When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (A book review)

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What if most people get poverty all wrong? What if the way we try to alleviate poverty makes things worse for everyone?

Several years ago, when my sister came to visit on a college break, she talked about community development and poverty in a way that mesmerised me. She described poverty as being about broken relationships and poverty alleviation as being about restoring those relationships. She talked about the need to differentiate between relief, rehabilitation, and development and the disastrous results when we don’t.

All these thoughts came from her studies in Community Development at Covenant College. Her (now former) professors are some of the world’s leading experts on poverty alleviation. So I decided to read the book her professors wrote: When Helping Hurts by Mr. Steve Corbett and Dr. Brian Fikkert. I was blown away by their insights, and it revolutionized the way I viewed poverty. To this day, I regularly think about principles in their book, which have effected the way I approach people, theology, social ills, and politics. Recently, I decided it was time to re-read it, except this time I took notes. (Which makes it much easier for me to write this book review. 😉)

Before we begin, I will note that this book is written primarily to North American Christians, though certainly anyone could benefit. It also acknowledges the fact that most North American Christians are some of the wealthiest people in the world, even if not all are wealthy by American standards. However, I’m aware that some of my readers may themselves have experienced or be experiencing poverty. For those in that category, I hope this book review can be an encouragement.

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The Book’s Purpose

Authors Corbett and Fikkert begin with the assertion that the North American Church is composed of some of the wealthiest people ever to live. Conversely, 40% of the world population struggles even to eat everyday. This book was written because North American Christians, as a whole, are failing to adequately care about an address poverty in North America and in the rest of the world. It was also written because when North American Christians DO attempt poverty alleviation, it often makes worse the very problems they are trying to solve by applying simplistic solutions TO the poor instead of working WITH the poor, thereby perpetuating shame amongst the poor and god-complexes amongst those trying to help the poor.

The call, then, is to care about and do more for poverty alleviation AND to do it in a way that gets to the root of issues, while neither hurting the poor nor ourselves in the process. As the Apostle John writes in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” It is imperative for Christians to care about poverty.

Why Should Christians Care About Poverty?

Christians are called to care for God’s creation and to participate in spreading God’s kingdom IN A HOLISTIC MANNER. In other words, though personal piety and the preaching of the gospel are VITAL, they are not the sum total of what Christians are Christians are to be about. In the words of Tim Keller, “The kingdom [of Jesus] is the renewal of the whole world through the entrance of supernatural forces. As things are brought back under Christ’s rule and authority, they are restored to health, beauty, and freedom.” Jesus died to reconcile us to God, BUT ALSO to reconcile us to one another and to creation.

Before the 20th century, Christian’s led the way in ministering to the poor in both physical and spiritual ways. This changed in the 1930s when evangelicals battled theological liberals over core doctrinal beliefs. At this time, because of its supposed connection to theological liberalism, evangelicals largely abandoned the poor. The shift was so dramatic, it has been called “The Great Reversal.” (It should be noted that this happened decades before Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which evangelicals sometimes blame for the church’s retreat from poverty alleviation efforts.) In other words, throughout much of the history of the North American Church, theologically-conservative Christians were deeply and practically concerned about the poor.

What is Poverty?

How you answer this question will have profound effects on how you IDENTIFY poor people, what you BELIEVE about them, and HOW YOU SEEK ADDRESS THEIR SITUATION. If you believe poverty comes from lack of knowledge, you will want to EDUCATE the poor. If you believe poverty is a result of oppression, you will seek JUSTICE through social and legal means. If poverty comes from sinful and unwise choices, you will share the GOSPEL and truths about Christian living. If you believe poverty is due to lack of financial resources, you will donate MONEY. (Does this remind anyone else of the divergent ways Republicans and Democrats speak about and seek to address poverty?)

Brian Myers, a Christian development leader defines poverty in the following way: “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” Corbett and Fikkert echo the sentiment by describing poverty as being about broken relationships with God, with self, with others, and/or with creation. When these relationships are intact and functioning in a healthy way, people are able to fulfill their purpose AND provide for themselves.

An important aspect of these definitions is the realization that ALL of us are poor in some way. All of us need to have relationships restored to healthy functioning. “One of the major premises of this book is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” (Page 61) This cuts to the heart of the god-complexes that many American Christians possess. ALL of us are broken, and ALL of us need restoration and healing, not just the obviously poor.

