Grace and Wisdom for Mercy

When I moved to Philadelphia in 2007 to begin my interneship at Tenth Presbyterian Church, I was excited about entering in on a work that had a special focus on mercy ministry. I knew Philly well enough to know how many opportunities there were for mercy ministry in the streets. If you walked through Rittenhouse Park you would see dozens of homeless sitting or laying on the park benches. If you walked down Broad St. or Market St., on any given day, you would walk past individuals sprawled out over the grates trying to keep warm. If you strolled down South St., you would most certainly be asked for food or money. Add to this the numerous nursing homes in the city where hundreds and hundreds of men and women had been essentially shoved away by their relatives--many of whom were never visited, except perhaps on a holiday. I was eager to enter in on this work with great zeal and joy.

What I learned at Tenth is that great grace and wisdom are needed for mercy ministry. I'll never forget the time that a homeless man cussed me out for bringing him a blanket, a bowl of warm soup and a small copy of the Gospel of John. What he wanted, as he strategically lay over one of those Market St. vents on a cold November morning was $20 an hour tax free. Most of the homeless in Philadelphia know how to work the system. They know where to post up, how to make people want to give them money, what shelters they can consistantly move to and from on a regular basis and how to carry around a stack of business cards so that they can drop names when they go to a church in order to get a handout. You learn quickly that homelessness is big business, hard work and that you don't have to be rich to have greed in your heart. That being said, we are called to care for the poor and the needy--as well as for the outcast and the stranger. So how are we to do so when there is so much con-artistry, greed and a sense of entitlement in the world of the poor? Consider the following:

1. Remember that you are an object of mercy and grace. One of the best ways to foster a merficul heart--even toward those who are needy because their lives are wrecked by sin--is to remember that at one time you were without Christ and an object of God's wrath. If it were not for the grace and mercy of God in Christ to you, you would be exactly like (or worse than) those who are coming to you asking for help. When we are faced with the call to respond to someone in need, who has a sense of entitlement or greed (even in their state of extreme want), we have to remember that the Lord once gave us food and clothing when we were in rebellion against Him (Matt. 5:45). Yes, we will need wisdom to know how and when to respond, but we must remember how the Lord treated us--often through the instrumentality of believers--when we were rebels in our minds, hearts and actions. This will help us deal justly and merifully in word and deed to those in need. We will want to figure out the best way to help someone whose life is laying in ruin without hurting them by enabling them to stay in such a lifestyle. 

2. Learn to Set Boundaries. Dr. David Apple helped me to understand this principle during my time at Tenth. Whether or not you agree with every boundary that he suggests, his "Setting Limits in Ministry" is a good example of how much thoughtfulness and care must go into developing a mercy ministry personally or in your church. 

3. Train Deacons Well. In a local church, the work of mercy is to be organized, fascilitated and encouraged by the Deaconate. Two of the better books that have been written in order to help elders train deacons in this regard are Tim Keller's Resources for Deacons: Love Expressed Through Mercy and Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho RoadWhile one may have scruples with some of Dr. Keller's exegesis on certain passages (e.g. his understanding of the phrase "My brethren" in the parable of the sheep and the goats of Matt. 25), these books are full of helpful prodings and instructions concerning mercy ministry in a local church. 

Thomas Chalmers, the great Glaswegian theologian and philanthropist of the 19th Century, wrote a short–but extremely helpful–set of rules for the deacons at St. George’s Tron. The purpose of these rules was to help the Deaconate sort through the needs of the people in the city without using the Lord’s money in an unwise and unnecessary manner. Chalmers wrote:

When one applies for admittance, through his deacon, upon our funds, the first thing to be inquired into is, if there be any kind of work that he can yet do, so as either to keep him altogether off, or, as to make a partial allowance serve for his necessities. The second, what his relations or friends are willing to do for him. the third, whether he is a hearer in any dissenting place of worship, and whether its session will contribute to his relief. And, if after these previous inquiries, it be found that further relief is necessary, then there must be a strict ascertainment of his terms of residency in Glasgow, and whether he be yet on the funds of the Towne Hospital, or is obtaining relief from any other parish.1

4. Get Creative. Many years ago, while Anna and I were engaged in evangelistic ministry in Wildwood, NJ, I watched as a young man on staff with us pulled out a little booklet, tore out one of the sheets in it and handed it to a homeless man on the Boardwalk. When I asked what he handed to him, I was shown a booklet of McDonald dollars. I said, "That's brilliant." Our friend told me that if you give money out, most homeless will almost certainly buy drugs or alcohol with it. He said, "If he figures out a way to trade McDonald dollars for drugs--that's up to him. But my conscience is clean knowing that I have sought to help him with a real need without enabling him." You have to learn to think outside of the box when seeking to help those who ask you for a handout. 

5. Get thick skin without getting a callused heart. Sometimes we mistakenly think that being strong when trying to help those who refuse to get a job, stop doing drugs, stop manipulating others to help, etc. is wrong and unloving. I would suggest that having a strong sense of biblical principles should guide the work of mercy ministry. For instance, the Scriptures repeatedly warn against the sin and damaging effects of laziness: "If anyone will not work neither shall he eat" (2 Thess. 3:10); "He who is slothful in his work Is a brother to him who is a great destroyer" (Prov. 18:9); and "If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8). We have to learn to hold these truths together with the following: "If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:14-17); "Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him" (1 John 3:17)? Holding onto the former verses without the latter will lead to a callused heart. Holding onto the latter verses without holding to the former will often lead to an unbiblically soft and enabling heart. We want to get thick skin without getting a callused heart. 

6. Think holistically. The hard work of doing mercy ministry--expecially among members of a local church--is just that--"hard work." It takes time, prayer, cooperation, wisdom and skill. The greatest need that all men and women have is for the Gospel of God's grace in Christ to come and change their lives. The whole of the individual must be the sphere of our efforts to be merifcul. We have to learn to think holistically about people. Someone may not be able to pay their utility bills because they have been sinfully spending on other unnecessary things. It would be wrong for a deaconate to continue to pay their bills without helping them get a sense of biblically defined financial responsibility. This is where elders and deacons can often be working together for the sake of holistic mercy ministry. Elders are appointed by God to care for the spiritual needs of a congregant; deacons, for the physical and material needs. While everything is, in one very real sense, a spiritual need, Christ--the Savior of soul and body--has appointed these two offices to aid in helping men and women get the help that they need in soul and body. 

Mercy ministry is difficult. We don't want to write off our responsibility to actively pursue caring for those in need because it is fraught with spiritual and physical challenges. Neither do we want to enter in on the work of mercy ministry out of a naive kindness that can be taken advantage of because of a failure to have a robustly biblical understanding of how we are to best help others. We need grace and wisdom for mercy ministry. May the God of all grace, wisdom and mercy--who has lavished His grace and mercy on us in Christ in order to forgive us and tranform us--give us gracious, wise and merciful hearts to care for those around us.  

1. Thomas Chalmers The Parochial System (Edinburgh: Sutherland & Knox, 1848 (pp. 293-ff.)

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