A few years ago an atheist friend of mine who worked for a homelessness charity said to me:
‘My motives are purer than yours. I do this work simply to help people, you do it so you can get into heaven.’
I did my best to explain that while I am motivated by my faith, I have never seen this work in terms of earning ‘brownie points’ for the afterlife.
But his provocations prompt a genuine question, why is it that so many homeless charities were started by committed Christians? Why is it that churches run the vast majority of food banks? Why is it that so many churches will open as ‘warm welcome’ centres in the coming months?
Christians do not have any monopoly on trying to help those in need. But even the most hard-bitten critics of Christianity have to admit that the church has and continues to make a massive contribution in combating poverty. What other voluntary institution can rival the scale and scope of what the church is doing?
Motivations for action
But why is this the case?
Is it because Christians want to gain a place beyond the pearly gates? Well, in almost 30 years of being involved in this kind of work, I have never heard anyone claim this as a motivation.
So is it because Christians are nicer people? Again, experience doesn’t tell me this is true. Let’s be honest, churches have just as many cranky, argumentative and grumpy people as you find anywhere else (possibly more).
Work produced by faith
I think the answer to this question is found in a verse from Paul’s first letter to the early Church in Thessalonica:
“We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 1:3)
Paul praises the Thessalonian Christians for their work, labour and endurance. But this triplet of positive qualities are all rooted in their belief about what God has done through Jesus. Their outward actions are motivated by an inner experience of faith, love and hope. It is:
- Work produced by faith
- Labour prompted by love
- Endurance inspired by hope
Rooted in what God has done
The Bible makes abundantly clear that action is at the heart of a faithful Christian life – faith without deeds is dead. But these actions are not rooted in confidence about our intrinsic human qualities – our generosity, kindness or stamina.
Whatever their beliefs or background, the Bible contains no dewy-eyed optimism about the goodness of human nature. The Old Testament consistently highlights the injustices perpetuated by Israel and the New Testament is not shy of recording the failures of the disciples and the difficulties and arguments of the early church.
Rather than our qualities, the root of Christian activism is a belief in what God has done. Our work is produced by the faith we have been given. Our labour is prompted by the love we have experienced. We endure because we are inspired by the hope we have in Jesus.
Theology of social action
This is the basis of the strongest theology for social action. God’s grace, acceptance and love has to remain central: it is the rock on which we must base all our faltering efforts. All other ground is sinking sand.
And I think this is the key reason for the enduring efforts of churches and Christians, both in the UK and globally, to combat poverty and live lives of generosity and love. Of course we mess up, get things wrong, and we are weak and inconsistent. But we point to one who isn’t. We are not the ones who can save people; but we believe in One who can.
The key factor is that the Church draws on resources beyond itself. Good fruit cannot be produced without healthy roots. We love because we have been loved. We endure because we are inspired by the hope we have in Christ.
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8 thoughts on “‘Endurance inspired by hope’: strong roots for social action”
I am sure you are right. But more prosaically I would add:
(1) I have considered this question in the area of migration (with which I am most familiar) – where churches are relatively little heard but – from Australia to America, from Canada to Germany – dominate the action in terms of providing the bedrock of welcome resources and integration assistance for migrants.
The importance of people, money and buildings should not be underestimated; the existence of a ready made community of people with organisational capacity, intentionality and ability to act, and also often with access to at least some form of financial and physical resources to do so, is unparalleled in modern society, all the more so because …
(2) even if you might argue that churches’ ability to do this has weakened absolutely over recent times, relatively you could argue their position has actually strengthened. In the sense that there used to be a number of other community associations in society that could also do the same, which occupied the large space between the state and the individual. Most of these have now gone.
Online communities have potential, but as yet largely unrealised; they tend to be too loose and disparate, and too much online life currently values being heard – let me tell you everything and everyone that is wrong with the world – over action – let me help with everything and everyone that is wrong in the world.
“The importance of people, money and buildings should not be underestimated; the existence of a ready made community of people with organisational capacity, intentionality and ability to act, and also often with access to at least some form of financial and physical resources to do so, is unparalleled in modern society.”
I completely agree with this – and I agree that ‘theology’ needs to be connected with the ‘more prosaic’ but I also think we need to appreciate why ‘people, money and buildings’ exist in the first place and are maintained to a standard where they are actually useful. I think too many people assume that this is some accident of history rather than something dynamically linked to what people believe – and believe enough to make concrete commitments to.
In my church we have recently started up a new initiative called ‘The Vine’ which is an evening meal for vulnerable and some homeless people. The thing is powered by volunteers from church and community – but it is only made possible by the mix of missional commitment (related to the theology I share above) and wonderful facilities of a kitchen, lounge area, tables, care taker etc etc (which you emphasise). We need to hold these things together and not somehow underplay the importance of faith, belief and theology. Without these, people leave, money dries up and buildings become neglected, empty and eventually sold off…
Literally no-one speaks up for the importance of (access to) tables in social change. So I thought I would. But you are totally correct. Tables cannot deploy themselves. There is a reason that churches continue – and have tables, and have people committed to deploying them – when, as I pointed out, other community associations are now gone and few seem to be springing up in their place. And I agree; it is certainly not just an accident of history.
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Your friend is mistaken that good works get you into heaven. Surely this is basic gospel teaching, that we’re saved by grace and grace alone. Any good works we do are a grateful response to a loving God as we seek to share His grace with others. They earn us nothing.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, I did not quote my friend with approval as I hope the article makes clear.
I agree ‘good works’ do not save us – but they are evidence of a saving faith.
Faith must be clothed in action if it is to mean anything – it must make a difference to how we live and act. Beliefs only really become faith when they are put into action. I think the Bible is clear on that.
Great article again, Jon. Love the connections you make between faith and positive action. Realism and practicality are essential components of a caring faith.
thanks Gill for your unstinting encouragement – much appreciated!