What In the World Are We Doing?

A Biblical and Theological Understanding of Relief and Development

                                                               by Alec D. Brooks, President

Life forces us to raise questions about the nature and purpose of human existence in general and our own in particular. Is there any meaning to our lives and will it make any difference that we have lived? Are our lives like footprints in the sand that leave an impression for awhile, but are soon washed away by the tide or erased by the wind so that no one will be able to tell that we had ever been here? Do the things that we do matter or will they be forgotten, soon after we are gone?

The answers to these questions, while important for all Christians, are critical for those of us involved in relief and development, who hope somehow to relieve people's suffering and improve their lives. We need to be able to make sense of what we are doing and why, if we are not to be overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and despair. Are we being foolishly and needlessly heroic? Are we engaged in an exercise in futility?

Does what we do really matter in the end? Why should we not give up and live, as so many others do, either indifferent to or uninvolved in the suffering and deprivation of others?

We can only make sense of our lives and find satisfaction in living when we know that we are part of a history and purpose that gives meaning to who we and assures us that what we spend our lives doing is part of the unfolding purpose of creation and God's work of redemption.

Wherever we look in the world, we are confronted by human suffering brought about by war, famine, poverty, disease, or oppressive governments. Whatever its cause, suffering presents us with our greatest challenge and opportunity. Our greatest challenge because it calls into question our belief in the greatness and goodness of God; our greatest opportunity because how we respond and minister to others in their suffering shows the truth of the gospel in a way that few arguments or explanations can.

Our experience of suffering gives us an opportunity to witness to our trust in God's goodness as nothing else does. Serving others in their suffering gives us the opportunity to show God's love as nothing else can.

Those of us who believe that in obedience to God much of our lives must be spent dealing with some degree of the world's suffering must do so from a right understanding of God and his relationship to the world. We will not be long able to do what God has called us to do if, in the doing of it, we become separated from him by doubt or despair, or lose sight of who God is and where he is in relationship to us and what we are doing. Only the reality of God's presence and our relationship to him can sustain and satisfy us.

This means that we must not only know that God is, we must have a growing understanding of who he is, what he has done and is doing in the world and to what end. We and everything we do must be seen in the light of God's presence and purpose in the world. Only this can keep us from disappointment, despair, and overwhelming discouragement.

At some time in our lives, someone has most likely asked us: Who in the world do you think you are? What in the world do you think you are doing? Where in the world do you think you are going? The person asking was probably not looking for a definition of our worldview but they are the kinds of questions every worldview asks and attempts to answer and every Christian should know the answer to them.

Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us have beliefs or make assumptions about the most important issues of life. These beliefs or assumptions constitute our worldview - our way of looking at life that makes sense of everything and gives meaning to all of life. It is our worldview that determines our values, which are in turn reflected in our actions.

Every worldview seeks to answer at least four basic questions: Who are we? Where are we? What is wrong? and What is the solution?

The Christian answer to the first question is that we are persons made in the image of God to be in loving relationship with him. Each person is therefore a valued and irreplaceable object of God's love. The answer to the second question is that we are in a good world made by God. This means that we are made for the world and the world for us, and that while the world is good and we are to exercise wise stewardship over it, it is not God, and therefore we must not worship it. The answer to the third question is that we have exercised our God-given freedom to reject God's loving purpose and pursue our own apart from him and against him, with tragic consequences for everyone and everything. The answer to the fourth question is that God's love is such that in order to redeem us, he is willing to suffer because of us, to suffer with us and for us, and by suffering love overcome the power of evil and renew us and all creation with us.

The intellectual challenge that evil and suffering present to the Christian faith has been recognized and responded to throughout its history by some of its ablest minds. Christian thinkers have shown that the freedom with which God has endowed man and which is necessary if man is to freely respond to God in love and enter into and maintain fellowship with God as he desires, makes moral evil possible.

Because God is love, he cannot be the author of evil or approve of evil. God does not desire that we cause evil and suffering to him and to each other. But if God did not grant us the ability to sin and bring about suffering to him and one another, we would not have the kind of free and autonomous existence that is necessary if we are to enter into a relationship of love with God and with each other. All forms of evil and suffering are therefore contrary to the will of God and are only permitted by God as the unintended and undesired consequences of his ultimate intentions.

God's decision to create us as persons entailed his giving us freedom and risking the possibility that we would use our freedom against him. In creating us as persons for loving relationships with him, God chose to become vulnerable. It is our God-given freedom as persons that makes evil and suffering possible. And it is our decision to abuse this freedom, to turn away from God, to reject his love and abandon his fellowship, that has made evil, with all of its terrible consequences for God, man and nature, a reality.

