I came across this book recently and decided to give it a go. I understand Tim Keller wrote the book over 20 years ago and the one I am reading is his second edition from 1997. This book is divided into two distinct parts: the first focusing on the “Principles’ for mercy ministries and the second on the ‘Practice’ of mercy ministries.
The first part takes up about 100 pages and is pretty standard fare when setting out the biblical foundation for working with the poor. He launches himself off from the parable of The Good Samaritan from Luke 10.This does trouble me slightly because I am still unsure in my own personal exegesis of this text whether the ‘traditional’ understanding of it is the right one. Is Jesus answering the question of what a person needs to do to get eternal life or is He answering the ‘who is my neighbour?’ question. If it is the former then surely the story of the Good Samaritan was told to show the impossibility of gaining eternal life by works by presenting an impossible story of a Samaritan ever helping a Jew. The ‘go and do likewise’ being ironic insomuch as it can’t happen. A small ramble there but it is worth checking out Luke 10 again. Anyway, back to the review. His basic premise is that if we truly understand the gospel of grace then it will lead to us extending that grace to those on fringes of our society.
The strength of his arguments come in helping to reader to look for balance in their view of the poor in regard to what the Bible teaches. Too low a view leads to hard heartedness and too high a view leads to liberal wishy washiness. What is needed, Keller writes, is balance. Chapter 6 is immensely helpful to those of us working in housing schemes. Entitled, ‘Conditional & Unconditional: A Balanced Judgement’, it discusses setting boundaries in helping those in need. He raises the question: ‘At what point do we stop assisting somebody in need, particularly those who are lazy?’
‘We may cut off our aid only if it is unmerciful to continue it. It is unmerciful to bail out a person who needs to feel the consequences of his own irresponsible behaviour. Sometimes we may have to say, “Friend, we are not withdrawing our mercy, just changing its form. We will continue to pray for you and visit you, and the minute you are willing to cooperate with us and make the changes that we believe are needed, we will resume our aid. Please realise that it is only out of mercy that we are doing this!” Let mercy limit mercy.’ (p98)
I found that comment so helpful that I handed the book to my wife to encourage her as she battles with a lady at the moment who is in great financial and physical need. Sometimes we can get sucked into the trap of feeling sorry for people when our helping them is actually doing more harm than good long-term. I found his comments on helping people who are lazy particularly inspiring and encouraging. We must not withdraw our love from them but we must set firm limits and operate within them.
The Bible teaches that there are 3 main reasons behind poverty.
1. Oppression or injustice (Ps. 82: 1-8; Prov. 14:31; Ex. 22:21-27; Deut. 24:15; Eph. 6:8-9)
2. Natural disaster or calamity (Gen. 47; Lev 25:25, 39, 47)
3. Personal sin (Prov. 6:6-7; 21:17; 23:21)
Keller’s point is that we must be careful to distinguish between these three when relating to the ‘poor’ wherever we are. We don’t want to over romanticise the problem nor do we want to just blame laziness. Again, we must have an informed balance to our ministries. Many people we work with don’t just fall neatly into one category.
‘Experience reveals that the three causes of poverty often exist simultaneously in a case of need. they person may have sinned, and have been sinned against and have been the victim of natural calamity. Thus, in many, many instances of economic need (who can say what the proportions ares?) families cannot be clearly categorised as deserving or undeserving, responsible or irresponsible. in such cases, the family is both‘ (p102)
It isn’t always clear-cut (although sometimes it is) when trying to address the needs of many people. Perhaps his most helpful point is that we evangelicals must ensure that what motivates our heart to help people in need is (1) a love for God and (2) a love for them and not some sinister move to smack them with the gospel. Yes, people need Christ more than they need anything else, but they need our help too.
The second half is full of helpful tips and ideas to help individuals think about ways in which they could be more effective in reaching out to people with acts of service. It has some useful ideas about structure and strategy and, whilst largely relevant to an American context, there are some principles that ‘cross the pond’.
I would recommend it to stimulate thought, biblical understanding and methodology in how we think about and do ministry among the ‘poor’. Very ‘balanced’ as he would say!