It is important, however, to specifically differentiate between the broad concept of poverty and material poverty in particular, which is a lack of material resources. Usually when people talk about poverty, this is the kind of poverty to which they are referring. Though the Bible uses “poor” in multiple senses (e.g. “poor in spirit”), the Bible’s called to help the poor is talking specifically about the materially poor.

Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development

One of the most important components of poverty alleviation is rightly differentiating between relief, rehabilitation, and development. The authors assert that one of the biggest problems when North American Christian try to alleviate poverty is the application of relief principles to rehabilitation or development situations. This might look like building a person a house while they sit, able-bodied, watching. So what’s the difference?

RELIEF addresses immediate needs when a person or group of people are incapable of meeting their own needs. This might occur immediately after a natural disaster or in the cases of mentally disabled homeless people, the very old, the very sick, and the very young. In cases such as these, relief is given to the poor with little participation from the poor themselves. Situations requiring relief are not the norm, but they do exist and should be dealt with quickly. Relief should be immediate, practical, rare, and temporary.

REHABILITATION begins “after the bleeding has stopped” and its goal is to restore the person or community to their pre-crisis level of functioning. In this stage, poverty alleviation happens in conjunction WITH the poor.

DEVELOPMENT then seeks to restore both the helpers and the helped to full levels of flourishing in their relationships with God, self, others, and creation. This also happens in partnership WITH poor.

One of the most important components of rehabilitation and development is “asset assessment.” This means that instead of starting with what the poor lack, the goal is to participate in analyzing the resources the poor ALREADY HAVE. This is called “asset-based community development” which is in opposition to “needs-based community development.” The goal is to evaluate the resources, skills, abilities, ideas, and solutions of the affected population, using these as the basis for facilitating poverty alleviation. How are their communities already organized? What programs or organizations are already in place to address these needs? What skills and resources do the poor already have? This process should be done in concert WITH those needing help, which in itself starts to restore a proper relationship with self as it encourages a sense of competence, self-esteem, and empowerment.

Other principles of good relief, rehabilitation, and development include the following. When possible, allow LOCAL organizations to help the affected community, perhaps partnering with them to assist their efforts. Start by taking care of the MOST VULNERABLE PEOPLE and the MOST IMMEDIATE NEEDS, and do it in a fair and just way. Those assisting in poverty alleviation should be adequately trained both in their worldview (no paternalism; believing in the dignity of the poor; believing that God is already at work amongst the poor) and in the skills needed to do the work required. And finally, generally speaking, what people CAN do for themselves, they SHOULD do for themselves; feeling this sense of power and responsibility is actually PART OF THE PROCESS of restoring the broken relationships cause poverty.

Applications

After examining basic principles, Corbett and Fikkert turn to specific applications of these principles: short-term missions, U.S. material poverty, and global material poverty. I find it fascinating to see their philosophy applied in practical ways.

Short-term Missions

Having grown up in Southeast Asia, I myself have seen some bizarre things associated with short-term missions. From the arrogance of missionaries to the irresponsible use of funds. From culturally-insensitive behavior to paternalistic views of the local people.

But how can short-term missions be done well? Corbett and Fikkert suggest several practical ideas. First, make sure the host organization and local community are the ones initiating the request for help and are doing so in a way that is in line with good development principles. Along with this, those who will be going on the trip should have a clear understanding of what they will do and not do. Second, when recruiting team members, choose people who understand the purpose is less about saving the world and more about partnership and learning. It’s good if those interested in participating have already shown a heart for outreach and ministry in their local settings. Third, have adequate pre-field training that teaches some of the basic principles in this book including emphasizing that we are all poor. These conversations should continue WHILE ON THE MISSION TRIP and for A YEAR following the trip. Fourth, each member of the team should be required to pay part of their own expenses, perhaps raising an equal amount of money to donate to long-term missions or local development organizations. (Local organizations and long-term missionaries are generally much better equipped to make a lasting impact.)

US Material Poverty

What about in the United States? In the political arena, people often reference poverty, perhaps critiquing the way “the other side” deals with it. So what do Corbett and Fikkert have to say? In their view, the goal of material poverty alleviation is: “working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.” Obstacles to this include BROKEN SYSTEMS and BROKEN INDIVIDUALS. Broken systems may include racism, classism, and difficulty accessing safe and affordable housing, adequate education, and basic health care. Broken individuals may lack a healthy view of themselves or knowledge of how to better their situation. The exact contributing factors will vary by situation.

