Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Looking Beyond the Obvious

When we are called by the Holy Spirit to witness to individuals, we are often blinded by the conditions in which they live and to see only their outward needs.  Many have gone into the mission field with the idea of working to better the lives of poverty stricken nations.  At first glance, the peoples’ overwhelming living conditions strike first at a heart full of compassion, driving the fledgling missionary to insure their physical needs are met.  Water wells are dug.  Houses are constructed.  Trades are taught to bring them an income.  Livestock is donated and crops are planted to feed them.

The same practice is applied even in nations of prosperity and freedom.  Each of them have mean streets crowded with souls that are burdened with poverty, homelessness, addiction, crime, disease, and sexual promiscuity.  And there is no shortage of those who attempt to use ways to assist them out of these conditions.  Foundations are established, drug clinics are built, intercession groups gather, and billions of dollars are poured out upon these communities of damaged people in the form of social welfare.

All of this is altruism at its worst.  Mind you, this does not mean that compassionate generosity for the poor and needy is a bad thing.  What it does mean is that most, when applying a solution, put the cart before the horse.  When we see the deplorable conditions in which others live, our first instinct is to open our wallets, buy them a meal, or hand them our coat.  We only see what is on the surface.  To pause and look deeper would only make us uncomfortable.  So we hand out instead of offering to them something that can not be purchased or materially provided:  a hand UP to Jesus Christ.

Before you draw and quarter this humble author for thinking I am hardhearted towards others, let me say that God will often position us and reveal Himself through our benevolence.  But it should not always be considered by us as our first action.  When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount before a sea of people (Matthew 5-7), He looked beyond their physical needs and straight into their hearts where their real need was obvious.  Each time He was confronted with illness, physical deformities, or demon possession, He first looked into the heart, searching for genuine faith.  Although it is commonly known that He healed even unbelievers seeking relief and never refused their request, most often He prefaced His actions with questions aimed directly at their heart.  His desire was to first find within them a faith and a trust that would remain, even after the miracle was performed.

Jesus preached for three days before His compassion for 5,000 hungry people, plus women and children, drew Him to increase five loaves of bread and two fish to feed them (Mark 6:35-44); and, on another occasion, with seven loaves of bread and a few fish (Mark 8:1-10), feeding another 4,000 men, plus hungry women and children.  Many came back the next day because they had their fill of bread and fish the day before and wanted more.  But Jesus made it clear to them that His purpose was not to first fill the people’s stomachs with food to sustain their physical lives, but to feed them the Bread of Life that would truly satisfy their spiritual hunger (John 6:22-40).

Scripture is full of examples like these.  “Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”  (John 21:25)  But the miracles themselves were not the primary reasons for Jesus life here on earth.  The physical and temporal needs of the people were secondary.  There was an eternal purpose and one purpose only:  He came to seek out and save those whom had been given to Him by the Father.  As He looked beyond the obvious, His message was clear, But seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”  (Matthew 7:33)

Jesus words should instruct us as we witness to others.  We should look below the surface of desperation and need in those who are placed before us; never ignoring their physical plight, but placing it secondary to the purpose for which we are sent.  The temptation to satisfy their physical needs first is similar to the one Satan used against Jesus in the desert.  In his human state, Jesus could have succumbed to Satan’s cunning and turned the stones to bread to satisfy His immediate need, but His reply silenced His tempter.  “Man cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:2-4) - and neither can the lost and those dead to Christ.  We may also succumb to the temptation to feed the lost and downtrodden with bread from our own hands, but they will only go away hungry unless they are first fed the true Bread - the Word of God.

I would like to conclude with something that happened to me shortly after giving my life fully to Christ.  Following the funeral of a loved one, a large group of family gathered at a local restaurant for breakfast before heading home.  The restaurant was crammed with hungry people, the atmosphere was loud, making it hard to hear even the person seated next to you, and the wait staff was overwhelmed.  After eating the cold food that I had not ordered, I became a bit cranky and uncomfortable and stepped outside into the rain to smoke a cigarette and wait for the rest of my family.  Seated on the dry cement under the adjoining building’s awning was a clean and seemingly well-dressed young man.  He asked if he could have a cigarette, and after a comment or two about how I should give them completely up, our conversation took another course.

The young man began to tell me about his life as an immigrant and the misfortunes that had drawn him to that particular sidewalk.  He was hungry and looking for someone to feed him.  Although I believe he greatly embellished parts of his story, I felt compassion and the need to meet his physical hunger.  But before I did, in my clumsy, baby Christian way, I fed him first with Christ’s desire for him to give up his old life and follow Him. 

As my family flowed out of the restaurant with bewildered looks while I led the young man back in through the crowded door, I felt an overpowering sense of humbleness.  The reward was not my ability to hand the restaurant host a ten dollar bill, asking him to feed the young man.  Not even in the wonder I felt as he was seated ahead of those who were waiting for a table.  Nor the many thanks the young man uttered before I left.  The reward was in the response I received from my Savior for looking beyond the young man’s obvious outward need of a meal, and  looking inwardly into his heart, instead.  The boy was fed that day to fill his stomach, but the first Bread he received was the one that could give him true life.  In a sense, Jesus Christ was the Appetizer before the meal that would sustain him another day.  I recall this event often, hoping the young man left the restaurant hungrier than he was before he entered it.

When we are called by the Holy Spirit to witness to others, may we look beyond the obvious and search for the real meaning as to why He has placed them before us.  The problems on the surface are only the result of a deeper and more urgent need.  Let us first address it by pointing them to Jesus Christ.  Once they are fed His Bread and led to drink from His bottomless well, the rest will come easily and they will never hunger or thirst again.

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