One of the biggest misconceptions about Christianity in this century is that it’s all about the heart. That it’s a spiritual thing, to be embraced within yourself, and that it’s about hoping for heaven, the place that you go when you die.
There is a level of truth in some of those statements. The state of your heart is important, and there is a personal side to your spiritual life, and there is the hope of heaven after death. But those elements cannot be allowed to consume our Christianity and take it away from its radical, practical routes. If those misconceptions dominate our understanding of what Christianity is, then we will become self-absorbed and unable to see the real issues in the world around us that we have the power to do something about.
I am confident in saying this for a number of reasons. One is that throughout both Testaments of the Bible, there is something that particularly concerns God. Here is one version of it from Isaiah’s prophecies:
“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s case.” (Isaiah 1:17)*
If that hasn’t convinced you that Christianity is concerned with the welfare of people here and now, then open your Bible and read one of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Inside any one of them you will find Jesus healing the sick, driving out demons, and speaking into the everyday lives of normal people. In fact, Jesus was so concerned with our physical needs that one line of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘give us today our daily bread’. Yes there’s a spiritual element to that, but on the most basic level it’s asking God to provide our food.
So when I say that Christianity is physical, what I mean is that it is not a spiritual reality for us each to consider in our own hearts and minds, but that it is a faith deeply concerned with physical conditions in the world around us, as James writes in chapter 1, verse 27 of his letter, which I mentioned in the last post.
What this all comes down to is that God created us as physical beings. If the end goal of God was for us all to enjoy a spiritual existence in a spiritual heaven, why would he have created us as physical beings, with bodies made from the dust of the earth itself? How much more material can you get than dust? If we believe that the Garden of Eden represents God’s ideal for us – Eden means paradise – then how can we hope for an ideal that is so fundamentally different from it?
Moreover, hoping for a purely spiritual afterlife as the goal of our faith is unbiblical. There is not a lot of information about this, but Paul writes in Philippians that Christ will ‘transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body’ (3:21). Where do we see Jesus’ glorious body? After his resurrection in the gospels, when he walked among his disciples once more, clearly interacting with the physical world.
This is not to say that our future hope is physical in the sense that we know it now. We live in a fallen world, with bodies that are slaves to sin. Paul makes very clear elsewhere in his writings that our current, earthly bodies are not the end goal any more than a disembodied existence is (2 Corinthians 5). What we are looking forward to is the new creation, talked about in Old Testament prophecies and, more clearly, in Revelation 21, as John sees ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (v 1). This is when God’s kingdom will come in its fullness, and creation will be perfect once more.
So we can see that our hope for the future is physical as well as spiritual, and that Jesus’ resurrection is the promise and the proof of this, but how does tie in with helping people? Well, apart from the fact that God cares about people’s lives, and that should be enough to make us care, a theological aspect to this is that although the kingdom of God has not come in its fullness, it began to approach when Jesus first came to earth. We live in a period of the ‘now and not yet’, where the kingdom began to approach with Jesus the first time, and will arrive fully with Jesus the second time.
The beauty of this is that we, the church, are the embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth, and as such, it is our responsibility to point people towards the kingdom by showing them what it will be like. This takes the form of physical healing, revealing a world without sickness and death, as well as charity, revealing a world where nobody is in need. We do this out of love, because we have been shown mercy and given this hope, we want others to see this too. I believe that this is the heart of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) – we will go and make disciples, and we will do this by showing them, with great love, the real, physical power of God, and his heart for their present lives.
How does this link to the other aspects?
Purity – As concern for people’s physical condition is such a part of God’s laws in the Old Testament, and clearly something close to God’s heart, authentic Christianity necessarily contains, as part of its moral underpinning, a concern for people’s physical condition.
Emotion – Meeting physical needs should not be something done out of simple duty. Many times in the gospels it is said that Jesus had compassion on those that he healed and interacted with, and he wept at the death of Lazarus, his friend. There is no shame in reacting emotionally to the injustice around us, whether human or natural, as this is what we see God doing in the Bible over and over again.
Purposeful – It is important to swing too far the other way from the misconceptions that I’ve been describing – to think that spiritual wellbeing doesn’t matter. Ultimately, the best thing that we can do for someone is to show them the truth about God. Relationship with him is our primary goal. As such, Christian concern for physical needs that is truly loving others contains a heart to show them the truth about God and his love for us. It just so happens that one of the best ways to show people that God loves them is to love them ourselves!
Intelligent – The point of my Christianity Is…Intelligent post is to look at how understanding the Bible, the written Word of God, underpins all of what I’m talking about, along with Jesus, the living Word of God. In this case, the Bible shows us God’s heart for people’s physical needs, and provides examples and motivation, particularly in the accounts of Jesus and the apostles (the gospels and Acts), that can spur us on to do ‘greater things’ than even Jesus did (John 14:12).
Sorry that this post was longer than normal; if you made it this far, thank you for being interested! It turns out that there was a lot to say on this topic. With all the stuff going on in the news about the refugee crisis across Europe, as well as all the suffering in the world that we don’t see, I think that now it is as important as it ever has been for Christians to remember that God calls us to care for people’s needs here and now, and for us to be the light of the world, leading the way in love and compassion.
*If you’re interested here’s an entire page of Bible passages relating to that topic: http://www.openbible.info/topics/widows_and_orphans