To address material poverty in the United States, it’s important to implement a relational, participatory, and developmental approach. In other words, relief is not (usually) what is needed; rehabilitation or development is. This means that the materially poor should participate in their journey towards restored relationships and providing for themselves.

There will generally be several components to poverty alleviation. Often, the materially poor can benefit from the development of soft skills (such as a good work ethic, social skills, dependability, communication), hard skills (related to a specific vocation), financial education, and worldview training. It may also be appropriate to connect them with government programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which enables low-income workers to get tax credits for every hour they work; this, combined with a minimum wage salary may enable a family to live above the poverty line. Non-government organizations may be helpful in making available Individual Development Account Programs, which reward monthly savings via matching. One such program does a two-to-one match for every dollar saved.

Global Material Poverty

Global poverty is a huge issue. 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day. Economists believe that the long-term solution is to increase the number of large manufacturing firms. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough being started, which means there are not enough jobs. As a result, many people turn to farming or small businesses to support themselves. This is challenging for those in poverty because they lack capital and/or access to loans. The exception may be loan sharks, who routinely take advantage of poor people.

Enter the micro-financing revolution! Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate and economics professor, started a bank in Bangladesh to facilitate loans for poor people. Since it began in 1976, 7.58 million poor people have taken out loans from it for a total of $7.4 billion.

Through micro-financing, poor people are voluntarily put into borrowing groups and provide capital for other group members to take out small loans with a regimented repayment plan. In this system, poor people are coming together to help themselves and each other, and there is high accountability and motivation for loan repayment. While the number of large-scale manufacturing jobs are insufficient at present, micro-financing can be key to helping alleviate global poverty. However, the main disadvantage is that it focuses primarily on the material aspects of poverty.

Corbett and Fikkert work for a Christian development organization called the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. They have developed curricula to be used in conjunction WITH micro-financing that enables a more comprehensive approach to poverty alleviation. It includes business training, information on health, financial teaching, and worldview education (focusing on the four key relationships as well as the principles of dignity, stewardship, and discipline). This way, poor people are provided material resources to start small businesses WHILE gaining skills and support in other areas as well.

There are many ways that the North American Church can support micro-financing ventures globally. They can encourage and observe existing micro-financing efforts. They can subsidize training costs. They can facilitate training of those starting micro-financing ventures. They can donate to the evangelistic components of micro-financing institutions. They can financially invest in “business as missions” ventures. They can advocate for and promote organizations that use micro-financing. And they can pray for all the above.

Response

With so much information in this book, the authors then turn to what the proper response is, both for individuals and for communities.

Individual

Individuals, first of all, are called to repentance, if such repentance is necessary. Repentance for failure to care for the poor. Repentance for paternalistic attitudes and behaviors. Repentance for being disconnected from the full implications of Christ’s renewal of creation. “Without such repentance, our efforts to help the poor will continue to be characterized by providing material resources to the poor, rather than walking with them in humble and relational ways as we call on King Jesus to fix the root causes of both of our poverties.” (page 248)

Community

Corbett and Fikkert suggest a process whereby communities can mobilize together to address material property. “The goal of the process is to create a ‘community partnership,’ a group of individuals, associations (including churches), and institutions that cooperate to use the assets of the community to solve problems and to bring positive change to the community, i.e., to pursue ‘development.'”

The book recommends the following general process. First, interview all parties in the community. Second, identify community leaders, including those within the materially poor community. Third, form a team of identified leaders and conduct more interviews amongst the materially poor community. Fourth, choose a specific issue to begin addressing, one that is likely to be an easy success. Fifth, research and assess community assets, and begin the project. Sixth, evaluate the progress and celebrate successes. Finally, decide what is next; should the community partnership pick a different issue to work on or dig deeper into the current issue? Should the community partnership expand to include others or should it stay the same? In these ways, communities can pool their resources and expertise to address real problems in a way that honors the dignity, capabilities, and responsibilities of all involved.

My Reflections

When I first read this book about 4 years ago, I was fascinated! I was also grieved to realize my own wrong beliefs and attitudes about poverty. Honestly, this was one of those books that shifted my worldview–a game changer. It opened my eyes to the idea that problems in society can be because of broken individuals AND broken systems. This was a paradigm shift for me, which ended up preparing me to learn about American racism, which I wrote about here.

