Lessons from an Agnostic New York Times Journalist
Many of us unconsciously build our lives on a foundation of religious behaviors and even sound doctrine, yet our lives lack an essential sign of love for God—which is to love our neighbors who are made in his image, and most especially those Jesus called “the least of these.”
Where we do indeed fail, there is still indeed hope for us.
Even if we’ve been stuck in a doctrinally accurate yet relationally dead or comatose faith, today can mark a new beginning for us. Why? Because God loves bringing dead bones to life with living flesh, and because his mercies are new every morning (Ezekiel 37:1-14; Lamentations 3:22-23). If salvation can come to the house of a formerly self-serving, greed-driven, poor-exploiting Zacchaeus, then salvation can come to our houses as well (Luke 19:1-10).
With Jesus, as long as we are breathing there is opportunity for the Holy Spirit of God to breathe his mercy-loving, justice-seeking, salvation life into us. And when he does, neighbor love and concern for the poor will begin flowing out from us.
Like a doctor catching cancer early and calling for surgery, or a father who loudly warns his toddler to stop running in the direction of a busy street, warnings about our neglect of the poor are a kindness from God. His warnings provide us with fresh opportunities to consider how “Christ has regarded [our] helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for [our] soul,” and how receiving mercy from Christ can transform us into participants in his mission of mercy to the hurting.
As Martin Luther said, “We are all mere beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.”
Living in the Spirit-filled awareness of Christ’s love toward us will cause love to flow out from us toward others. “Majoring” in the things of Jesus will, over time, become more natural to us as the Spirit transforms us into his likeness. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) becomes more than a pithy saying and vague aspiration. Instead, it becomes a very real description of our lives as we begin living out what it means to be redeemed, restored, forgiven, adopted into God’s family, and welcomed to God’s banquet table by grace.
In our own community at Christ Presbyterian in Nashville, this energy poured into the poor or “the least of these” shows up in many ways. Some of our people invest their money, time, and skills to help those who’ve been released from prison find meaningful work and become life-giving contributors to society.
Others live and serve among people with disabilities and special needs.
Some welcome orphans and foster kids into their homes, while others form support communities to wrap around them.
Others partner and serve with local nonprofits that provide healthcare for refugees, post-trauma resources for women coming out of prostitution and poverty, healing community for those caught in addiction, care and support for those facing a crisis pregnancy, counseling, resourcing, and friendship for those suffering divorce or bereavement or unemployment or loneliness or anxiety or depression.
And there is so much more!
Our church is by no means the only community of Christians who turn their hearts and lives toward the least of these as a way of life. In fact, there are millions of Christians worldwide who are doing the same every single day. The mercy and justice impulse among God’s people is so strong, that secular journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has written at length about it. Based on his personal observations while covering disasters and poverty all over the world, Kristof said the following:
“In reporting on poverty, disease and oppression… [Christians] are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities… More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are… Christians… I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way—and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.”
The reason why Christians all over the world invest their lives so sacrificially is simple: They have come to believe that God’s gifts and graces are never meant to be hoarded, but are always meant to be shared.
Whether we have little or plenty, life in Christ plus nothing else makes us the wealthiest people in the world. We who are in Christ are rich in his saving grace, rich in the status he has given us as beloved daughters and sons, rich in assurance that nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from his love, rich in the knowledge that he has plans to prosper us and not to harm us—and in light of all this, we are called to be rich in the overflow of love and good deeds (2 Corinthians 8:9; Galatians 3:29; Titus 3:5; Romans 8:31-39; Jeremiah 29:11-13; Hebrews 10:24).
As we often remind ourselves and each other, the gospel boils down to basic math:
Everything minus Jesus equals nothing.
Jesus plus nothing equals everything.
And if these “equations” are true, then we have nothing to lose when we give ourselves away and everything to gain. In the end, the greatest beneficiaries—even more than the ones who do the receiving—are the ones who do the giving.
We lose our lives when we try to hold onto them, and we gain our lives when we lay them down in love and service to God and neighbor (Luke 9:24).