Mark 8:36-37 - For what does it benefit a man to gain the whole world yet lose his soul? What can a man give in exchange for his soul?
Shortly after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in March 2013, I heard an interesting discussion on the news. A commentator was talking about the new Pope and his emphasis on compassion for the vulnerable. In the banter back and forth between the various commentators, this fellow said, "It's just Christianity 101. The basis of Christianity is to help the poor." This commentator was not a theologian, nor was he an official spokesperson for Pope Francis, but he expressed a common misconception that many people have, which is that the primary purpose of the church is to help the poor and needy.
While helping the poor and vulnerable is a key part of how Christianity demonstrates the love of Christ to others (James 1:27, John 13:35), it is not the basis of Christianity. The basis of Christianity is what Christ has done. Christianity 101 is that people, by nature and by choice, are sinners. Anyone who doubts this need only watch the nightly news to see the depravity of mankind. But Christianity 101 also says that God loves us and that His love is more powerful than man's sinfulness. Christianity 101 teaches us that our sinful condition must somehow be corrected. After all, a loving God would never leave us in our messed-up condition. The idea that sin must be atoned for is where our concept of justice comes from. Innately, we know that there is a consequence for bad actions and a price to be paid when a wrong is done. One does not have to be a theologian to understand that. Thousands of years of human history have clearly proven that we are incapable of fixing our messes ourselves. Therefore, God sent His Son Jesus to earth to not only show us a better way to live, but to offer Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. His life and death satisfied the justice of God, as well as set an example for how to live. That is Christianity 101.
This does not mean that helping the poor and the needy is unimportant. Clearly Jesus expects us to do that, but helping the poor and needy is Christianity 201, not 101. People must first address their own sinfulness before they can help others in ways that make a long-term difference. People must first find the love of God in their own lives before they can adequately give that love to someone else through compassion that really helps, instead of a patronizing attitude that actually hurts.
Perhaps the problem with much of what the church is doing is that we have attempted to help the poor and needy without first finding the help that God gives in our own lives. We must first enroll in Christianity 101, and then progress to Christianity 201. When the church gets the order right, it will become what it was meant to be, a place for both spiritual peace and compassionate charity. Either one without the other is an incomplete picture of what the church is supposed to be.
Lord, help us know You personally in a real and vibrant way, and then enable us to assist the poor with both their physical and spiritual needs. Amen.
This post is an excerpt from the book, The Heavenly Mundane: Daily Devotions from Ordinary Experiences. Filled with stories of how God spoke in big ways through small events, the book will encourage people to look for God in the mundane things of life. Great for both personal use and to give as a gift to friend, either the print version or the e-book version may be purchased at this link: