Charity in Light of Eternity: What Sets Christian Service Apart

In the hinterland of Senegal, in the middle of a remote field on the outskirts of a village, stands a white metal sign. Emblazoned in blue is the name of a humanitarian organization and the date of its mission: August 2015. According to the sign, the organization’s mission is “to provide water for the waterless.” Behind the sign stands a small, concrete water tower, about ten feet in height, positioned next to an open well. Surprisingly, however, when I came across this well in January 2016, there were no footpaths to the site, no signs of recent use. Upon inspection, the well was dry.

To the one who thirsts, there is nothing quite so disheartening as an empty well. Parched tongues long for water, and God prepares his people to be cupbearers for the thirsty. He intends for us to dig new wells, to feed hungry mouths, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:35–36). Yet as Christians move toward need, we do so not as the world does. For we know that even if we could provide access to water throughout the whole world, only Christ can fill the soul’s deepest well. Christian charity is unlike the world’s because, in every act of serving, we aim to meet a deeper need and slake a deeper thirst.

Churches for the Poor

From their earliest days, Christian churches have served the needs of surrounding communities, especially the poorest among them. Members of the early church were quick to sell their belongings in order to care for those among them who had need (Acts 4:34–35). And this generosity overflowed beyond the church. The Roman Emperor Julian (who reigned from 361–363), known in history as “the apostate” for his total rejection of Christianity, famously wrote in a letter to a pagan priest, “The impious Galileans [read Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well” (Mission in the Early Church, 128).

One such “impious Galilean” was the fourth-century bishop Basil of Caesarea, who served during a time when a famine in the region brought economic devastation. “I shall be like Joseph,” he declared, “in proclaiming the love of my fellow man” (137). Basil opened the storehouses of the church, advocated for the relief of the hungry, and even oversaw the construction of a complex outside Caesarea called the basileas, which included housing, a hospital, and opportunities for work and the development of job skills. In a funeral oration for the beloved Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus said of him, “According to the Scripture [he] dealt food to the hungry and satisfied the poor with bread” (Oration 43.35).

The annals of Christian history are replete with examples such as Basil, followers of Christ who have understood that pure and undefiled religion includes visiting orphans and widows in their affliction (James 1:27). True faith, James explains, expresses itself with material care, giving those in distress “the things needed for the body” (James 2:16). The poor are everywhere and always with us, and one of the church’s tasks, and privileges, in the world is to care for their needs.

True religion basks in the abundance of God’s generosity and joyfully gives to others as an expression of the overflow of love received. Christians know that the fullest expression of God’s generosity is the gift of Christ, who left wealth and took up poverty so that he might make us rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). As recipients of God’s generosity, we are free to lavish on others what we have received, since we know that our heavenly Father will richly provide for us.

On its own, however, even the greatest humanitarian aid offers just a few drops of water to parched tongues. All who drink from these wells will thirst again, for suffering people’s greatest need is not the alleviation of their temporal suffering.

One Well Never Runs Dry

Adam and Eve’s cataclysmic fall from grace fractured every relationship for which they were designed. It fractured human relationships, generating strife between husband and wife (Genesis 3:16), brothers (Genesis 4:8), and mankind in general (Genesis 4:23–24). It also fractured their relationship with the rest of creation (Genesis 3:17–19). Their lives in the world would now be marked by untold suffering.

“In every act of serving, we aim to meet a deeper need and slake a deeper thirst.”

But the worst result of sin goes deeper. Their decision also fractured their relationship with God, leading them to hide from God’s presence rather than delight in it (Genesis 3:8). Restored relationship with God is every person’s greatest need. Service that stops with restoring human relationships or relieving physical or emotional suffering provides only momentary relief by comparison. Without calling people to repent of their sin and turn to the God who offers eternal life, all the humanitarian assistance in the world is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with a thimbleful of water. As Jeremy Treat writes,

While Christ makes us whole again, the greatest accomplishment of the cross is that we are made at-one with God. And this is the key. If all the ills of the world were healed, all the injustices made right, and all the sadness undone, but we still were not right with God, then it would only be a momentary relief in our suffering and in our eternal longing for God. (The Atonement, 158)

Christians’ work in the world doesn’t stop with serving at a local soup kitchen or helping a next-door neighbor with a meal in a time of distress. We move relentlessly toward suffering and need with the knowledge that everyone we meet has a deep thirst in the soul. Our primary aim as Christians is to point people to living water, a well that never runs dry (John 4:13–14).

How to Love Your Neighbor

Jesus said that the two greatest commandments, on which depend all the Law and Prophets, are “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39).

Reflecting on the two great commandments, Augustine writes, “Our good, the final good . . . is nothing other than to cling to [God]. . . . We are enjoined to love this good with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength.” That is, God himself is the final good, “the source of our happiness” and “the end of all desire.” Turning then to consider what it means to love oneself, Augustine says, “He who loves himself wants nothing other than to be happy.” And true happiness is found only in clinging to God. What then does it mean to love one’s neighbor as oneself?

When a person who now knows what it means to love himself is commanded to love his neighbor as himself, what else is he commanded to do but, so far as possible, to urge his neighbor to love God? (City of God 10.3)

To put it simply, if we want to do people the most good, we will point them to God.

To really love our neighbors, to serve others in this world as Christians, our ministry cannot simply supply people with the sorts of wells that will soon run dry. Reflecting further on Basil’s ministry to the poor, Gregory says that he also provided “the nourishment of the Word . . . wherewith souls are fed and given to drink . . . a food which does not pass away or fail, but abides forever” (Oration 43.36). Basil saw what Augustine discovered: the truest fulfillment of every need, longing, and desire can only be found in the one who is the source of all happiness and the end of all desire.

After rising from the dead, Christ sent his disciples as his witnesses into the world (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8). He made them ministers not of mere alleviation but of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18–19). Their message concerned the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of relationship with God in Christ. This hope is ultimately what we have to offer. And we offer it as we express with deeds of kindness and service the generous grace of God. While we work hard to alleviate the ills in the world due to the curse, we ultimately point people to the curse lifter.

Come and Drink

Opportunities to offer water to the thirsty surround us every day. We find them in our family members, our neighbors, our friends, and our coworkers. We see them on the street and in the news. People suffer from broken and damaged relationships, unexpected losses and failures, deprivations of basic human needs, and much more. As individuals and as churches, we rightly steward what God has given to meet those needs.

True religion still expresses itself in selfless, humble giving and serving. But our service is always designed to point people to the one who offers them eternal life. As we minister to the poor, we tell them about the one who became poor for our sake (2 Corinthians 8:9); as we offer food to the hungry, we speak of the bread of life (John 6:35); as we visit the sick and dying, we point to him who took our illnesses and bore our diseases (Matthew 8:17); and as we give cups of water to parched tongues, we tell them of him who said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37).

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