By Jeff Goins, Editor
In the do-gooder flick Pay It Forward, Trevor McKenney asks his teacher after receiving an unusual homework assignment, “Are you saying you’ll flunk us if we don’t change the world?” To which Eugene responds, “Well, no. But you might just scrape by with a C.”
Many of us have been “scraping by with a C” for awhile now. Recently, there’s been a surge of activity in the western hemisphere to connect people of faith with meaningful and intentional action in regard to issues of poverty and injustice. The fact that millions of people are no longer content with scraping by with a “C” is beautiful thing, but we need to be careful. In a world full of despair and great need, it’s easy to lose yourself in the pursuit of justice. No one ever seems to talk much about this how justice can consume you, keep you up at night, become an obsession, and even distract you from God.
I’m not trying to be a contrarian to the current social justice fad, but we ought to take initial caution at our noble campaigns to right social wrongs. If we’re not careful, our best attempts to save the world could cost us our souls.
Upfront, let me say that this is hard. The needs are so abundant that it almost seems selfish to consider our own spiritual health when seeking justice. For instance, consider the following facts:
16,000 children die from hunger every day (Bread.org). That’s one child every five seconds, and I just threw away some leftover rice last night, because I didn’t feel like keeping it in my fridge.
The price of two cappuccinos at Starbucks can provide clean water for seven Africans for an entire year (Mochaclub.org). I drink way more coffee than that per week, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t let the shower run excessively.
More than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day (One.org). That’s roughly the amount I spent on a candy bar from the checkout lane while grocery shopping… merely because I was bored.
More than 27 million people are in slavery today (NotforSaleCampaign.org), which is far more than any other single moment in history. Frankly, most of the time, I would rather watch Amistad or Amazing Grace on Netflix than face this reality.
Many of us who have heard statistics similar to those above have felt incredibly guilty (I know I have), which isn’t entirely bad. However, the same numbers that stir our slumbering hearts out of complacency can be the very ones that trap us in the bondage of compulsion and obligatory service.
In the missionary classic So Send I You, Oswald Chambers aptly described this dilemma and the solution to it: “In work for God it is not sufficient to be awake to the need, to be in earnest, to want to do something; it is necessary to prove from every standpoint, moral, intellectual, and spiritual, that the only way to live is in personal relationship to God.” Essentially, the need is not the call; the call is the call. But these days, the needs are so pervasive that it’s hard not to feel called to something.
Thanks to an endless supply of knowledge, a great advantage this current generation of twenty-somethings has over over its predecessors is a global worldview. Unfortunately, this has been sadly squandered. It’s not uncommon to see a Macbook-toting Millenial wearing a wristband of the latest justice trend without really doing anything about it. I have a friend who refers to this as “slacktivism.” But awareness doesn’t equate to action, and it certainly doesn’t mean calling.
Even those who are daring enough to respond to the need are in danger of doing so for the wrong reasons.
Take my friend Madison, for example (not her real name but if you’re going to make up a name, you might as well make it a good one). Like a lot of her peers, Madison read Shane Claiborne‘s book The Irresistible Revolution and felt compelled to help the poor. She signed up to volunteer at every shelter, soup kitchen, and social service she could get her hands on. It was incredible the level of commitment to which she pledged herself. Every evening and Saturday afternoon even Sundays after church were dedicated to helping the less-fortunate. She absolutely loved the opportunity to learn from seasoned counselors and social workers, as well as the mysterious experience of finding Christ amongst the “least of these.”
For years, Madison befriended prostitutes, visited widows, and delivered groceries to the handicapped. She invited the poor into her home and into her life. She read every book, watched every movie, and adopted every discipline she could all focusing on how to love mercy and act justly towards the destitute and desolate. However, she began to realize that some of the problems she was battling prostitution, drug addiction, homelessness were big, complicated issues that required holistic solutions. She began to realize that some of these people needed more than a warm bed or a nice conversation over coffee, and she didn’t know how to give it to them.
So she did what most of us would do she tried harder. She redoubled her efforts and focused on fewer projects so that she could concentrate on the impact of her work. She read and studied more so that she can handle any issue that came her way. But she still ended up feeling stressed and burned out. On top of that, her marriage was really starting to suffer.
She eventually stepped down from most of her weekly volunteer commitments and started concentrating on small things serving at church, befriending neighbors, and loving her husband. It was a huge sacrifice and paradigm shift for her. It was hard to do, but she needed to do it to be healthy, to not rob those people of their dignity by finding some personal affirmation in serving them.
Months later, Madison and I got together for coffee. She said that she was finally investing all of her extra energy into making her marriage work reading books and asking people’s advice on how to love and respect her husband better. Now, she was spending nights and weekends with him. It was nothing monumental in terms of what they did, but it was nonetheless quality time. She had learned how much of herself she could invest into something that she was passionate about and was now applying that lesson to immediate relationships she had neglected. “It’s so good,” she told me. And I believed her. She still has a heart for the poor, and I believe that God will re-open those doors to serve when the time is right.
Most social justice junkies will admit that not being able to serve is like quitting smoking cold-turkey. “I can’t just do nothing,” you might say with a twitch in your eye. Yet, that seems to be exactly what God may call us to do to be still and know that he is still Lord amidst a world that is falling apart.
When we first discover the world’s needs, we can become consumed with the task of making it all right. In a way, it’s a good thing. We put our passion to work, every spare minute doing whatever we can to help “the cause.” However, exhausting ourselves in any kind of service without proper rest can not only result in burnout, but also a lack of worship. It becomes hard to pray. We start to resent God for not doing more. We work harder to fill the gaps, neglecting our family, health, and spiritual life in the process. I know this, because I’ve been there.
Being involved in every social justice program or cause you can get your hands on may sound like the right idea when God first opens your eyes
to the needs of the poor, but that kind of passion and dedication is hard to sustain. Moreover, it’s potentially hazardous to your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Lastly, it’s not realistic. Trying to be effective in everything usually means not being effective in anything, especially with justice work.
What do you do? Here are some practical tips for how to pursue justice while keeping your soul:
- Keep first things first. Stay rooted in spiritual disciplines and practices. Couple action with contemplation. Read a little Thomas Merton or Richard Rohr.
- Stay in community. That means church, marriage, Bible studies, Bingo clubs, etc. Surround yourself with people who will encourage and challenge you wherever you need it.
- Take a break. Spend a Sunday (or Saturday or Tuesday) in the park, spending time with God and allowing your body to rest. You know, honor the Sabbath, and all that jazz.
- Involve others. Don’t be the social justice “Lone Ranger.” This is actually pretty common falling in love with a cause and then estranging yourself from others who “just don’t understand.” A love for the poor (especially in an affluent area) may mean alienating yourselves from your peers either through your volition or theirs. Some of that may be inevitable, but community is vital to this kind of work. Try to invite someone into what you’re doing without making them feel judged. It’ll make a big difference for you and for them.
What about you? How has pursuing social justice cost you your soul?
Jeff graduated from Illinois College, a small liberal arts school, with a degree in Spanish and Religion. He lives in Nashville, TN. He works for Adventures In Missions, edits this silly little magazine, and loves to do new things. He just got married in January. Check out his blog: Pilgrimage of the Heart.