Growing up as a missionary kid in Southeast Asia, I could definitely relate to some of the critiques of short-term missions. I’ve seen short-term teams be culturally insensitive and prideful. I’ve been angered and grieved over all the money that goes towards short-term missions when indigenous organizations and long-term missionaries often suffer from lack of funds. Reading this book helped to explain my unease as well as help me see a positive way short-term missions can be done.

I’ve also seen tastes of global poverty, and I sometimes wonder at the immense wealth in the US (and the way it is often taken for granted). I remember when I was in graduate school studying elementary education, I visited a local public school with my classmates. We sat in a reading resource room to debrief our experience after classroom observations. Every single wall in the classroom was filled with reading material, and at one point, I started sobbing because of the immense resources that surrounded us. I wondered if the people at that school had any idea how blessed they were. Along with this, I myself have been challenged towards more thankfulness and less entitlement.

And finally, I was challenged to donate not just to missions but to community development and poverty alleviation efforts as I realized the integral role they play in the holistic spread of Christ’s kingdom.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book–particularly to North American Christians, but to others as well. It changed my worldview in good ways and has empowered me with knowledge to see people more accurately and to express practical care for others in productive, loving ways.

Resources

The authors of the book head up an organization called Chalmers Center for Economic Development. That would be a good resource for learning more about community development for my best practices in biblical perspective. (website) (Facebook).

I’m still learning about good community development organizations, but if you’re looking to check out specific organizations or donate to their work, here are a few I recommend. Food For the Hungry (website) and Care of Creation Kenya (website) are both good. Mission organizations I am particularly fond of are Wycliffe Bible Translators (website) and Mission to the World (website). (I grew up as a WBT/MTW missionary kid, and I think both of these organizations are excellent! 😉)

What have been your experiences with poverty or poverty alleviation? What organizations do you know off that are doing good work?

~Hannah 🌸

2 Timothy 4:1-5 // Our Mandate for Ministry

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[This sermon was preached on the evening of Friday, March 8th at the 2019 Spring Meeting of the Arkansas Presbytery by Candidate Logan Dixon.]

Text: 2 Timothy 4:1-5

Prayer for Illumination:

Shine within our hearts, Loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of your Gospel. Instill in us, also, reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give glory together with Your Father who is without beginning and Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen. [1]

Introduction:

That prayer for illumination that we just prayed is adapted from a 4th century liturgy of John Chrysostom.

 

From what we know about Chrysostom, he was a bold preacher of the word. He was an orator of his day, and earned the nickname “Bishop Golden-Mouth” because he was able to explain the text of Scripture so well that even the most impoverished and unlearned communicant could understand the Gospel.

 

You have to understand that in the 4th century almost everyone was illiterate, and even if the Scriptures were mass-produced at time (which they weren’t) it wouldn’t have done anyone any good. They couldn’t afford a copy of the Scriptures nor could they read them. All they knew was what was spoken in the homilies by their pastors and bishops, and what was presented in baptism and the sacraments.

 

Everytime the word was preached, every time they witnessed a baptism, and participated in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, they heard and participated in the proclamation of the Word of God.  

 

And if there’s ever a time when we need a bold and clear proclamation of the word of God, it’s now. It’s today.

 

  • When so many voices are vying for our attention, when we have so many deceiving spirits trying to lure the people of God into falsehood and deception, we need to only hear one voice and that is the voice of God, and the only way to know what God has said is to open the book that He has given us.

 

“What more can He say than to you He has said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?” – How Firm a Foundation

 

 

 

Context

I want us to think about the context for our passage this evening.

 

Paul writes two letters to Timothy over the course of Timothy’s ministry in Ephesus, and Paul’s first letter is general instructions about prayer in worship and the standards for pastors and elders in the church, and how the church should handle the financial support of widows.

 

This second letter that we’re reading from is much more personal. Paul knows his time is up and he’s probably asking himself, “If I’ve got one final word to say to a young pastor, to a son in the faith, what would I say?”

 

  • Really, it’s a profound question. If you knew your time was close, what would you say to a person or people that you knew you would influence.

 

Based on the reading of our passage, Paul’s final message to Timothy is clear: Preach the Word. This is what we’ve been called to do, this is our mandate for ministry.

