Haley Joel Osment said it best in the do-gooder film Pay It Forward when he gave his reason for helping people so that they would help others: “Everything sucks.” If that’s not a good enough reason to join in the crusade of letting justice roll like a river, then I don’t know what is.
But in a world full of despair and in great need, it’s easy to lose yourself in the pursuit of justice. And no one ever seems to talk about that—how justice can consume you, how it keeps you up at night, and how it can even become an obsession and distraction from God.
I’m not trying to be a contrarian to the current Christian social justice fad. It’s great, really. When the Kingdom of God is expressed tangibly through simple acts of love and mercy, amazing things can happen. However, we ought to take initial caution at our noble campaigns to fight injustice and right social wrongs, because if we’re not careful, our best attempts to save the world could cost us our souls.
But this is hard. The needs are so abundant that it almost seems selfish to consider our own spiritual health when seeking justice. For instance, consider the following facts:
16,000 children die from hunger every day (Bread.org). That’s one child every five seconds, and I just threw away some leftover rice last night, because I didn’t feel like keeping it in my fridge.
The price of two cappuccinos at Starbucks can provide clean water for seven Africans for an entire year (MochaClub.org). I drink way more coffee than that per week, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t let the shower or faucet run excessively.
More than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day (ONE.org). That’s roughly the amount I spend on a candy bar that has no traditional value.
More than 27 million people are in slavery today (NotforSaleCampaign.org), which is far more than any other single moment in history. Most of the time, I would rather watch Amistad or Amazing Grace on Netflix than face this reality.
Most of us who have heard statistics similar to those above have felt incredibly guilty. I know I have. Ironically, however, those same numbers that stir our slumbering hearts out of complacency are the same ones that can trap us in the bondage of guilt-driven service.
In the missionary classic So Send I You, Oswald Chambers aptly described this dilemma: “The need is not the call; the call is the call.” But these days, the needs are so pervasive that it’s hard not to feel called to something.
A global worldview may be one of the greatest advantages the current generation of twentysomethings has over its predecessors. However, it’s been sadly squandered. It’s not uncommon to see a Mac-toting Millennial wearing a wristband of the latest justice trend without really doing anything about it. Awareness doesn’t equate to action, and it certainly doesn’t mean calling. Even those who are daring enough to respond to the need are in danger of doing so for the wrong reasons.
Take my friend Madison, for example (not her real name—but if you’re going to make up a name, you might as well make it a good one).
Like a lot of her peers, Madison read Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution and felt compelled to help the poor. She signed up to volunteer at every shelter, soup kitchen and social service she could get her hands on. It was incredible the level of commitment to which she pledged herself. Every evening and Saturday afternoon—even Sundays after church—were dedicated to helping the less fortunate. She absolutely loved the opportunity to learn from seasoned counselors and social workers, as well as the mysterious experience of finding Christ amongst the “least of these.”
For years, Madison befriended prostitutes, visited widows and delivered groceries to the handicapped. She invited the poor into her home and into her life. She read every book, watched every movie and adopted every discipline she could—all focusing on how to love mercy and act justly toward the destitute and desolate. However, she began to realize that some of the problems she was battling—prostitution, drug addiction, homelessness—were big, complicated issues that required holistic solutions. She began to realize that some of these people needed more than a warm bed or a nice conversation over coffee, and she didn’t know how to give it to them.
So she did what most of us would do—she tried harder. She redoubled her efforts and focused on fewer projects so that she could concentrate on the impact of her work. She read and studied more so she could handle any issue that came her way. But she still ended up feeling stressed and burned out. On top of that, her marriage was really starting to suffer.
She eventually stepped down from all weekly volunteer commitments and started concentrating on small things—serving at church, befriending neighbors and loving her husband. It was a huge sacrifice and paradigm shift for her. It was hard, a discipline even.
Months later, Madison and I got together for coffee. She said she was finally investing all of her extra energy into making her marriage work—reading books and asking people’s advice on how to love and respect her husband better. Now, she was spending nights and weekends with him. It was nothing monumental in terms of what they did, but it was nonetheless quality time. She had learned how much of herself she could invest into something she was passionate about and was now applying that lesson to immediate relationships she had neglected. “It’s so good,” she told me. And I believed her.
Most social justice junkies will admit that not being able to serve is uncomfortable, if not painful. “I can’t just do nothing,” you might say. Yet, that seems to be exactly what God sometimes calls us to do—to be still and know that He is still Lord, even amidst a world where everything seems to be falling apart.
When we first discover the world’s needs, we can become consumed with the task of righting social wrongs. In a way, it’s a good thing. We put our passion to work, every spare minute doing whatever we can to help “the cause.” However, exhausting oneself on behalf of the poor and downtrodden without proper times of rest can not only result in burnout, but also a lack of worship. It becomes hard to pray. We start to resent God for not doing something. We work harder to fill the gaps, neglecting our family, health and spiritual life in the process.
Being involved in every social justice program or cause you can get your hands on may sound like the right idea when God first opens your eyes to the needs of the poor, but that kind of passion and dedication is hard to sustain. Moreover, it’s potentially hazardous to your physical, emotional and spiritual health. Lastly, it’s not realistic. Trying to be effective in everything usually means not being effective in anything, especially with justice work.
What do you do? Here are some practical tips for how to pursue justice while keeping your soul:
1) Keep first things first. Stay rooted in spiritual disciplines and practices. Couple action with contemplation. Read a little Thomas Merton or Richard Rohr.
2) Stay in community: church, marriage, etc. Surround yourself with people who will encourage and challenge you wherever you need it.
3) Take a break. Spend a Sunday (or Saturday or Tuesday) in the park, spending time with God and allowing your body to rest. You know, honor the Sabbath and all that.
4) Involve others. Don’t be the social justice “Lone Ranger.” This is actually pretty common—falling in love with a cause and then estranging yourself from others who “just don’t understand.” A love for the poor (especially in an affluent area) may mean alienating yourselves from your peers—either through your volition or theirs. Some of that may be inevitable, but community is vital to this kind of work. Try to invite someone into what you’re doing without making them feel judged. It’ll make a big difference—for you and for them.