Things to ask when we serve the poor

A new friend with an unassuming personality

Over the weekend I met a lovely man who is originally from Vietnam, but has lived in Melbourne for a long time and is happily married to an Australian woman. He told me his experience of living “incarnationally” in a public housing estate, trying to share the love of Christ with some of the most disadvantaged people in Melbourne. He made friends with people who struggled with mental illness and drug addiction. His passion to serve God has led him to work with several missional communities. It also means that he and his young family have to live on a low income.

What impresses me is his unassuming personality. He comes across as one of those humble followers of Jesus who loves God and wants to devote his time to serve him wholeheartedly. His life is not centred around himself, but the poor and oppressed in the society. To me, he and his family are walking in God’s ways by participating in his purposes for the world.

For nearly seven years I worked in an aid and development Christian organisation in Australia. I had opportunities to work with many individuals and agencies who shared the same passion and desire to serve the poor. Meeting my new friend has prompted me to reflect on what I have learned over the years, especially regarding the things we should ask when we serve the poor.

Who is at the centre of what we do?

First, we need to ask whether the poor are at the centre of everything we do. It seems to me that my friend adopts a people-centred ministry posture. Serving the poor is not about how much we have done for them, for it is not the same as how much they benefit. It is not about the wonderful things that we do to make their lives better, for this way of thinking often results in measuring our success from our perspective rather than from theirs. It is not about how much sacrifice we make either, although it is in itself important. We have to recognise that the poor — whether in the West or in the non-Western world — most likely have to endure more hardship than we do. No matter how much we do and how much sacrifice we make, we do it because we have the choice to do so. The poor, however, do not choose to be poor. Their struggles are not the same as ours, and indeed their struggles are more severe than ours.

So, let us not measure success from our perspective, for our stories are not the same as their stories. Instead, let us ask the poor to tell us their stories. Do we hear stories from them that their livelihood has improved? Do we hear them testify that they are experiencing a greater level of safety and security in their daily life? Do we know them and their culture well enough to recognise sustainable improvement in their wellbeing? Do the more vulnerable members of their communities — women, children and those living with a disability — have a voice in sharing their stories? Or is their voice hidden or silenced?

Is it God’s agenda, or ours?

The second thing we need to ask when we serve the poor is whether we are truly participating in God’s purpose for his creation. As mentioned, I think my new friend and his family are walking in God’s purpose. We do not serve the poor simply because it is a good thing to do. Our deeds and activities are not there to improve people’s livelihood only, although it is in itself very important. Rather, it is about God’s purpose for his image-bearers. It is about God’s life-giving redemptive work through Christ Jesus. It is about following the Crucified and Risen Lord, who shared the pain and hardship of the poor, suffered for humanity, died for their sins, and was raised so that they may have eternal life. What is our motivation and attitude when we serve the poor? Is it about the God we love and our wholehearted devotion to him? Is it an outworking of our desire to follow our saviour and Lord?

What do people think of us?

In light of this, the third thing we need to ask is what people think of us. Do people see us as the “saviour” for the poor? Do people think that we are the role models for others to follow? Or do people realise that it is not about us and that it is in fact about God’s purpose for the world? Do people recognise that it is about following Jesus, not human beings? Are we making ourselves well known? Or are we making Jesus known to the world? I really appreciate my new friend’s unassuming personality. What I see is not so much the amazing things he has done, but the Jesus in him who has done great things for us.

Conclusion

I think we should be vigilant in making sure that the poor is at the centre of everything we do. It is, in my view, vital to examine our hearts and attitudes, and ensure that our actions are motivated by a sincere and single-minded devotion to God. Let us remind ourselves that our call is to walk with Jesus and follow his way of life. It is not about us, but Jesus himself. Finally, let us endeavour to ensure that people recognise that it is Christ, not us, who is the reason why the poor can experience God’s grace and deliverance.

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