Serving or saving?

24 April 2019

Our job is to serve our neighbour, not to be their saviour

By David Guretzki. Reprinted with permission from Faith Today. Subscribe to read more of David's columns.

I’ve stopped using plastic drinking straws.

It was my daughter who convinced me to join her in reducing the number of plastic straws ending up in our landfills and oceans.

Do I think this is going to make a huge difference? Honestly, not really. But I’m doing it anyway. Why?

Frankly, because I love my daughter and I wanted to join her in caring about something important to her. But I also know caring for God’s world matters, and in the grand scheme of the world’s problems, giving up straws is a pretty simple thing to do that just could make a difference if everyone did the same.

This raises a bigger question: How do we decide not only what we should care about, but also what we can do about it?

As Christians who sense God’s own care and love for the world, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the immense problems the world faces. Wars, human trafficking, pornography, poverty, increasing hate, run-down neighbourhoods, and the list goes on. In this issue of Faith Today alone you will read about refugees, persecution, aging and a host of other issues we probably should all care about.

It can be enough to make us pull the covers over our head before we even get out of bed in the morning.

So let’s put first things first: Caring about things or issues is always secondary to caring about and having compassion for people.

That said, we still need to make decisions about who becomes the object of our care and action. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) can help. It starts with the question, "Who is my neighbour?" The answer, of course, is that our neighbour is anyone – like or especially unlike us – whose need we see that we may be in a position to meet.

But perhaps we also need to be reminded of what the Good Samaritan didn’t do. He didn’t launch a neighbourhood watch to reduce roadside beatings, nor did he form an organization dedicated to caring for victims of crime. Not that these are bad – God bless those who might be called to do just these things. Rather, the Samaritan was commended for what he did do – showed love in action – not for what he could do.

So how do we handle the overwhelming needs pressing in on us from everywhere? How do we continue to care when we know there are real limits on what we can do practically?

Two important things may be helpful to consider.

First, acknowledge, guilt-free, that it’s possible and indeed acceptable to care about many issues without always doing something firsthand about it. Caring and doing are not opposites. Not doing something doesn’t mean we don’t care. We probably all should care about travellers getting beat up, but not everyone needs to travel the road to Jericho to care for those who do. Jesus too cared for and loved everyone, but even He was limited to helping a minority.

Second, and more important, distinguish well between being a servant of the Saviour, and the Saviour Himself. What some people call compassion fatigue is more likely to occur when we begin to think we are little Messiahs called to save the world rather than one of a multitude of servants of the Messiah.

Jesus’ instructions to us are very concrete. All of us are called to love God and our neighbour. That’s it. That’s the sum total of our vocation, our calling as disciples of Jesus. And remember – Jesus says doing these two things fulfills the whole law of God.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t attempt to bring relief and resolution to big problems. By God’s grace, in Jesus’ name, and by the Spirit’s prompting and enabling, we are free to attempt big things for God.

But let’s remind ourselves daily: Our calling is to serve, not to save. And when our responsibilities may extend to many, whether family, congregations, organizations or multitudes, we can usually and practically only serve one person at a time, one place at a time, one day at time.

Now if only I can figure out how to drink my milkshake without a straw.

David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.

Author: David Guretzki

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