, and to divorce them from each other is to distort the truth. Jesus can be used as a banner for each side of the debate. Those most concerned about the spiritual side of the gospel will make sermons that show Jesus trouncing the Pharisees and telling people that the he is the Good Shepherd and meditate most heavily on the passages where he preaches against he lies he encounters (a good thing). Those on the other side of the debate will make sermons showing that Jesus was deeply moved to compassion at seeing people hurt and basically walked around the countryside looking for people to heal and will pray to be more like Christ in this and try to reflect it in the way they live (a good thing).
The danger is not that there are no good aspects of either one; the danger is that neither is a complete version of what the kingdom of God is. They are Biblical in the sense that both of them site parts of the Bible as sources, but not Biblical in the sense that neither represent the unity of what the Bible teaches about what the kingdom of God looks like, nor how Jesus embodied it.
The task before the Church is to fight all the brokenness and injustice in the world and to do it zealously, as Jesus did, while not forgetting what our greatest enemy really is. Our greatest enemy is the sin that separates us from the source of all good, God, and we desperately need to be reconciled to Him and we need that infinitely more than we need food. The truth is that Christians are called to fight sin wherever it appears, whether that means institutional sin (injustice, poverty, homelessness, slavery) or confronting false belief in individuals and proclaiming the truth against the lies that set themselves up against God. The Bible does not give room for the church to abandon either front, and the world suffers when it does. The truth is that the kingdom of God is where the will of the King is done, and where that kingdom grows all things will begin to be aligned to that will. God cares about every inch of creation. God cares about every facet of what it means to be human. God cares about our struggles, our suffering and pain, our confusion, the lies we believe and our mistaken theology. There is not one inch of it over which he does not say “Mine.” And as the church does not care about any of those things it falsely represents God to the watching world.