Christian thinkers have also demonstrated, that for man to be able to act freely and develop moral character, there must be a world that operates according to its own God-given patterns of development and behavior. God does not will all of the effects that occur as a result of the structural character of nature, but it is necessary if nature is to be real and if life within it is to be possible. It is this structure that makes great good and great evil possible. As part of such a world, we can both affect and be affected by it for good and for ill.

But by themselves, these explanations of evil and suffering are inadequate, because for most people the problem of evil and suffering is not an intellectual dilemma to be resolved, but an existential reality to be assuaged. For countless numbers of men and women, suffering, either experienced or witnessed, destroys the very fabric and meaning of life and calls into question either the existence of God or his nature as love. Jurgen Moltmann has written, "It is in suffering that the whole question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question. The suffering of a single innocent child is an irrefutable rebuttal of the notion of the almighty and kindly God in heaven. For a God who lets the innocent suffer and who permits senseless death is not worthy to be called God at all. . . . suffering is the rock of atheism, for it is on this rock that every theism runs aground which lives from the illusion of 'an unscathed world.' " (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 47).

But atheism has no answer to the problem of evil; nor can it offer hope to a suffering world. Moltmann goes on to say, "But can atheism hold its ground on this rock of suffering if it is only the indictment against God which turns suffering into pain, and makes of pain so flinty a rock? That is the other side of the experience of suffering. If it were not for their desire for life, the living would not suffer. If there were not love of justice, there would be no rebellion against innocent suffering. If there were no 'longing for the Wholly Other,' we should come to terms with the here and now, and accept the
absence of what does not exist.

If there were no God, the world as it is would be all right. It is only the desire, the passion, the thirst for God which turns suffering into conscious pain and turns conscious pain into a protest against suffering. But the atheism for which this world is all there is, runs aground on the rock of suffering, too. For even the abolition of God does not explain suffering and does not assuage pain." (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 48).

What is at stake in how Christians respond to evil and suffering is not just the credibility of the Christian faith, but the hope that there is a life-affirming answer to the dilemmas evil and suffering create and the questions they raise, and that evil and suffering do not have the last word.

But God knows that no explanation by itself will satisfy the sufferer or serve to remove the suffering. By serving those who suffer, we share the good news that God has answered the suffering of the world, not by explaining it but by suffering with us and for us. Contrary to much theology influenced by Greek philosophy that saw God as immutable and impassible, the God of the Bible is not unaffected by or indifferent to human suffering. As Thomas Torrance reminds us, the Triune God whose very essence is love cannot be indifferent to the suffering of those whom he loves because " . . . God is not some immutable, impassible deity locked up in his self-isolation who cannot be touched with our human feelings, pains and hurts, but on the contrary is the kind of God who freely acts and passionately interacts with us in this world, for in his own eternal Being he is the ever living, loving and acting God who will not be without us but who in grace freely determines himself for us as our God and Saviour." (The Christian Doctrine of God, p.4).

While it is true that God need not have created the world, once he did, God's happiness was bound up with it because the world matters to him. God is not as he was before he created the world because in creating the world God opened himself up to that which he could not and need not have known or experienced apart from the world. God knows each of us personally and intimately, and because he is love he cannot but be delighted by that which brings us happiness, and pained by our sufferings.

"What does this mean for life, that God suffers? I'm only beginning to learn. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and the powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming from sin and suffering by suffering, then perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth's closest icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that woman with the soup tin in hand and bloated child at side."

"Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him. If we believe this, then any understanding of the gospel that does not call us to suffering for and with a suffering world is woefully inadequate. It is untrue to God and the gospel."

"God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our suffering sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered that he gave up his only Son to suffering. The one who does not see God's suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love." So writes the Christian philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff. (Lament for a Son, p. 82).

In helping to set people free from the debilitating effects of evil and suffering, we do more than serve them, we touch the very heart of God because, as Daniel Miglore notes, he is "Far from being aloof, apathetic, and immutable; God freely becomes vulnerable out of faithful love for the world. The destructiveness of evil in creation can be overcome not by divine fiat but only by a costly history of divine love in which the suffering of the world is really experienced and overcome by God." (Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 115).

