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.
Read more about the work of Hope into Action