Nobody is innocent
One of the first mistakes that people often make working in a more deprived kind of area is that they assume that everyone is ‘innocent’. What do I mean by this? There is often a romanticising of working in poorer communities where one imagines that if we just show these ‘poor’ people God’s love and serve them and be nice to them then they will change their ways and turn to Christ. There is a presupposition that those we serve want to change the errors of their ways in light of what we are offering.
The problem with this attitude is that it’s not biblical. People in general, no matter where they come from, by their very nature do not want to change. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that people actively suppress the truth so that they can ignore God and get on with their lives without Him. People like, no they love, their sin! Nobody is therefore innocent.
There are two deeper presuppositions possibly behind this poor people are ‘innocent’ view. Firstly people often blame people’s ‘social ills’ on their environment. Oh it’s just because they live in such an awful area that they are pressurised and drawn into that kind of lifestyle. Secondly people are dummed down. There is a condescending view that ‘poorer’ people just don’t know what they are doing or getting themselves into.
This is not the case at all. In the first instance the choices that people make can’t simply be blamed on the environment. The AA movement, for example, teach that people’s addictions are a disease. It’s something that they have caught off someone else and it’s not their fault. This is simply not true. It’s not like some of these guys were just walking around, minding their own business and then they innocently fell into a hole. They actively chose their sinful lifestyle very deliberately. I’m not saying that the environment that surrounds someone doesn’t always help the situation but that it cannot be solely blamed for someone’s choices. Secondly, people in more deprived areas are not stupid by any means. There are many very bright people in Niddrie. Yes making silly decisions sometimes but, nevertheless, very intelligent. Many people struggling with addictions can use their brains in all sorts of savvy ways to get the drugs they need. They will manipulate, lie, steal and entangle themselves in a web of deceit to get their kicks. They will play the government, their friends and their families to get exactly what they need when they need it. This can be very planned and tactical. People know exactly what they are doing when they take action. This means that Christians who are called to these areas need to be wary of a couple of things.
Firstly, be wary that when you draw alongside someone, that they may have an ulterior motive. You may think that you are helping someone by giving a person care and love but they may simply want to rip you off. The problem often is that lonely and broken people often use manipulation as a form of attention. I was talking to a guy who has been around the church for a number of years last week and he asked me to do a Bible study with him. He had previously done studies with two of the other pastoral team in the last couple of years but he wanted to turn over a ‘new leaf’. He said I’m looking for a ‘friend’ like you, someone I can talk to and study the Bible with. On the surface there seems nothing wrong with the request but the fact of the matter is that we have known him for a while and has been pulled up on various sins in his life which he refuses to turn away from. He only seems to come to us when he is lonely and sad and he can be a very manipulative person. And so I said to him that he should go and talk to one of the other pastoral team he had previously met with and see if they will resurrect their studies together. Needless to say he didn’t ask me again and we haven’t seen much of him since. We need to be on our guard against manipulation and ulterior motives.
Secondly, people will lie straight to your face. Often people will just give us the right answers to satisfy our questions. Are you trusting in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin? Oh, yes, yes I believe in Jesus. Are you turning away from your old lifestyle? Oh yes I’m not on drugs anymore and I’m doing really well. These are the types of answers you will get from people when you are getting alongside them. From the surface level again they can say the right things but often enough there is all sorts of deceit going on behind the scenes. I got alongside a guy who struggled with alcohol last year and spent a bit of time with him reading the bible and praying with him. He was a chronic alcoholic but was also a heroin addict – a very bad combination. He used to make himself feel better by telling me that he struggled with alcohol (but of course he had it in check) but not drugs. He said no, no Andy I have no problem with heroin at all. I would never take that stuff. He was lying his tits off as I regularly saw him liaising with the local heroin dealer. This was just a small lie on top of a host of others that he would tell me. When someone has been tangled in a web of deceit for much of their life they don’t suddenly change their attitude when they meet a Christian. In fact because Christians are so nice they can just take the mick even more.
I have had to learn not to be cynical but not to take everything that is said to me at face value and you will have to learn that too if you are working in this type of area. This takes me on to my last point.
Thirdly, only the gospel changes hearts. We must remember in all this not to simply challenge the behaviour or lifestyle of a person but challenge the heart with the gospel. People can lie straight to your face or try to manipulate you but when the gospel begins to work in a person’s life it begins to transform them inside-out. This is difficult to hang on to because we often wants to judge how a person is doing by works – by the fact that someone is taking less drugs or someone is telling fewer lies. But it is only deep down conviction brought about by the Spirit that brings true repentance and change. But be wary, gospel change happens over time, that’s why they call it progressive sanctification and that although a lot can change overnight, a lifestyle of deceit, manipulation and addictions can take a while to change and needs to be continually challenged and hidden sins brought out into the open.