My wife Sharon has for several years run the food pantry which is part of our church’s ministry to the community.  This is a new venture for her because we come from an ecclesiastic tradition that did little with this kind of neighborhood involvement.  Incarnating the gospel was not part of the agenda.  Her work on behalf of the needy from time to time gets me involved also . . . as it did last evening when we picked up five sacks of donated potatoes and delivered them to a pantry in a nearby town.

When we arrived at the location, we found it bustling with activity as a steady stream of people came in cars or on foot to claim bags of groceries. Now I believe deeply that incarnational ministries need to be high on the agenda for Christians who want to be faithful to the gospel.  But even last evening I found an ugly side of my own soul as I watched the folks who processed through the food pantry. I found myself judging them for being there, questioning whether they really needed the assistance, wondering whether they were sufficiently industrious in trying to navigate life on their own, etc.  And then, of course, I felt guilty about my attitudes and challenged by my wife’s willingness just to serve in this capacity week after week.

This morning I was encouraged by the wise words of Tim Keller in his recent book Generous Justice:  How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Dutton, 2010). Tim observes that many apparently genuine Christians do not show much concern for the poor.  He believes that this is because Christian leaders try to encourage social conscience in the wrong way—through guilt.  Garrison Keeler has humorously said that guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. 

But Pastor Keller thinks that this is not the case. “Guilting” Christians into caring for the poor does not work he says because we have strong defense mechanisms that shield us from such appeals. We need a different approach:  “I believe, however, when justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and to the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up” (p. 107). 

This rings true for me.  I need to focus on that grace poured out on me by Jesus so I can be less miserly in sharing it with others.  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

  • Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for 42 years.  They have four grown children and six grand children.

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