Relief and development work which mitigates, overcomes, and reverses the rule of evil and its effects in the world is a necessary response to human suffering in the name of Jesus. Out of love for God and others we refuse to allow the rule of evil to go unchecked and unchallenged, and act in Jesus' name to further the reign of God. In God's good time, evil and suffering will finally be banished from the earth, but for now he works through us to help keep evil within bounds so that it does not reap its full effect. By caring for the sick, promoting health, providing shelter for the homeless, feeding the hungry, providing vocational skills training, developing economic enterprises or engaging in any other humanitarian activity that promotes the good of those in need, we bring to bear the rule of God, the rule of all that is good. In the name of the God of life, whose action is always to restore life, we seek to do all in our power to overcome disease, destruction, and death. This is why relief and development done in Jesus' name is spiritual warfare. By acting in the name of the one who came that all "might have life and have it more abundantly," we refuse to surrender the field to him who "comes to kill and to steal." We should not be surprised, then, when we meet with resistance, suffer setbacks, or experience serious loss in serving those who for too long have been subject to forces that have caused them great suffering and seek to keep them in bondage.

Because God requires of us that we love our neighbor as ourselves, we must want for all people the good that we enjoy, and do all within our power to share it with them. Our response, therefore, to those who suffer is a measure of our love for God and others. The actions Jesus took to meet the needs or relieve the suffering of others were not to prove that he was God, but because he was God, and because those he helped were in need. So too, we do what needs to be done, not just because we hope that those we serve will become Christians but because we are Christians-not just that they might go to heaven when they die, but that they might experience the love and goodness of God while they live. In serving out of love for God and them, it is our hope and prayer that they will come to know and love him, too.

The commandment to love one another is rooted in our sharing together God's image. No matter how deformed, deficient, corrupt, or helpless a person may be, he or she, regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, or social standing, shares with us the image of God. It is this that enables us to identify with others in their suffering and in their longing for a better life; it is this, too, that should determine our attitude toward and treatment of every human being. Because every person is made in the image of God and is an irreplaceable object of his love, God graciously confers immeasurable value on and takes delight in every person. To treat another human being inhumanely is to deny that he or she is made in God's image. But it is more than that it is to wound God. As John Calvin reminds us, "God Himself, looking on men as formed in His own image, regards them with such love and honour that He Himself feels wounded and outraged in the persons of those who are the victims of human cruelty and wickedness." (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, p.78).

There is no one whom God does not love and for whom Jesus did not die. We should, therefore, view every person we serve in Jesus' name not as someone who is lost but as someone who is loved, and whose value and dignity are derived from who he or she is before God. We should view each person as one who has been given the gift of life in order that he or she might experience and express the love of God, and we should treat him or her accordingly. The high regard God has for all mankind is shown in the Incarnation and suffering of Jesus for each and for all. While Jesus does not give us a formal doctrine of mankind, it is clear from his attitude and actions how highly he valued each person, young or old, rich or poor, male or female. Jesus shows us that God loves us as unique individuals, and that no person is worth more or less than another in God's sight. He treated each person in the light of God's love and purpose for him or her not on the basis of appearance, social standing or personal achievement; so too must we.

We recognize that we cannot do what God has called us to do in our own strength but by the enabling of the Holy Spirit, who pours the love of God into our hearts, and who is the power and presence of God's promised future in the world today. His presence is the sign and promise that God has not abandoned the world that he made and loves, and that he is active everywhere to bring everything to its intended purpose-to its fulfillment in the future reign of God. It is he who works through our actions to make God's love real in the world. This is why we are told to pray in the Spirit. Whenever we encounter anything that is contrary to or resists the rule of Jesus, and therefore the work of the Spirit in this life, we are to pray for its removal or for it to come under the Lordship of Jesus. Stanley Grenz says it well when he writes, "Prayer is an eschatological activity, oriented toward the kingdom of God. . . .[T]he minds and hearts of God's people must be attuned to the divine program. Believers must catch the vision concerning the glorious future that awaits humanity in the kingdom of God. The practice of prayer is one necessary means to this end. . . . By means of prayer the believer sifts through the evil and dislocation in the present, in order to determine what must be altered if the rule of God is to be made manifest. Petition becomes the expression of a holy discontent with the present, an unwillingness to leave things as they are." (Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom, p.43)

It is this discontent with what is and desire for what can and will be that gives meaning and direction to our prayers. In light of the coming of the kingdom of Jesus, we pray, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

The Holy Spirit enables particular acts of love-words and deeds-that overcome the effects of evil and enable people and situations to be more what God intends they should be now and directed to what God intends all things finally to be. Because he is the Spirit of all creation, there should be no separation between spiritual and material, between sacred and secular. Everything God made he called good. This means that he was delighted with all that he made, that it had value in itself and to him. We must reject the idea that the spiritual is higher than the material and that we can focus on one to the neglect of the other. The material world must never be thought of as evil, nor must it be thought of as good only as a means to the spiritual development of spiritual beings, as has often been the case in the history of the Church.

