A lot of words are thrown around these days describing various kinds of compassion, acts of mercy, justice, and peace. Our society has redefined some of these biblical terms but muddled the meaning in the process. Lumping words together or using them interchangeably can cause quite confusing definitions.
The Bible never mentions the word “humanitarian aid” but it does speak of compassion. Humanitarian work is the practice of improving human life. So, let’s use the word compassion instead, which depicts more a stance of love and care, rather than supplying the outward physical needs one may have.
Using the words found in scripture helps us avoid any confusing definitions attached to modern terms or slang. Zechariah 7:9-10 says, “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.”
I believe helping others not only shines our light as Christians in a dark world, but can sometimes open doors to a gospel presentation.
Mercy ministry—much like Jesus did when showing love to the sick, weak, and oppressed—can be a powerful tool to open hearts to hear the message of Christ. I’ve seen the power of mercy ministry in:
· feeding/clothing those in need
· helping widows/orphans
· freeing slaves
· rescuing human traffic victims
· disaster relief
· medical care units
· and more
A few years ago I went on a medical mission trip to provide health/dental/vision care in Cambodia. It was clear to me how meeting the physical needs of individuals more readily prepared hearts to receive the message of the cross we presented.
But we must be careful not to take James 1:27 (like some Christians do) as a verse that explains what the gospel message is. This passage says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, ….” This verse addresses pure and undefiled practices or good works (compassion). If we keep the verse in context, it’s clear James is talking about how we should live as a believer, not how we are to share the gospel.
We deceive ourselves when we begin to apply this verse or others like it, as a formula for the Great Commission. If we dig a well in Africa, play soccer with some kids, and hug a few villagers, yet never share the actual gospel—it would be wrong to say we evangelized. That’s actually a compassion trip, and even non-Christians are nice to the weak and oppressed. These trips are wonderful acts of love Christians should participate in. But without a gospel presentation, I fear we reduce our time, money, and effort to mere secular kindness. We might feel great about ourselves; while hundreds might now have a full belly, a cleft pallet repaired or freed from a brothel, no eternal difference was made—their souls are not secured.
Compassion is merely a tool to open heart doors. I too, love a good evangelism tool. But if I rely on tools alone as the gospel, I miss the mark. A clear, simple, gospel explanation must follow our love and generosity.
THE GOOD NEWS DEFINED
The gospel or Good News is clearly summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, where Paul gives the most basic ingredients of the message—namely Jesus’s substitutionary death on the cross for us, his burial, and resurrection. It’s easy. If we share our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit and leave the results to God, there’s no limit to what he can do, with or without our good deeds.
While kindness is an effective tool, John 3:16 or Acts 10 or 13 doesn’t seem to mention anything about meeting people’s needs in order to present the Good News.
I’m concerned we’ve allowed the world to adopt and twist our terminology to water-down the definition of Christian outreach. How often have you heard secular organizations calling their medical practices in the jungle a “mission trip?”
As we get involved with outreaches, here or overseas, let the worldwide Church be diligent not to embrace a watered-down gospel, but to communicate the true message of the cross. May we remind ourselves daily, that the Good News is the person and work of Jesus Christ—especially his virgin birth, righteous life, atoning death, and resurrection—with the promise that he will save anyone who turns from sin by trusting him as Lord.
Let us continue to love sinners, using valuable tools like compassion to help the Holy Spirit prepare hearts. But may we never neglect to preach the gospel of grace to all nations, making disciples and teaching them to observe all Christ commanded.