Rejecting Counterfeit Love: Why That Social Justice Cause May Not Be Good Enough
“How can you bear it?” Douglas asked as we hunched over our coffee and tea in deep conversation. Douglas just learned that I work for World Vision (a Christian humanitarian organization), and then he leaned back with wide eyes. After a moment he leaned inward as if to scrutinize a newfound discovery. With carefully weighed words he asked, “How can you bear it? Day after day helping the poor and needy even when they’re spiteful? How can you persevere when they’re thankless, when they frustrate you, when there’s no reward?”
Douglas’ question shocked me almost as much as the simplicity of my answer. “Easy. I don’t have to bear anything.” I explained to Douglas that, while I work for World Vision and help people all over the planet, very rarely must I actually enter the life of another human being in need. I help the poor. But I can do so without ever speaking to an actual poor person. I rarely look the needy in the eye. And I never face thanklessness.
You see, I own countless t-shirts sporting logos of noble causes. I “like” fourteen humanitarian organizations on Facebook. I use variations of the phrases “justice for the oppressed” and “speak for those who can’t speak for themselves” on a regular basis. I even give money to nonprofits. But in spite of all my t-shirts and wristbands and stickers, rarely do I truly serve, and rarely do I truly love.
Mark 10:43-44 reads, “Whoever wants to be great among you must become your servant, and whoever among you wants to be first must be a slave of all.”
Greatness in God’s economy requires service. However, Jesus’ definition of service—and his definition of love for that matter—might look very different from mine. I serve and love others through “liking” important causes, through signing internet petitions, through wearing t-shirts and through giving money; but what if true service and love look altogether different?
In verse 43 Jesus used the word “your.” He said, “If someone wants to be great, he must serve you.” Of course, “your” referenced the disciples. Jesus meant that the greatest disciple becomes great by serving the others. Jesus didn’t say, “Whoever wants to become great must speak to the biggest crowds,” or “give away the most money,” or “build the greatest reputation.” He said that, if Peter wanted greatness, Peter had to serve the other disciples. If John wanted high marks, he had to direct his love towards those closest to him. Greatness the way Jesus looks at it begins with loving and serving those closest to you.
Ever the teacher, Jesus, lived out this principle. In the midst of his overwhelming popularity and acclaim, Jesus served his disciples. During the last meal before his death, Jesus assumed the role of a common servant and washed the stinky, road-wearied feet of his disciples. The multitudes may have welcomed him to the city as a returning king, but Jesus’ true greatness lay in his humble service.
We can change the world, but if we never serve the human beings near us, we aren’t really servants. If we love children in Africa and feed them through World Vision but never feed the homeless man outside the grocery store, we haven’t really loved. Love for “humanity” proves a convincing counterfeit of love for real human beings. Love for others not expressed to others might not be love at all.
The other day, a homeless man approached me outside of the gym. Something struck me when I shook his hand: his hand was dirty. To serve this man, to love this human being, required that I touch someone dirty. Facebook causes don’t get you dirty. Pictures of adorable Sudanese children don’t talk back and don’t frustrate. Real people talk back, question motives, and smell bad. Jesus requires that we love and serve real people.
Douglas’ question and my response to it convicted me. My Facebook causes, my t-shirts and wristbands, and even my job at a Christian agency fall drastically short compared to the love and service I offer real people. This realization awakened me from a stupor. Before, I looked in the mirror and saw a loving, compassionate human being. Now, I see selfishness. Whatever I contribute to humanity through World Vision does bring glory to God, but true love and service requires something more. Thanks, Douglas, because your question forced me to see that if I only wear noble t-shirts, I haven’t really loved at all.
Eric R. McClellan is a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and works for World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization.
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