 

This is what many of you have been charged with. You were ordained to word and sacrament. This is what I’m working towards right now as a candidate. I’m working towards getting ordained to word and sacrament.

 

Every time a pastor, an elder, or any person serving as pulpit supply such as myself stands behind this sacred desk our only obligation is proclaim what God has spoken in His Holy Word.

 

But before we really look at Paul’s charge to Timothy, let’s look at how he builds up to this statement. All throughout chapter 3, we get two pictures that Paul paints.

 

  • A picture of evil, and a picture of good.
  • A picture of chaos and a picture of order, specifically God’s order.

 

Look at chapter 3, where Paul describes the chaos.

 

“But know this: Hard times will come in the last days. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, demeaning, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, 4 traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people.

6 For among them are those who worm their way into households and deceive gullible women overwhelmed by sins and led astray by a variety of passions, 7 always learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” – 2 Timothy 3:1-7, CSB

 

In these 7 verses, Paul uses 19 words or phrases to describe the kinds of people that Timothy will be up against.

 

  • It’s almost as if Paul is using these words to take us on a tour through a wide gulf of immorality. 
  • Have you ever been on a guided tour through a museum? Paul is taking Timothy on a guided tour through a museum of the kinds of people that oppose the Gospel, and every exhibit he points to just gets worse and worse.  
    • Wife and I were on our honeymoon in Branson, and she wanted to go through the Talking Rocks Cavern (“big scary hole”). I had never been through a cave, and the lower we got, the deeper and darker it got, and one point the tour guide turned off what little light we had to show us how dark it was, and I couldn’t see in front of my face. I was gripping her hand the whole time, and this is what Paul is doing by describing at length those who deny, reject, or twist the message of Jesus Christ.

 

  • And probably the worst part about all of it, is this these aren’t simply secular pagans, these are people who claim to be believers. These are the kinds of people that will infiltrate the church. That’s what Paul says in 3:5, they’ll hold to a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof.

 

Over the last two weeks at Mt. Carmel we’ve been walking through 2nd John, and this last Sunday we talked about the antichrists and deceivers of the world. However, these antichrists that John talks about didn’t come from the world, they went out from the church.

 

“Children, it is the last hour. And as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. By this we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.” – 1 John 2:18-19, CSB

 

And so, Paul tells Timothy that the way he’s going to know these people is the fact that they won’t have the same fruit.

 

  • They’ll have a form of godliness like we mentioned, but they’ll deny its power by the way they live. 
  • And they won’t stop there, the text says that they will “worm their way into households and deceive gullible women overwhelmed by sins and led astray by a variety of passions. 
    • People can be led astray by their passions. We live in a time where truth is relative, I can have my truth, you can have your truth, and as long as we “tolerate” each other we can can get along hunky-dory. Anything can be true, you just have to “feel” that it’s true. Your passions just have to tell you that it’s true.

 

However, God’s word tells us a different story. God’s word tells us that we live in God’s world, and the only valid truth that we have is the truth that He establishes.

 

“Regardless of a man’s system, he has to live in God’s world.” [2]
― Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There

  • And it’s not a matter of “well, that’s true for us because we’re Christians,” No, that’s just the truth. Period.

 

Now, here’s the good news. Paul doesn’t just leave us there. It’s not as if we’re a bunch of sheep thrown to the secularist wolves.

 

If we look back at 2 Timothy 3:8, Paul tells us what will happen to these people.

 

“Just as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so these also resist the truth. They are men who are corrupt in mind and worthless in regard to the faith. 9 But they will not make further progress, for their foolishness will be clear to all, as was the foolishness of Jannes and Jambres.”
– 2 Timothy 3:8-9, CSB

 

In these two verses, Paul summarizes Exodus 7 and 8 where Moses goes before Pharaoh, and as a sign to show that God is with him he has Aaron throw down his staff, and it turns into a snake.

