When John wrote about the demonstrated love of God through Jesus Christ, he urged the believers to imitate Jesus by laying down their lives for others (1 John 3:16). To describe what this action looks like in daily living, he explains:
“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
“It’s this simple,” John says. “If you want to test your understanding of the love of God, then ask yourself – when you have and you see someone who has not, do you respond with generosity and compassion? This demonstrates love in deed, not just words.”
I hope that John’s readers struggled with this rubber-meets-the-road exhortation to love others, but I wonder if they lived in a simpler world. When they returned from the marketplace with two loaves of bread, and they walked past the neighborhood beggar, the verse challenged them, “Does the verse mean that I need to give up one of my loaves?” But their smaller world did not require them to encounter beggars 1000 miles away, or a daily wave of Syrian refugees, or the suffering following earthquakes in Myanmar, Japan or Ecuador.
I struggle in larger ways to apply this verse. On the one hand, I seldom encounter beggars – because I live in a country where we hide our poor better than they did in Jesus’ day. The economically poor don’t live near me, so I can effectively avoid them and pretend that everyone lives as comfortably as I do.
Unlike John’s readers, I seldom encounter the needy at my doorstep or in my marketplace. I see them through the media. CNN brings the flood victims of Bangladesh into my living room. TIME magazine ushers famine victims in southern Africa into my kitchen. I can sit munching on the excesses of junk food while their emaciated bodies roam before me in a “Special Report” from a refugee camp.
I obviously have material possessions. They obviously have material needs. Even as a pastor, I’m still wealthier than 90% of the world. What does I John 3:17 mean for me? Does CNN make me now responsible for the whole world?
These tough questions burden the compassionate but already-overloaded caring type. Guilt offers no cure; it only paralyzes us or stirs us to impulsive action. Hardening our hearts couldn’t be the solution either; this leads to apathy – a word that literally means “no feeling.”
How do we respond? At the least, my wife and I stop to pray. Often, we look for ways to involve my fellow Christians to respond: is it time to suggest a spontaneous offering at church for the people in Bangladesh? Sometimes we respond immediately by sending a financial gift – in an effort to be part of the solution, to be obedient to I John 3:17, and to keep our hearts soft towards those in need that exceeds anything I’ve ever encountered.
Most of all, we stay involved in mercy-ministries. Even though we may not be able to respond financially to the current crisis crossing our TV screen, we’ve devoted ourselves to generosity and sacrifice on behalf of the poor. A generous lifestyle allows us to live with the assurance that we’re applying I John 3:17 – by taking our material resources and serving our brothers and sisters in need.
CNN expands our response to I John 3:17 because it makes the world our neighborhood.
Revised from an excerpt in Great Commission, Great Compassion (InterVarsity Press, 2015)