Reflections on Life Together: The Ministry of Helpfulness
February 25, 2021
In the conclusion of Reflections on Life Together, we take a close look at the everyday ministry we have in providing active helpfulness to our brothers and sisters, whatever their need, whenever we encounter them. But too often, no sooner has a need interrupted our lives than an excuse crashes in and tries to let us off the hook. But the way of Jesus is to choose love and humility and service, no matter how inconvenient and no matter what it costs. #lifetogether #community #service #ministry
As we talked about last week, our everyday ministry with other believers begins with listening well to them. But when we listen, we will often hear particular needs that need a response. And not just a spoken response—an active response. So after our loving, attentive listening, Bonhoeffer says that “the second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness” (Life Together, p. 99). To know of a Christian’s need and to have any sort of means to help with that need means that we can safely assume it is God’s will for us to offer help to them in whatever way seems best. This is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and to seek first his kingdom. In Mark 10:42–45, the Lord Jesus taught his disciples:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus’s own example and imperatives eviscerate any excuse we have towards active helpfulness to address the needs of our brothers and sisters. But maybe it is worth considering two of our most common ones. Some people will decline to help because they say, “I’m too busy, I’m too important.” The illegitimacy of this excuse is immediately evident when we realize that even the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, did not think that he was too important to serve and to give. Or, as Bonhoeffer puts it:
Nobody is too good for the meanest [i.e., lowest] service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions….it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. (Life Together, p. 99)
To say that we are too important, or too good, or too busy to help is to say that God is mistaken in thinking it wise in his providence to arrange for another’s need to crash into our path and to require our active help. But God is not wrong. He is wise. He knows what is most important when he brings our lives to intersect with another’s need. But sometimes we plead the opposite excuse when we encounter a need: “I don’t have enough, I can’t do anything that would make a difference.” This objection seems more appropriate—at least it seems humble. But in the end, this excuse is lacking far more than our resources are. In a sermon on our duty to lovingly help those in need, Jonathan Edwards responds that that hypothetical objection that we can’t help because we have needs, too:
We in many cases may, by the rule of the gospel, be obliged to give to others when we can’t without suffering ourselves… If our neighbor’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not like[ly] to be relieved, we should be willing to suffer with them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves. Or else how is that rule fulfilled of bearing one another’s burdens? If we are never obligated to relieve other’s burdens but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all? (Jonathan Edwards, qtd. in Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, p. 70)
We aren’t called to help only when there is no risk and no cost. We all know from experience that the times when we have most needed help are the same times when it required the greatest sacrifice from those who gave that help to us. In our hearts, we know that the difference between helpfulness or not isn’t the quantity of resource, but rather the commitment of love. And this is difficult—even Jonathan Edwards failed in some dramatic ways to live up to this standard of sacrificing himself to relieve the burdens of others. Over these past nearly twelve months now, we have all been called on to take steps of active helpfulness for the sake of others. Our lives have largely been displaced to help meet others’ needs. We’ve helped directly and indirectly. We’ve changed our patterns of life and work to help slow the spread of a disease. We’ve worn masks, and we’ll receive vaccinations in order to help protect others. And these things have had real costs to us, many far more significant than mere irritation, interruptions, or inconvenience. But all of it is active helpfulness that follows in the way of Jesus Christ. This devotional concludes our “Reflections on Life Together” series, but it doesn’t come close to ending the ways we can learn and grow in how God wants to build unity, maturity, and strength into the Body of Christ, the church. That will be the focus in our Grow Groups this Sunday when we take a close look at Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11–16. On Zoom or in the room, we’ll see you there.