 

Well, Pharaoh’s heart is hard so instead of relenting, and accepting this as a sign from God, he calls for Jannes and Jambres (his personal wizards, his Hocus Pocus hitmen) to throw down their staffs and they also turn into snakes, and then according to Scripture, Aaron’s staff swallows both of their staffs, and of course it makes them look bad in front of Pharoah. (Exodus 7:12)

 

  • And Paul says that this is exactly what’s going to happen in the end. These false teachers, these immoral people can’t win, and the reason they can’t win is because they’re visitors trying to win on the home turf.  
  • Here’s what I mean by that: Jesus spoke about this kind of situation when he gave us the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30). He tells us that the master planted good seed, but an enemy came in and planted bad seed, and then when Jesus explains the parable, He tells us that the field is the world, and there’s coming a day then the master of the field will come and separate the wheat and the tares. 
    • Why? Because the tares don’t belong in the field. Antichrists, deceivers, and false teachers don’t belong in the Church. They are intruders and trespassers in God’s world,  and I would go as far as saying that allowing the foolishness of such people to be known is one of the ways in which the tares are separated from wheat.  
  • God, in due time, allows the tares to go forth teaching what Paul calls “the doctrine of devils,” and when they do that, their foolishness will soon be made known to all as we just read in 2 Timothy 3:9.

 

So, in verses 1-9, in 2 Timothy 3, Paul paints of picture of the ungodliness that will rear it’s ugly head in the church, and Paul says, “Don’t follow their example, don’t go their way,” and then in verse 10, he says, “Instead remember what you have learned.” “Take all these examples of ungodliness and replace them with examples of godliness that you have learned.” Look at 2 Timothy 3:10-17.

 

“But you have followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, and endurance, 11 along with the persecutions and sufferings that came to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured—and yet the Lord rescued me from them all. 12 In fact, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 Evil people and impostors will become worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, 15 and you know that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:10-17, CSB

 

Paul directly addresses Timothy 8 times. He makes it clear to Timothy in no uncertain terms that the ball is in his court.

 

  • Timothy has been equipped with the truth since he was a child. He not only knows what is right and what is wrong, but he knows the consequences of either choice.  

 

  • So, this is where it comes down to us. We’ve got the secularism of the world on one side, and we’ve got the Scriptures on the other side. Now, where are we going to go?

 

  • It comes down what we trust more.  
    • So, here’s my argument for why we should trust the Bible: The Bible reads the world, but the world can’t read the Bible. Here’s what I mean: everything the Bible says about what’s in the world has been true since the day it was penned, and is still true now. Yet, what the world says about the Bible is wrong and inconsistent. 
    • The world tells us that the Bible can’t be trusted, the world tells us that the Bible is a fairy tale book, the world tells that this book isn’t God’s word, that there is no God, and we just made everything up to control people with fear.  
    • Yet, the Bible tells us that the world and it’s lusts are passing away. (1 John 2:17). The Bible tells us that the world has a Creator, and evidence for our Creator is all around us, and when we refuse to worship Him, we are suppressing the truth with our unrighteousness and we are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-23)

 

Just turn on the TV, get on YouTube, or pick up the newspaper, and it won’t take you long to find someone suppressing the truth with their unrighteousness by trying to pick a fight with a God that they allegedly don’t believe in, and if all this nonsense stayed out there in world it would be one thing, but unfortunately this has somehow found its way into the pulpits of some of our churches.

 

The question for us as pastors, pulpit supply ministers, and elders is this: are we going to stand our ground as believers on the truth of what God has said or are we going to bow to the pressure of a world that has no idea what truth even is?

 

In the face of pressure and persecution, Paul’s words to Timothy are God’s words for us now: PREACH. THE. WORD.

 

  • The preached word has power, and I think we forget that. We replace biblical sermons with programs and conversations because that’s what people want now, but there’s no power in ideas and imaginations of men, but THERE IS POWER in what saith the Lord.

 

“For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, 11 so my word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” – Isaiah 55:10-11, CSB

 

During the days of the Reformation, someone asked Martin Luther to explain the amazing success of the message of justification by faith alone. It was a good question because this message spread like wildfire across Europe even though Luther himself spent time in and out of prison. How could one man have changed the course of history?

 

Luther looked at the man who asked him the question, thought for a minute and said, “While I slept or drank beer in Wittenburg … the Word did the work. I didn’t do anything. The Word did it all.” That’s beauty of the word of God, it has power precisely because it is God’s word. There’s nothing that we do to give it power.

 

  • There’s nothing that we can do to make the word of God more or less effective.  
    • Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a poet from the romantic era in the 1800s. Something many people may not know about him is that he was a Unitarian minister, and when someone asked him about the inspiration of Scripture he said, “I believe Scripture is inspired because it inspires me.”  
    • Let me say emphatically that that IS NOT how we, as Christians, are to view Scripture. The Scriptures are not inspired because they appeal to our subjective view of inspiration. They are inspired because when we read Scripture, we are reading the very words of God, and it behooves as Christians, specifically as Cumberland Presbyterians to return to a high view of Scripture.