This way of thinking has led to the devaluing of the world and the unbiblical idea of looking for deliverance from the world as our salvation. The redemption of the world does not take place outside of it, but from within it. The one who created the world is the one who came into it as part of it in order to save it from destruction and restore it to its intended destiny. The world into which Jesus came was a world enslaved by sin and satanic forces determined to resist God's will and to distort and destroy all that God had made. He defeated the forces of death and destruction not by fiat, but by the way of suffering love. He refused to deal with evil on its own terms, but on God's, which is the way of the suffering Servant who gives himself in self-giving, self-sacrificing, status-renouncing love which is the way of the cross-the way of God's saving power. Phil.2:3-11; I Cor.1:22-25; Mk.10:45.

After his resurrection, when Jesus appeared to his fearful disciples, he showed them his hands and his side. John tells us that When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.' After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so send I you.' When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" Jn 20:19-22.

The disciples were convinced that because Jesus had been crucified the powers of this world had triumphed. But Jesus was telling them that it was the crucified who triumphed, that the cross was not the place of his defeat but of his vindication. On the cross Jesus was not only shown to be the Son of God, God was shown to be other than they had thought him to be. On the cross, the place of seeming weakness and powerlessness, God had revealed himself and the nature of his power. As Paul reminds the Colossians it was on the cross that Christ " . . . disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it." Col. 2:15. And how did he do this? By self-giving, self-sacrificing, status-renouncing love.

As we engage in the work of relief and development, it is of utmost importance that we remember that the message of the cross is not just a message of personal salvation or sanctification. It is the message of the work and the way of God-not just about what God has done to save the world, but the revelation of the God who saves the world. As N. T. Wright reminds us, "When we speak of 'following Christ' it is the crucified Messiah we are talking about. His death was not simply the messy bit that enables our sins to be forgiven but that can be forgotten. The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window into the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is made known. And when therefore we speak of shaping our world, we do not-we dare not-simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us 'personally,' but which can be left behind when we get on with the job. The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods, as well as the message, must be cross-shaped through and through." (The Challenge of Jesus, p.p. 94, 95).

Those who follow Jesus bear the mark of the cross and through prayer and obedience become agents of change in the world-people through whom the Holy Spirit works now to reveal to the world the promise and power of the future:-the reign of the crucified God. They are to be a people who demonstrate that the world is overcome, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts." Zech. 4:6

We are further reminded of this in the book of the Revelation, the message of which is victory through self-surrender. There, God's final triumph over evil is accomplished by the Lion of Judah, who is the slain Lamb, and who is identified with the Almighty. In Rev. 21:22 we read, "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb." Commenting on these verses, G. B. Caird writes, "John who wrote the Revelation is fond of a resonant title for God, 'the Omnipotent', which he uses nine times. But he repeatedly makes it clear that in using it he is recasting the concept of omnipotence, which he understands not as unlimited coercion but as unlimited persuasion. He hears a voice proclaim the victory of the Lion of Judah, but what he sees is 'a lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him' (Rev. 5:6); and it is by the blood of the sacrificed Lamb that the conquering martyrs win their victory, which is the only victory of God (Rev. 12:11)." (The Language and Imagery of the Bible, pp. 51, 52).

In his life as in his death, Jesus revealed to us the nature and glory of God, not just by what he said but by what he did. It was as God that he touched the leper, filled a basin with water and washed the dirty feet of his disciples. It was as God that he fed the multitude because they were hungry, and lit a fire and cooked breakfast on the beach with the bread and fish he brought for tired and weary fishermen. To serve people, therefore, in the necessary physical and material dimensions of their lives, is no less the work of God, no less the work of redemption, no less the proclamation of the gospel, than any other kind of Christian service.

Relief and development are essential aspects of the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel because they are rooted in the work of salvation. As a result of a false dualism rooted not in Scripture but in Greek philosophy, salvation has too often been understood as having to do simply with rescuing souls from hell and preparing them for heaven. But it is so much more than that. In its fullest biblical sense, salvation means to arrive at one's destination, the place for which one was created. Biblical salvation is the completion of that which was intended for human beings and all of creation from the beginning. Salvation is not just about the saving of souls but of whole persons; not just about us but about the whole creation. The redemption of the world cannot be complete without us, nor can our redemption be complete without the world. Rom. 8:18-22.

