Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Response to "The Hole in the Gospel" (author Richard Stearns, publisher Thomas Nelson)

Let me start by saying that I agree completely when the major thrust of this book, God through Scripture has called us to care for the poor and the Western church in particular needs to respond to this call from Scripture.
If you haven’t read this book, stop reading this review now. Not because there are spoilers, but because I want now to talk about quibbles I have with the book. And I would hate to think my quibbles would keep someone from reading this fine book with this important message.
But I do have quibbles. There are issues of emphasis and particulars that bothered me. I’m writing this partly to help me think through these issues and decide if my objections are reasonable.
The book does omit some facts and Scripture that I think are important when considering these issues.
Let me start with a famous quote that Stearns frequently refers to from Bob Pierce, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God”. Bob Pierce was the founder of World Vision (the organization that Stearns now leads.) He did great things for God and World Vision now continues to do great work to care for the poor throughout the world.
And that quote has truth in it. As much as we can, we want to see things through God’ eyes and feel things through His heart. But we are finite creatures that serve an infinite God. We can’t take on the entire burden of God’s work in the world. And I believe that Bob Pierce had issues in his life because he tried to take on the full burden of suffering in the world.
It is now common knowledge and well documented that Pierce neglected his own family and was at time verbally abusive with his staff at World Vision. Stearns (understandably) make no mention of these flaws in the life and ministry of Pierce. I can’t help but wonder if Pierce neglected those close to him because he was trying to take on whole burden of suffering in the world. And we frail creatures are not equipped for that burden.
Stearns cites a study in the book wherein a group of three people were given three sets of information about suffering. The first group was told about a single girl who was suffering in poverty. The second group was given statistics about the billions suffering in the world from hunger, thirst and homelessness. And a third group was given a combination of these presentations.
You may or may not have been surprised to learn that the group who was told about the single girl was willing to give much more than the second group and even more than the third group.
Stearns seems to bemoan the results of the study. It seems to go against the Pierce model of taking on the whole burden of the world onto ones self. But I look at the results of this survey and find it quite encouraging. The Good Samaritan didn’t try to help all robbery victims in the world, but simply the one man he found along the road.
It’s worthwhile to learn about the broad picture of suffering in the world. But real change will take place one person at a time. Stearns acknowledges this, and says we shouldn’t keep the magnitude of the problem keep us from taking the small tasks that are available to us. But there is something about his tone that seems regretful about the fact that we don’t take the whole burden of the world upon ourselves.
Stearns talks about coming home from trips abroad and feeling guilty for the abundance he and his family possess. This is an understandable emotion, one shared by all of us that have ministered to the poor and destitute. And it is always worth evaluating whether we need all that we “own” and if there are opportunities to give away what we have to benefit others. But he seems slow to then acknowledge that the gifts we have are from God’s hand, and as stewards of this gifts, we can, in fact, should, delight in God’s good gifts.
The book doesn’t refer to the incident in the Gospels of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. Matthew 26 tells of the woman who used valuable perfume to anoint Jesus and disciples bemoan that the money wasn’t used for the poor. But Jesus says the poor will always be with you and what she did was worthwhile.
As stewards, we may be called by God to support many different causes that bring glory to God, from education to the environment or the arts among many others. Jesus cared deeply for the poor, and even asked one rich man to give all that he had to the poor. But Jesus acknowledged that utopia was not possible until the New Heaven and Earth comes to pass.
As individuals and congregations, we encounter “neighbors” locally and around the world. There are homeless people who come to our door. And there are missionaries that we encounter with visions for God’s work. Someone in our congregation has a burden for the nation of Guinea Bissau. He visited and there is a congregation in that nation that now prays for our church. They are certainly our neighbors.
Most of us can and should give more to the work of the kingdom, but that can take many forms.
Two other small quibbles: Stearns quotes Gandhi saying how he loves Christ but not Christians. He bemoans the fact that Christians are not viewed favorably in much of contemporary American society and that we are hated in much of the Islamic world. He argues that if we give more to the third world, terrorist groups will have difficulty recruiting. (Though America has been unique in history in its giving to other nations, it has not exactly been acknowledged by al-Qaeda.)
Now while we certainly need to reflect the compassion of Jesus, we should not do so to be loved by the world. In John 15, Jesus said the world hated Him and would in turn hate His followers. Of the many wonderful and true reasons for giving more, the goal of being loved should not necessarily be one of them.
Finally, I was a bit bemused and annoyed when Stearns quotes Jimmy Carter claiming that the biggest problem in the world is the growing gap between the rich and the poor (over hunger, disease, terrorism, and, um, sin.) Now the prophets were certainly concerned about the wealthy oppressing the poor. But no evidence, except the word of the former president, is given that this is the GREASTEST problem. The wealth of America may grow and the poverty in such places as North Korea, Cuba and African nations may grow. And the growth of that poverty may well have nothing to do with America, but rather with the oppressive, authoritarian regimes rule those nations. And the dictators that oppress those people have often had the friendship and support of Jimmy Carter. So I don’t take his word as a very credible source.
But again, these are all quibbles. The overall message of “The Hole in the Gospel” is valuable. Most all of us need to do more for the poor in our neighborhood and the world. But we can only do our part, and trust God to care for the whole.

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