 

Our very own Confession of Faith tells us, “God inspired persons of the covenant community to write the scriptures.  In and through the scriptures God speaks about creation, sin, judgment, salvation, the church and the growth of believers. The scriptures are the infallible rule of faith and practice, the authoritative guide for Christian living.” (1984 Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, 1.05)

 

Did you catch those three key words in there? Inspired. Infallible. Authoritative.

 

My question to us is: do we still believe that?

With all of that in mind, I want us to examine two points from the text. First, the content of Paul’s charge, and the reason for Paul’s charge.

The Content of Paul’s Charge (v. 2, 5)

“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching… But as for you, exercise self-control in everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” – 2 Timothy 4:2, 5, CSB

 

If we wanted to, we could really break this down and exposit every clause that Paul says, but the main thing that Paul charges Timothy with is to be ready armed with the Word.

 

  • If you’re gonna be ready with it, then you’ve got to stay in it. If you’re going to be armed with a gun, you better know how to use that thing. It’s no different. It’s no different. We have to live with the Bible.  
  • As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever forget what Chris Anderson said at the last Presbytery meeting, “we have to live with the Bible in one hand and the Confession of Faith in the other hand.”

 

While preaching over this same text, J. Ligon Duncan said, “There are a lot of people who think that preaching is some sort of a moral deliverance on some relevant subject, with pious advice and counsel. But Paul says that preaching is heralding the divinely authorized message of God to a sinful and needy world, and that the way to do that is to preach His word, to explain His word, to apply His word.” [3]

 

In medieval times, when a king wanted his kingdom to know something he would send out heralds, and those heralds were to go out to every part of the kingdom and say whatever the king had given them to say. They couldn’t compromise the message. They couldn’t insert their own thoughts or opinions. If they didn’t like the message, they couldn’t change it.

 

  • We are in a similar situation as those heralds were. We have the word of God, and our responsibility is to proclaim it loudly and clearly, and to watch it go forth with power and authority.

The Reason for Paul’s Charge (v. 1, 3-4)

There’s actually two reasons for Paul’s charge. Reason #1 is found in verse one.

“I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, [at] his appearing and his kingdom:”
– 1 Timothy 4:1, CSB

 

The first reason for Paul’s charge is that when Christ returns, He will return as a judge.

 

  • He will not only judge those who hear the word preached, but He will judge those of us who teach and preach the word. James 3:1 tells us that those of us who teach will receive a more strict judgement than those who do not. 
    • In 2nd Peter 2, the Apostle Peter describes in graphic detail the judgement that Jesus Christ Himself will place upon those who are false teachers. 
  • Jesus will also judge those who believe those false teachers. In Revelation 2, when Jesus has John write to the church at Thyatira, He tells them that they have tolerated the woman Jezebel to teach, and that He has given her time to repent, but if she doesn’t repent, He will throw her onto a sickbed ALONG WITH her children (in this case, those who believe her teaching). (Revelation 2:22)

 

Paul is reminding Timothy that God will hold him accountable if he doesn’t stick to the truth of Scripture.

 

The second reason for this charge is found in verses 3-4.

 

“For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. 4 They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.” – 2 Timothy 4:3-4, CSB

 

The second reason for the charge is because the world isn’t going to stop twisting the truth, and creating false narratives for people to believe in, and as long as that’s the case, the church should be a place where the truth is preached.

 

In a world full of shifting sand, the church should be preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only foundation that people can build their lives on.

 

My hope and my prayer for us as Christians, as Cumberland Presbyterians, is that we would never abandon or trade the truth of God’s Word. We must remain to be a people who are committed to the truth of Scripture.

 

Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word, and we are Your people. Send the Holy Spirit to embed this word deep within us so we would never lose sight of it. Let us live out the truth of Your Word so that when the cares of this world would come against us, we will not be choked out, but by Your grace we would live strong and free with the strength and freedom that comes through, Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

___________

  1. From the 4th Century liturgy of John Chrysostom, adapted by M.D. Bush
  2. Schaeffer, Francis A. The God Who Is There. InterVarsity Press, 1998.
  3. “Preach the Word.” First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, 29 May 2005, http://www.fpcjackson.org/resource-library/sermons/preach-the-word.

