Oct 1, 2011

Nursemaid to the World: The Church Amid Adversity and Sickness

6 Min Read

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Victorian pastor, not only was a masterful pulpiteer, a brilliant administrator, a gifted writer, and a selfless evangelist, he was a determined champion of the deprived and the rejected. He spent more than half of his incredibly busy schedule on one or another of the sixty organizations or institutions he founded for their care and comfort.

Once, a skeptic accosted Spurgeon on the street outside a market in London, scornfully challenging both the practicality and the genuineness of the preacher’s faith. Spurgeon gracefully answered the man by pointing out the failure of contemporary “free thinkers” to put forward workable models of care for the needy thousands of the city. In contrast, he pointed out the multitudinous works of compassion that had sprung from faith in Christ: George Whitefield’s mission, George Müller’s or phanage, Thomas Barnardo’s shelter, Thomas Sutton’s charterhouse hospital. He then closed the conversation by paraphrasing the victorious cry of Elijah, boisterously asserting, “The God who answereth by orphanages, let Him be God.”

Spurgeon’s retort was hardly hollow rhetoric. The reality is that wherever the spread of the gospel has taken believers, throughout Europe, into the darkest depths of Africa, to the outer reaches of China, along the edges of the American frontier, and beyond to the Australian outback, a selfless care for the needy has been in evidence. In fact, most of the church’s greatest heroes across the centuries have been those who willingly gave the best of their lives to the sick, the hurting, the poor, the unloved, the despised, and the rejected. Service has always been their hallmark. Mercy has always been their emblem.

Whether following disastrous earthquakes and tsunamis, amid terrible plagues and epidemics, or through horrific wars and conflicts, Christians have always been at the ready to offer healing and hope. This is the natural fruit of the gospel itself.

The Lord is merciful, gracious, and kind. He works righteousness and justice for all (Ps. 33:5). Morning by morning, He dispenses His justice without fail (Zeph. 3:5) and without partiality (Job 32:21). All His ways are just (Deut. 32:4), so that injustice is an abomination to Him (Prov. 11:1). Thus, He is adamant about ensuring the cause of the meek and the weak (Ps. 103:6). Time after time, Scripture stresses this important attribute of God (Pss. 9:7–9; 12:5; 68:5–6; Isa. 41:17–20).

Because God cares for the needy, His people are to do likewise. He desires that we follow Him (Matt. 4:19). We are to emulate Him (1 Peter 1:16). We are to do as He does. In effect, we are to do unto others as He has done unto us. That is the ethical principle that underlies the “Golden Rule” (Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31).

If God has comforted us, then we are to comfort others (2 Cor. 1:4). If God has forgiven us, then we are to forgive others (Eph. 4:32). If God has loved us, then we are to love others (1 John 4:11). If He has taught us, then we are to teach others (Matt. 28:20). If He has borne witness to us, then we are to bear witness to others (John 15:26–27). If He has laid down His life for us, then we are to lay down our He has given us healing and hope, then we are to dispense the hope of His healing (James 5:13–16).

Whenever God commanded the Israelites to imitate Him in ensuring justice for the wandering, the alien, and the sojourner, He reminded them that they were once despised, rejected, and homeless themselves (Ex. 22:21–27; 23:9; Lev. 19:33–34). It was only by the grace and mercy of God that they had been redeemed from that low estate (Deut. 24:17–22). Thus, they were to exercise compassion to the brokenhearted and the dispossessed. They were to serve.

Jesus taught that the principle still holds true for His disciples. Those of us who have received the compassion of the Lord on high are to demonstrate tenderness in kind to all those around us (Matt. 18:23–25).

The needy around us are thus living symbols of our own former helplessness and privation. We are therefore to be living symbols of God’s justice, mercy, and compassion. We are to do as He has done (John 15:1–8). God has set the pattern by His gracious working in our lives. Now we are to follow that pattern by serving others in the power of the indwelling Spirit (John 14:15–26).

In other words, the gospel calls us to live daily as if people really matter. It calls us to live lives of selfless concern. We are to pay attention to the needs of others — in both word and deed, in both thought and action, we are to weave ordinary kindness into the very fabric of our lives (Deut. 22:4). We are to “put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and long-suffering” (Col. 3:12, NKJV). We are to become “a father to the poor” and to “search out the case of the stranger” (Job 29:16). We are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and “rescue the perishing” (Prov. 24:10–12), thus “fulfilling the law” (Rom. 13:10). This is, in fact, the very essence of “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father” (James 1:27).

In writing to Titus, the young pastor of Crete’s pioneer church, the apost le Paul pressed home this fundamental truth with a clear sense of persistence and urgency. The task before Titus was not an easy one. Cretan culture was terribly worldly. It was marked by deceit, ungodliness, sloth, and gluttony (Titus 1:12). Thus, Paul’s instructions were strategically precise and right to the point. Titus was to preach the glories of grace, but he was also to make good deeds evident. Priestly mercy and self less servanthood were to be central priorities in his new work (2:11–14).

Paul told Titus he should actually build his entire fledgling ministry around works of mercy: He was “to be an example of good deeds” (2:7). He was to teach the people “to be ready for every good deed” (3:1). The older women and the younger women were to be thus instructed so “that the Word of God might not be dishonored” (2:5), and the slaves were to be likewise instructed that “they might adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (2:10). They were all to “learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, that they might not be unfruitful” (3:14). There were those within the church who professed “to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed” (1:16). These Titus was to “reprove severely that they might be sound in the faith” (1:13). He was to “speak confidently, so that those who had believed God might be careful to engage in good deeds” (3:8).

As a pastor, Titus had innumerable tasks that he was responsible to fulfill. He had administrative duties (1:5), doctrinal duties (2:1), discipling duties (2:2–10), preaching duties (2:15), counseling duties (3:1–2), and arbitrating duties (3:12–13). But intertwined with them all, fundamental to them all, were his servanthood duties. And what was true for Titus then has been true for Christians at all times and in all places, for “these things are good and profitable for all men” (3:8).

Whenever and wherever the gospel has gone forth, the faithful have emphasized the priority of good works, especially works of compassion toward the needy. Every great revival in the history of the church, from Paul’s missionary journeys to the Reformation, from the Alexandrian outreach of Athanasius to the Great Awakening in America, has been accompanied by an explosion of merciful service. Hospitals were established. Orphanages were founded. Rescue missions were sta r ted. Almshouses were built. Soup kitchens were begun. Charitable societies were incorporated. The hungry were fed, the naked clothed, and the unwanted rescued. Word was wed to deeds. Whenever there has been plague, famine, or devastation, Christians have invariably stepped into the gap with courage and care. The church has been the nursemaid to the world, caring for the least and the last.

This fact has always proven to be the bane of the church’s enemies. Unbelievers can argue theology. They can dispute philosophy. They can subvert history. And they can undermine character. But they are helpless in the face of extraordinary feats of selfless compassion. “And so the Word of God spread rapidly” (Acts 6:7).