In a slum in Bihar, India, I felt a ball of anger well up inside of me. As I stared into the faces of people living in extreme poverty, one word came to mind, "injustice." Someone, somewhere had let these people down. I was angry at the societal corruption that had caused this injustice and I was angry at the world for ignoring these people. But most of all, I was angry at myself. I realized that, in many regards, I was that "someone, somewhere."
“This part of the village needs clean water,” the woman in her early 40s remarked. The look on her face, as she expressed her people’s needs, will never leave my mind. It was anger combined with pain—she was grateful that some people in her slum now had access to water, but infuriated by the fact that everyone had abandoned her outside of a local nonprofit. (Jesus' Economy would later partner with that same nonprofit to renew communities in Bihar, India.)
This woman understood that her community needed mercy, but she also understood that she was a victim of injustice. I was angry with her.
But where did the injustice the woman felt begin? The scary answer: The injustice she felt is something we all have inflicted upon her—each of us who has ignored the tragedy of poverty in some way or another. Each of us who had chosen consumerism or our comfortable lives over addressing poverty had contributed to this injustice. We could have done something.
But what about all the Christians in the world who claim to believe in doing good for other people? One of the reasons why injustices in our world continue is because we, as western world Christians, are not dealing with our own spiritual poverty—and that’s what is holding us back from tackling physical poverty. We've instead given in to the ideals of our culture (such as consumerism), while much of the rest of the world struggles.
The biblical prophets held in tension both mercy and justice. When they looked at the world, they saw that both must be present for God’s love to be fully known. They realized that God is both full of justice and mercy.
The prophet Isaiah once said:
“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18 ESV).
God is gracious and desires to show mercy. God moves forward in the world to offer such grace. (May we wait on him!)
But God is also a God of justice. God is not just moving forward with grace but intends to course correct our world. God is against the injustices that plague our world, such as people not having clean water.
In this instance of poverty, we must recognize that:
To correct the injustices of the world, like extreme poverty, we must look to our own lives, as well as the problems within societies. At their core, personal selfishness and societal corruption are spiritual problems. It is these dual evils that keep people poor: those with much choose selfishness and those with power give into corruption. Thus, without coming to terms with God, a sustainable solution cannot be obtained. Elsewhere, the prophet Isaiah says:
“Wash! Make yourselves clean! Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes! Cease to do evil! Learn to do good! Seek justice! Rescue the oppressed! Defend the orphan! Plead for the widow!
‘Come now, and let us argue,’ says Yahweh. ‘Even though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white like snow; even though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool’” (Isaiah 1:16–18 LEB).
God is ready to argue with our selfish hearts. He is ready to show us the error of our ways. Consider what Isaiah says:
This means doing things like rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow. But the source of this good is God, who makes us clean by the salvation that Jesus freely offers.
These lines from Isaiah are like the old adage, “You can’t help someone else, if you can’t first help yourself,” but with a twist: “You can’t help someone else, if you don’t first let God help you.”
Learning to do good, to seek justice, and to offer mercy starts with us being changed by God.
We know what the prophets would do. We know how they would react and act. They would correct the injustices of the world by offering mercy—may we do the same.
Want to go deeper into this subject? Check out my new book, Jesus' Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, the Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change. With simple, everyday choices you can make the world a better place. Learn how to live Jesus' economy, the currency of love.
*This article is based on my earlier article, "A Just and Merciful God: Loving the Impoverished Like God Does."