Finding Balance In Our Ministries Of Mercy

Originally posted on 2 January, 2014

‘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)

That’s the moment I knew that this was a great book. Divided neatly into two distinct parts, this little book first focuses on the “Principles’ for mercy ministries and, secondly, 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. My only slight hesitation is his use of Luke 10 as a foundational story for his understanding of reaching the poor. I say this only because I am still unsure of my own exegesis of this text whether or not 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 through religious works by presenting the impossible story of a Samaritan ever helping a Jew. The ‘go and do likewise’ being ironic insomuch as it can’t happen. I’m not sure so I sit with the more accepted one for now. 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 the 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?’ That’s when it becomes interesting and applicable to us. For those of us already engaged in this ministry, we don’t need convincing of its biblical merit. We need help digesting and working out those principles on the coalface.

I found the opening quote (taken from that chapter) so helpful that I handed the book to my wife to encourage her as she battled with a lady at the time who was (and still is) in great financial and physical need. As we all know, sometimes we can get sucked into the trap of feeling sorry for people when, in reality, our helping is actually doing more people more harm than good in the 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.

He informs us that 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. The 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!

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Posted by Mez McConnell

Mez McConnell, is the Senior Pastor of Niddrie Community Church (Edinburgh, Scotland) and the founder and Ministry Director of 20schemes. He has been involved in full time pastoral ministry, both church planting and revitalisation since 1999.

  1. Check out Kenneth Bailey’s exegesis of Luke 10, very helpful!


    1. Yes. Standard interpretation with some Middle Eastern cultural insights thrown in.


      1. Ouch, burned…


  2. Luke 10:20 “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”.


  3. For the last 8 years I have had folks involved in my life who have “issues”,and have had a lot of stress due to this.Most of it came from struggling to say “NO”.Its so easy to get used as a convenience, because you really want to see someone saved.But,unconsciously,or not, the person you are trying to help,is perpetuating their habit of manipulation for their own benefit,even to the point of making you feel you are a bad Christian,if you don’t help them with everything they want.There is such a thing as “casting pearls before swine”,and it takes a lot of discernment to know when to say NO.


    1. When helping Hurts & Toxic Charity are two good books to read on these issues mate.


      1. hit,thank for the recommend,was typing an example during your reply.I worked for a year in Niddrie under the old City Mission.


        1. there are 2 books called when helping hurts,which author??


  4. example. A friend?who constantly says he wants to get off a substance,comes and tells me he has slipped of the waggon a couple of days ago,after being clean for a while,but has to be tested for acceptance onto a program.Him “Can you do a urine sample for me” Me,”No” Him “But if I fail this I will not get on the program,you need to help me,I thought you were a friend,surely you want me to get on to the program” Me, “No,i,m not faking a test for you” Him “Why? “….so on,and so forth. Moral blackmail,yep, I held out,but was made to feel guilty, if he failed it was my fault.Sometimes it gets to the point when I ask God just to convert them,or take them out of my life.Thankfully this guy not in the country anymore,but as soon as he’s back, the stress is there again,what will I be asked to do next to help?? Don’t be pressurised,and don’t let your home be used for illegal practices,just in the hope you might see someone saved.Gods glory is more important than mans salvation.


  5. Luke 9:17 “And they all ate and were satisfied.”,could be linked in with this question.What ultimately satisfies?,Does it necessarily mean that we have to meet the needy always at their own perceived level of need?If we meet all those needs,does it take away the more immediate problems, and clear the way for us to point out their need of Christ?Do we help only if they show an interest in Christ?Do we stop helping when they show no interest in Christ?
    One point that struck me years ago was the legitimacy of presenting Christ as a need filler,at all?How much truth is there in offering Christ as a panacea for peace,fullfillment,contentment?When often becoming a Christian can bring up other problems that were not a problem before.’Become a Christian,and God will make your life run smoothly’?? I came to the conclusion that God purpose in salvation,was not primarily centred on mans need,but on Gods nature.God created man in His image,to reflect His glory,mans purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.In order to fulfil mans purpose,man has to glorify God,and the way to restore man to his ‘prime directive’ is salvation.Thus Christ is not primarily sent to meet the need of man,but to restore the glory to God that He deserves.In evangelism this make the priority, Gods glory,and our methods of evangelism shift then from being all about the plight of man,to being about bringing ‘sons’ to glorify God.So I guess im saying to myself,when evangelism becomes so concerned about the salvation of man,that it crosses the line of what brings glory to God,then we need to ask,does the way I am trying to reach a person involve me in things which are at odds with Gods glory?


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