“The Continuum of Maturity”

KeithsmAssociation with the poor—to serving the poor—to loving the poor—to knowing the poor—to seeing the Kingdom

by Keith Wasserman

It is my conviction that one of the problems facing the church is classism—that way of thinking about our sub-culture which resists friendship with people who are not like us. But the kingdom of God isn’t like that. Indeed, in this kingdom we pray that when we say the Lord’s prayer, there is no wall of separation. If we really mean “on earth as it is in heaven,” do you think that God will permit us to remain in our social cliques in heaven? Furthermore, I argue that God wants each of us who choose to love HIM to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zones into relationships with the poor who are economically and culturally different from us. If the gospel is the power of God (II Cor. 1:18 ), then it has the power to move us beyond the place where we are stuck, socially, into the lives and friendships with those who are from a different social class. Could this be one of HIS plans for our discipleship?

Why bother? What’s the point? Why develop friendships outside of our social comfort zones with people who are so different from us? Here the answer is another kingdom reversal1 because it defies logic: because this is where the kingdom of God is revealed both to us and to the world. In writing those previous 17 words, I am making the assumption that you want the kingdom to come. Do you?

When Jesus called us to follow him and we trusted him and asked him to be the Lord and Savior of our lives, did we miss something? Is it possible that we are willing to give him our money, our property, our vocation, but not our social life? Could God work through our willingness to lay down our social life to reveal Jesus to the world? Perhaps our willingness to yield who we choose as friends and what we do with them is a secret in the kingdom of God .

I believe that God wants to bring every follower of Jesus to the place where they begin to enter into the mystical relationship with the poor and with the kingdom by living out Romans 12:16: “do not be proud but willing to associate with the lowly” (or people of low position in society).

God is after obedience (willingness) at this point, not feelings. We choose humility by choosing to associate with people who are different than us; different in race, different in class and different in their position in society. It is the same kind of obedience listed in the same section of Romans (Rom 12:10 -21) when the writer tells us to ‘bless those who persecute us, never pay back evil for evil, weep with those who weep and that love should be without hypocrisy.’ In the end, we learn that these acts are all small ways we overcome evil. I wonder if anyone ever considered ‘associating with people who are of a low position in society’ as a way to overcome evil? I take the word ‘associate’ in today’s language to mean ‘hanging out.’ To associate also means a willingness to be identified as ‘one of them.’ Anyone who has tried to do this knows it takes work. It is the work of humility. It is the work of suffering because something in us has to die before this LIFE of Jesus can be revealed.

I believe that God is sending us on a journey and that the end of the journey, which starts with our willingness to associate, culminates with knowing the poor: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” (I Thessalonians 2:8) May I say it boldly? It is God’s will and intention for us to become friends with (knowing) those of our culture who might be considered as outcasts. This is not only because of what we might be able to do for them but also because of what they may be able to provide to us: something of the kingdom of God! God wants to grow such a fond affection in us for His people that HIS supernatural desire in us will not only be to share the gospel but to share vulnerably from our own lives, our own garden of mutual friendship.

By now many of you may be saying to yourselves “I want to be obedient to God’s will. How can I find safe places to associate with and develop friendships with the poor?” The ministry of Good Works has focused on creating several contexts where this kind of intentional ministry can occur. What about your community? Where do the least of these2 spend their time in your town or city? Is there a ministry in your town that seems to be particularly focused on this population? Why not take the first step? Why not place yourself inside one of these contexts so that God can work in you and through you?

So how do we move from the obedience of association to the affection of friendship with those Jesus calls “the least of these?” I think we begin with the recognition that our acts of service to “them” are acts of love and worship for HIM. In other words, a starting place for ‘understanding God’s heart for the poor’ begins by choosing to serve the poor. This may take the form of a weekly event with someone in need that has a specific start and finish time and initially desensitizes us to the myriad of issues going on inside and outside of us as we take on this responsibility. It is in this context that we “do it for them” (the nameless and the faceless) because Jesus has done it (salvation as a comprehensive rescue from the terrible situation we were in) for us. Our ‘good works’ to them are the outward expression of the inward change—the transformation of our lives by the amazing grace of God! We reach out because we know Messiah has touched and transformed us with HIS salvation. While this is a natural outgrowth of being ‘born of God’, we must still overcome our un-natural resistance to serve others; especially those who are the most despised, and in some cases, the most disgusting (lepers) of the culture.

