While still aboard the ship Arbella, John Winthrop, the first governor of the colony of Massachusetts, encouraged his people to bear one another’s burdens, practicing the Christian duty of love, rather than looking only to their own concerns. He said, “We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commissions and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.” In signing the Mayflower compact, the Pilgrims pledged, “to all care of each other’s good and of the whole by everyone and so mutually.” In essence, they were to deny themselves and follow Jesus.
In the beginning we were a nation of givers. On his visit to the United States in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that a voluntary cooperation—a spirit of generosity and helpfulness toward our neighbors—was deeply ingrained in the American heart. “If an accident happens on a highway,” he wrote, “everybody hastens to help the sufferer.” And, he observed, “If some great and sudden calamity befalls a family, the purses of a thousand strangers are at once willingly open and small but numerous donations pour in to relieve their distress.”
In centuries past our responsibilities to the poor, the stranger, the hungry, our family, and our community were carefully defined by social norms reflective of biblical standards. In our day, the absolutes of religious beliefs have waned in importance. In some abstract sense, we still feel that we should help the needy. But, as a nation, we do not have value systems or social pressures that tell us we should show compassion or be compassionate people. And many churches are split into what is known as either “truth” or “mercy” churches. Some churches preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and people’s need for salvation on Sunday, but show little evidence of Christian behavior. Other churches teach little about sin and salvation, but are rich in good deeds.
Today, almost two centuries after de Tocqueville, substantial numbers of people fear that they cannot count on others for help, especially if they became seriously ill. According to a recent survey, thirty-seven percent feel they cannot count on their immediate neighbors and thirty-six percent believe they cannot depend upon the church for help.
Yet, a large number of Americans are volunteering. A study by the Independent Sector shows ninety-three million Americans volunteered 20.3 billion hours. This averages out to 218 hours per volunteer. But, as one minister asked, “If there are really ninety-three million volunteers then why are our cities worse than they have ever been?” The answer to this question is that more than a fifth of those hours consist of informal volunteering—anything from baby-sitting for friends to baking cookies for school fundraisers. These figures also include volunteers at cultural institutions and those who serve on boards and committees. The same pattern prevails in many churches where volunteer hours are more likely spent maintaining the church building, while few hours are spent reaching out to the needy, visiting nursing home, ministering to prison inmates, the poor, and homeless. Changing that worldview requires reinventing human nature and that's not going to happen.
Christians, however, should care for others and find fulfillment in following Christ’s example. Those who are in Christ should show, by their actions, who their master teacher is. God intends for us to serve others. What is our motivation for service? Gratitude. Gratitude plays an important role as we thank God for our salvation. Gratitude should make us hunger and thirst to do right. Do you know that tsaddiq, the Hebrew word usually translated “charity” doesn’t mean charity as it is commonly used today? It means righteousness or justice. The whole notion is to live rightly because we were called to live that way. Because of Christ’s righteousness in us, we are inspired to help when confronted with human distress. Grateful that God cares for us (not because he loves us theoretically), but because he has an eternal, loving, caring passion for us, we model his attitude. As Christians, we are motivated by God's love, mercy, and grace, and so we reach out to help others.
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