Lift Up and Abide

LiftUpandAbide

Growing up in the Bible Belt religiosity that I did there was always an emphasis on fruit bearing. I can remember countless youth rallies where the evangelist would ask sugar high teenagers, “What are you doing for God? Are you a missionary to your school or in the locker room? Is God calling you to the mission field somewhere? What big things are you doing for God? Is there sin in the camp? (which if you grew up in the stanch Baptist background may be a term you’ve heard more than you care to admit). But if I was honest my thought was always “No. I love God, I am resting in Christ, but I’m a sinner. I know that I continue to sin, though I don’t want to. Nor am I doing these great and mighty things for God. I’m just a seventeen-year-old football player who wants to listen to Hawk Nelson and drink Full Throttle.

One of the passages in Scripture that has always terrified my soul is the Vine and Branches section of the Upper Room discourse in John 15. I know that sounds odd, but when we get to verse two, we come to this teaching, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” We ought to feel the weight of this. The logical question that follows here is often “Am I bearing fruit?”- which is a good question. Good works are the natural fruit of our salvation and a proper evidence of it. But I struggle to accept that this passage is focused on fruit bearing. Rather, the issue rests on our union with Christ. If we look at the passage, we see that the repeated phrase is “in me”, specifically “abide”. In fact, “abide in me” is said more than fruit in this discourse. The word often translated as “takes away” has an alternative meaning, to lift up. What we are dealing with here is vines, not trees. I know that sounds like much ado about nothing, but it does matter. Branches that don’t have proper support won’t get sunlight and thus won’t continue to grow. Very often, gardeners would see these branches that had lost their support and would steak them up, much like what my grandfather does with his tomatoes. So then when we come to this word in John 15:2, we must ask if “take away” is the best translation.

Here’s why I don’t think, at least for this passage, it is.

The point here is to speak about the location of the branch in relation to the vine, because that is where the fruit bearing comes from. If we connect the dots with verse four and five, we see that apart from the vine, no branches are bearing fruit. Christ is specifically saying that only those branches who abide in Christ are those who are producing fruit. The word “abide” in verse four carries with it a command- Abide! But it is also a continuous action. It is Christ calling us to continue to abide in Him. But look at what is said about those branches in verse six.

“If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Those branches that are being cast aside aren’t those who aren’t bearing fruit, rather they are those that do not abide in Christ. The point of the passage is not so much fruit bearing, but rather the location of the branch in relation to the vine. But what does this have to do about anything? I know you’re sitting having your morning coffee or your evening beer and thinking, “What does this obscure Greek translation issue have to do with anything?”

But it has everything to do with everything!

Our continuing and growth in the Christian life is not then based on fruit bearing, though those are good evidences. But you do not stay a Christian throughfruit bearing. You bear fruit and are growing because you are united to Christ. We see through this whole section- abide, abide, abide in Me. The imperative here is not to bear fruit, but to abide in Christ. Fruit bearing, that is good works, are the natural outcome of our abiding in Christ. Yes, God is glorified in our good works (v. 8) Yes, we ought to resist sin and walk in holiness. But the main way we do that is by being united to Christ by faith. It is only when we walk away that we show that we haven’t been united to Christ, and we wither and dry. Do you want to bear fruit, and thus glorify God? Then the way to do that is to abide in Him. Rest in Him. Find your peace in Him.

But so often we find our faith weak. We find the sins that cling so closely to us to be far sweeter than the fruit of obedience. We find that we aren’t bearing fruit, though that is our desire. We are wrestling, we are struggling with sin, and yet we find ourselves deep in the dust. What can we then say? United to Christ, yet not bearing fruit, is there no hope?

Absolutely there is hope! God does not cast away those united to the Son. Rather He cares for them. He reaches down to them. He lifts them up. He takes them away from that which hinders their growth and props them up so that they will bear fruit. He does not abandon His people, but rather lovingly cares for His branches so that they may glorify Him. Yes, God desires us to walk in holiness. But He does not bring us to Himself and not give us everything that we need to do so.

So then, let us not look to God as the dresser who will cast us aside. Rather, let us abide and keep abiding. Let us seek to glorify God and pray as Augustine did: Command what you will and give what you command!