We are still at the beginning of the continuum. I am grieved to say that not only do some people get stuck here, but that inside our Christian social structure there are some very good role models for those of us who want to remain in this place of intermittent and distant service. God does not want us to get stuck at this part of the continuum but wants us to remain teachable, yielded, vulnerable (indeed a bit uncomfortable) and OPEN to Him moving us from simply serving nameless and faceless people to loving people with names, histories and life-stories. This requires the humility of being yielded and will include having to overcome the feelings of being out of our comfort zone: pain and suffering! Many times, these feelings lead to a way of thinking that rationalizes our need to remain separated in our class system. Resist it in Jesus’ name. Many of us would prefer not to have contact with the ugliness found in the life-stories of the people we are serving. We cannot truly love another person without some level of involvement and we cannot get involved without some measure of PAIN and suffering. And when we feel the pain of loving involvement, we have suddenly touched the suffering of Christ.

But God will not leave us to simply love only to the point of involvement. God wills to lead us down the continuum to the place of knowing the poor.

God already knows our thoughts and being honest with Him is something we cannot avoid. Being honest with ourselves, however, is another thing altogether. It is God’s will for us to be honest enough with our feelings of anger, frustration, repulsion, disgust, rejection, manipulation etc. to say “Lord, I may be able to serve these people and I want you to know that I want to love them but PLEASE don’t ask me to know them or to become friends with them. Indeed, Lord, I really don’t even like them and in fact, I am often repulsed by some of them. I certainly can’t imagine being their friend” – this honesty is essential and is the normal part of God’s maturing process. We must come to this place before God can take us to the higher level of agape love and a glimpse of the kingdom. Something else we must admit to is this: “I can’t love these people Lord. Their lives are too much for me. I do not have it in me to love these people. My feelings for them are not love anymore but disdain and all I want is for this to be over so that I can go home.” Does this sound like something you have been through? Then, like me, you are in God’s maturing process. Jesus is making you into a disciple who will deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Him. You are now experiencing His word on “losing your life in order to find it.” It is here that God will also release the anointing (the power) to persevere in love with those who are both ungrateful and often unresponsive; with those who choose to use manipulation and coercion as the door to friendship because that is all they know.

Eventually, through the leadership of the body of Christ, the encouragement of our brothers and sisters and the direction of the Holy Spirit, God will bring us to the place of resolution with those who are poor and outcasts in our communities. But this takes time and we must first learn to live in the awkwardness of the process. We will find peace in the fact that we have several friendships which are slowly growing in openness, trust and mutual transparency. It is in this context that we can more easily see the appropriate time to “speak up for those who can not speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8-9), “take up the case of the stranger, rescue the poor who cry for help,” (Job 29:12-17), and “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17) for the oppressed. Eventually, we will use faith to riskingly let someone from another socio-economic class into the garden of our life where we are able to be vulnerable and where we could be hurt. It is in this place that Jesus reveals something else (He whispers something) about the kingdom. Indeed, if God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom (James 2:5), then there is something about the kingdom to be discovered in our relationship with the poor.

Yes, it does take time. We begin with a willingness to hang out, then move along the continuum through acts of service to the point of loving and ending up with new friends all the while seeing something of the kingdom of God we could not see in a bible study or church meeting. I suppose the ONE thing is having a willingness to get into the process. And the wanting begins here.

  1. A kingdom reversal is the observation that so many things in the Kingdom of God are reversed from the way they are in the secular world. Christ himself described a kingdom reversal when He said in Mark 8:35 “For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it.”
  2. Jesus says “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” referring to serving the stranger, the sick, the naked and the prisoner.