Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Biblical Command.

"For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot." Romans 8:7

Yesterday I picked up the book "Generous Justice" by Timothy Keller (2010) and began to read.  If you haven't heard of the book, it's one with great insight on what the bible says about this buzzword, "social justice."  I'm currently only half way through the book, but was compelled to write about it as something I read last night before bed clicked with what I read this morning in Romans.  

According to Keller, the Bible's call to justice is inescapable.  Part of the reason I am where I am and who I am today is because I noticed the same thing when first studying the Bible for myself when I was thirteen.  One theme that comes up again and again throughout the Old and New Testaments is God's heart for the poor.  Keller points out in the first chapter:

"If you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable.  We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God.  Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially towards the poor and the vulnerable." (Keller, pg. 18).

In the first chapter of the book, however, Keller unpacks the truth that social justice is not just a suggestion for those who follow Christ, but rather that not to do so would be downright disobedience and sin.  As people who identify with Christ, who are called to do His will on earth, neglecting to engage in social justice is a direct contradiction to our mission.  We seem to have this idea in churches that as long as we believe that Jesus is God, we're not committing major sins on a regular basis and we're kind to other people, we're doing what we're supposed to as Christ's ambassadors to this world.  And if we decided to care for the poor and spend our lives on behalf of the hungry on top of that, good for us; but if not, that's ok because not everyone has that calling.  But Keller suggests otherwise.  

'In the Scripture, gifts to the poor are called "acts of righteousness," as in Matthew 6:1-2.  Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, and violation of God's law.' (Keller, pg. 15).

As I read this last night, along with many other great things he wrote in the first half of the book, it got me thinking about my idea of justice.  I've already established that justice isn't just an act you perform upon someone in need, but is a way of life; but it got me thinking about where the holes are in my idea of doing justice.

As I considered this, and as I read about how Israelite society was set up to empower the poor and vulnerable, not just to give them enough to ensure their basic needs were met, but, if the laws God outlines concerning the poor were followed completely, so that there would be no poor left among them ( Deuteronomy 15), I reflected on how I have no problem engaging in social justice and working to empower the poor overseas, but I tend to shy away from doing so in my own community.  Homelessness runs rampant in B.C.  In Vancouver on the infamous East Hastings, but also where I live in Maple Ridge.  How do I live out justice to these people, so close to my home, part of my community?  The Bible talks about inviting these people into your home, which I would be hesitant to do for obvious safety reasons.  Keller puts Luke 14:12-13, in which Jesus tells people to invite the poor to their banquets, into context.  He points out that here Jesus is addressing a patronage system that has become ingrained in Israelite society, a system in which people befriend and give only to those who have influence and can give to them in return.  Rather than saying that we should walk onto East Hastings and invite the first 15 homeless people we see into our home, Keller suggests that Jesus is telling us to give generously to the poor, so much so that we spend less on ourselves and on people who society may consider "important." (Keller, pg. 48).  

I don't think this excuses us from interacting and truly caring about the poor in our society.  We can't just throw money at them and then ignore them when we encounter them.   We are called to empower them - see their humanity and treat them with the respect that someone made in the image of God deserves.  But that's a tangent that can be saved for another time.  Back to Romans 8.

Keller suggests that Jesus is commanding us to give so generously, that we spend more on the poor than we do on ourselves.  I don't know many people who would be able to say that they do that.  And if I'm completely honest, the moment I read that, I could feel my heart twist into knots.  I knew it was true, but I was resistant to it.  

My husband is a student, and until just over a year ago, so was I.  In our three and a half years of marriage, we haven't had much luxury.  We've lived pretty frugally, and I've been looking with anticipation to a time when we don't have to and I can buy nice things and we can go out for more meals and do more things that our financial situation has so far kept us from doing.  When I read this, that time felt farther away.  When my husband finishes school and we're both working, we'll probably have a little more expendable income, but if we follow this principle and give more away than we spend on ourselves, there will still be very little to spend on ourselves.  And I don't like that idea.  I know it's selfish, and you can feel free to judge me if you so choose, but that was my first reaction.  Then this morning I read this:

"For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot." Romans 8:7

Hostile.  Not just resistant, or far from, or needs improvement.  The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.  I don't want to be hostile to God, but I have to admit that my reaction to Keller's suggestion came from a mind that was set on the flesh.  My desire in that moment (and to be honest, in a lot of moments) was to please myself above anyone else.  My mind was hostile to God and his command to practice justice, His way.

In Job 31:16-25, as Job defends his righteousness, he talks about how he would be deserving of punishment if he had not shared what he had with those in need.  Keller suggests that Job's attitude is one of someone who realizes that their possessions are not theirs alone. (Keller, pg.16).  

Living a life of justice flies in the face of everything society tells us.  The people who are important are the ones who make a lot of money and can buy themselves a lot of nice things.  People who work hard and make money have earned it and the right to use it for whatever they want.  I worked for it, I earned it, therefore it is mine.  Mine to spend however I choose.

In God's economy, there is preferential treatment given the the vulnerable.  All that we own was given to us by God, who deeply desires we share it with those who have less.  In fact, keeping it for yourself, to please your every whim, is hostility to God.

After thinking about and reflecting on this last night and this morning, I prayed that the Lord would help me see my possessions this way and hold onto them more loosely.  I don't really have a conclusion to this blog.  I haven't divided all my wealth and given 51% of it to the poor as a result.  I guess my conclusion is that if I want to live a life of justice, I still have a lot of things to figure out, such as how to view my possessions, and how to interact with the poor in my community.

"The just person lives a life of honesty, equity and generosity in every aspect of his or her life." (Keller, pg. 17)

Keller, Timothy. (2010). Generous Justice. Riverhead Book: New York.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful and challenging reflection! Minus the challenging bit…it makes me uncomfortable.

    Could I ask how Keller navigates his views of social justice (not giving generously=sin, a violation of God’s law) and salvation (saved by grace alone, i.e., no room for ‘righteous’ or ‘unrighteous’ labels because all salvation is a result of grace)?

    Is there anything eternal on the line? Or will God just be angry *momentarily* with the rich man who didn’t give generously, before bestowing his own “saving” grace upon the selfish, righteous man.

    In short, do our actions in this life, righteous or unrighteous, have any effect on the life to come? Does he address this issue?

    Ideally, people wouldn’t care, but take every opportunity to give generously because of a thick love for humanity and loathing of suffering/injustice. But if there is in fact a risk of reward or punishment in the hereafter, it might help “persuade” Christians to become more generous givers ;)

    Again, thanks for a post full of grace and truth.

    1. Hi Jared :)

      I'm glad this post made you think; and I'm a little bit glad it made you uncomfortable!

      Keller never says that we aren't saved if we are not generous and seeking social justice. In fact, he is quite adamant that works cannot save us, but grace alone. He does, however, emphasize that Christians should respond to the grace we've been given with generosity towards others. Throughout the book he questions whether or not our lives have really been touched and changed by the saving grace of Jesus if we do not live out generosity and equity as a result. He argues that Jesus' sacrifice was so generous, and we are so unworthy of it, that an appropriate reaction is to live out that same generosity in response. He essentially tells Christians to check their hearts - if you are not moved into seeking justice, have you really understood the grace by which you've been saved?

      He says it much better! If you'd like to borrow the book and read it yourself, let me know!