Today I read a deeply tragic news story that has given me a great deal of perspective on my approach to ministry. The story was about a teenage girl who hung herself after receiving a mean message from a boy on MySpace. Apparently the girl had engaged in relatively innocent conversations with the boy for some time, but another girl hacked into his account and began to send hostile messages to her, telling her she was mean and that the world would be better off without her. Ordinarily, this would seem like standard girl-on-girl cattiness that would fizzle out after some short-lived drama, but it instead ended in the premature loss of a life.
For me, this story serves as a crucial reminder. Why? Because this teenager was just a regular girl. There was nothing about her that made her life particularly tragic or unfair. She was not a minority, she had not lived on the street, and she had not been oppressed or marginalized. She was just a normal, every day, American girl. And oftentimes, this is a category of person that I am sometimes tempted to ignore when I imagine what true Christian ministry should look like.
When it comes to being salt and light in a dark world, we should be utterly undiscriminating. For some of us, that means going out of our comfort zones and ministering to those individuals who have fallen through the cracks of our society–the poor, the needy, the hungry, etc. However, there is also a great temptation for some Christians to focus only on helping the poor. Unlike those Christians who ignore the poor due to laziness or complacency, this latter tendency sometimes stems from a “poverty theology” in which working with the poor is ranked as a superior Christian endeavor. Working with the rich and the privileged therefore becomes an overlooked need. In fact, the rich and powerful are the people we frequently judge and condemn, not reach out to. And in doing so, we convey the message that God only really cares about the poor. God is somehow partial to them.
Not only does such a perspective tell a lie about God’s love for the world as a whole, but it views Jesus’ ministry, and the world, through a largely temporal lens. It is to judge someone’s poverty based on superficial circumstances alone. But the truth of the matter, as the above story reminds us, is that many individuals whom the world would deem to be privileged, are living in emotional and spiritual poverty. Like the young woman who took her own life, we have classmates, roommates, neighbors and co-workers who may appear to have it all from a worldly perspective, but are dying inside. We could offer them hope and joy but we rarely do, assuming they don’t need it because they are already wealthy, powerful, or at the very least, financially comfortable and seemingly happy.
For that reason, this story reminds us that if we are fully engaged in helping the poor and defending the oppressed, but completely ignoring the spiritual destitution in the lives of those around us, then we are no closer to the heart of God than devout Christians who ignore the homeless and needy individuals in their community. Yes, we must feed and clothe those who need it, but it is no less important to provide people with spiritual nourishment as well. In fact, it is more important.
So while social justice is indeed a priority, don’t forget about those closest to you who may not seem to have as a great a need, but may very well be falling apart inside. To engage in this type of outreach means we must learn to see the world with spiritual eyes, eyes that not only seek to heal physical poverty, but spiritual poverty as well. We live in a fallen world, which means that pain and suffering is inevitable no matter who you are, so the real question is whether we will reach out to our dying brothers and sisters, or ignore them because we feel there are more pressing needs at hand.