Salvation is God's rescuing us and all of creation with us from sin and evil and the suffering they bring, and that keep us and creation from reaching our intended goal. Like salvation, however, sin and its effects have often been misunderstood. Too often sin has been seen only as something individuals do and for which they must be forgiven. However, sin is essentially social, affecting every aspect and all the relationships and structures of life so that what God intended for good becomes distorted and all too often, destructive. Because sin affects everything in society, it must be dealt with both individually and socially. Salvation through Christ and the transformation it brings begins with persons, but cannot remain private. As John Wesley declared and so clearly demonstrated, "The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social: no holiness but social holiness." (Works, X1V:321).

We work in anticipation of the renewal of all things at the coming of Jesus, when he will make a new heavens and a new earth. We demonstrate the rule of God by acts of love directed toward those whose circumstances may lead them to question whether or not God knows or cares for them. We extend to them the mercy of God, which is his goodness directed toward them in their pain, suffering, need, misery, and distress. God's mercy is his sympathetic concern and deep compassion for them, which results in his desire to relieve their distress, and to be long suffering toward them and to seek their salvation.

God's purpose is not to destroy what he has made but to redeem it, and we bear witness to this in the work of relief and development. We feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless not just in response to what is but in light of what will be. Relief and development done in Jesus' name are signs-visible words, as it were-that God is aware of the world he has made and has not abandoned it. They are concrete reminders that God cannot and will not be satisfied until he has erased all evil and the suffering it brings from the world he loves. Biblical eschatology is, therefore, a vision by which to live in and for the world. God, who passionately loves his world, calls us to engage it at the places of its deepest need, not to hope for escape from it, leaving it to its own devices without God and without hope.

Surely Lesslie Newbigin was right when he declared, "... the Church exists not for itself and not for its members, but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God,... it is impossible to give faithful witness to the gospel while being indifferent to the situation of the hungry, the sick, the victims of human inhumanity." (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 136).

Jesus said that those who will be welcomed into his kingdom are those who have served him here by serving the most vulnerable-the oppressed and the suffering. (Matt. 25: 31-40). He calls us to live and act in the present not simply in response to what is, but in the light of what will be. By siding with God against evil in whatever form we encounter it, by joining with him in resisting it by whatever means we can, and by sacrificially serving the oppressed and the suffering, we witness to the true nature of Jesus' kingdom. And we testify to the hope and give meaning to the promise of what lies ahead at the coming of Jesus to remove all evil, and with it all suffering, and to create a new heavens and new earth. In seeking to heal, relieve pain, and wipe away tears, we witness to the day that is coming, a day already begun, when God himself will wipe away every tear, and death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more. Rev. 21:1-4.

When, in confronting evil and human suffering, we are tempted to be overwhelmed by them, we must not forget what God has done, is doing, and will assuredly yet do to overcome them. It is God, not evil, who will have the final word. With John Wesley we can say, "Let us praise him that he hath given us to see the deplorable state of all that are round about us; to see the wickedness that overflows the earth, and yet not to be borne away by the torrent! We see the general, the almost universal contagion; and yet it cannot approach to hurt us! Thanks be unto him 'who hath delivered us from so great a death', and 'doth still deliver'!"

"And have we not farther ground for thankfulness, yea, and strong consolation, in the blessed hope which God hath given us that the time is at hand when righteousness shall be universal as unrighteousness is now? Allowing 'that the whole creation now groaneth together', under the sin of man, our comfort is, it will not always groan: God will arise and maintain his own cause. And the whole creation shall then be delivered both from moral and natural corruption. Sin and its consequence, pain, shall be no more; holiness and happiness will cover the earth."

"Then shall all the ends of thee world see the salvation of our God. And the whole race of mankind shall know and love and serve God, and reign with him for ever and ever!" (Works, 11:469,470).

Reference and Bibliography

Caird, G. B. The language and Imagery of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 

Fiddes, Paul. The Creative Suffering of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Fretheim, Terrence E. The Suffering of God. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

Grentz, Stanley J. Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1988.

Gunton, Colin. The Christian Faith. Malden: Blackwell, 2002.

Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991.

Moltmann, Jurgen. The Trinity and the Kingdom. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989.

Torrance, Thomas F. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001.

Ward, Keith. Rational Theology and the Creativity of God. New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1982.

Wesley, John. Works. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958-59.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Until Justice and Peace Embrace. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983.

Wright, N. T. The Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999.