These short reflections on God’s compassion for poor people – and His desire to see His Body actively love and serve the needy – may inspire, chasten, encourage, equip, warn, enlighten, or comfort us. But something has to move us to action. We may agree that God insists that we sacrificially love the poor, but where will we find the motivation and power to do it?
The short answer is: not inside ourselves. We cannot muster up the willpower to obey (at least for very long), nor can we command our hearts to feel affection for the unlovely or to want to sacrifice our money, time, convenience, or emotional energy on behalf of struggling people. We must look outside of ourselves, to God. All obedience, including the specific obedience of loving needy people, begins with God. The miracle of God’s new covenant of grace is that He saves us (we are utterly unable to save ourselves) and that He “puts His spirit in us, to move us to follow His decrees and be careful to keep His laws” (Ezekiel 36:27). It is only God’s supernatural work in our hearts that makes it possible for us to do what He requires of us – to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). In I John 4:19, we are reminded that “we love, because He first loved us.” God is the initiator; He “works in us to will and to act according to His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). We are utterly dependent upon God for the power to love and obey. Therefore, it is no surprise that He commands us, through the apostle Peter, to serve others not on our own strength, but only “with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 4:11).
The power to lay down our lives for others comes from God. So does the motivation. Consider Jesus’ observation at the attention paid Him by the penitent prostitute in Luke 8:47. He notes that those who have been forgiven much, love much. In the Gospel, we discover the limitless wealth of grace the Father has lavished upon us through the infinite sacrifice of Jesus. When we apprehend in the Gospel the vastness of God’s love and mercy, it reorders our priorities. As Rev. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has argued, the Gospel motivates a radical generosity:
[Y]ou will always give effortlessly to that which is your salvation, to those things which give your life meaning. If Jesus is the one who saved you, your money [and, we could add, our time and energy] flows out easily into His work, His people, His causes. If, however, your real religion is your appearance, or your social status, or personal comfort, or pleasure, your money [and time and energy] flows most easily into those items and symbols.
The Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16) and it is the power to transform us from selfish people consumed with our busyness and pleasures into self-giving people who – relying prayerfully and intentionally upon the strength of Christ – love others sacrificially, genuinely and cheerfully.
Thus, the most effective way to apply [these devotionals] is to read it with your eyes fixed upon God. Ask Him to show you more of Himself and His character through these reflections. Plead with Him to put into your heart true charity and compassion. Confess that you do not naturally share His passion for the lost and afflicted, but want Him to cultivate that passion in you. Behold Christ’s bountiful love for you in the Gospel, and meditate on the depth of the mercy you have received. Then worship Him – not your money, leisure time, personal comfort, or whatever else distracts you from loving Him by loving your neighbor. And when you see your heart’s inclination to worship all the wrong things, run to Christ and remember that He loves to conquer our hearts with His grace and make us new creatures. For when we are most despairing of our own inability to be generous, compassionate servants, we will be precisely in the place where Christ can do His best work in us and through us.