There will always be someone else who needs help. We have the potential to spend all day trying to fix others, to solve problems, to deal with emergencies, etc.
And in the process, you won’t be any further along than when you started. You’ll often be more tired, but feel good about your deeds.
The challenge is this – do we do the short-term fix or do we work with people for long-term change? Short term feels good. It requires minimal investment of time and energy. It requires minimal investment of relationship too. We can throw money at the “problem” and move on. But has a person’s life really changed? Have they been transformed?
Churches receive many requests for “help.” Some are legitimate and other request are a bit more questionable. Often requests are in emergency stages – only a day or two away from drastic action being taken. Things like eviction. Which always raises questions in my mind – why did this person wait until the last-minute? What caused them to wait until the situation was desperate?
One of the things I look for is the attitude of a person. I’m not talking about whether they treat others with respect or show gratitude – those are good things though. I’m talking about how a person seeks out help. Does the person really want help, or do they just want the pressure of the situation to be reduced? The difference is in who is in charge. If a person really wants help, they are open to seeing that their way is not working. They are open to change and adaptation in order to improve their situation.
Others just want relief from the situation. They want you to respond on their terms, on their time frame, with what they want, when they want it, with limited questions. These folks are interested in improving their lives, just getting rid of the situation. There is no desire for relationship or community. There is no openness to change or learning.
The question becomes, do we have an obligation to only provide relief? Or to just focus on help? If someone is seeking out resources from a church or anyone else for that matter, are they admitting that their way isn’t working? Some are not willing to acknowledge this. Is it tough love to withhold relief from someone who has no desire to change? Is it cruel to withhold relief to someone who repeatedly finds themself in emergencies?
Awhile back, we had an individual who called the church seeking relief. They had a couple of days to come up with $500 for back rent or else they would be evicted. It became an emergency for them. But there is a difference between urgency and important and who’s problem it is. We found out from the land lord that this person has been at their location for 44 months and had been late 17 times – That’s almost 40% of the time this person resided at this location. Providing relief in this instance would do very little to help this person – at least in a meaningful and lasting way. The person wasn’t interested in building a relationship or being a part of a community – only seeking out resources to provide relief from the pressure of the emergency.
So, do churches have an obligation to provide relief always? Or is there a different way? I think there is a different way. I think we need to ask a few questions. We need to ask if a person really wants help, or if they only want relief. And each church needs to decide – are they interested in working with people provide relief, or do they feel called to more and to something deeper. Help is longer term. It involves a commitment from the person and from the church. It involves an intertwining of lives. It involves getting to know people’s stories and finding the value they bring. It’s about community. But this is costly and often frustrating. It’s much cheaper and easier to throw money at a problem – relief.
Having said this, relief has its role – there’s no denying it. But the church also has an opportunity and a calling to be more than just a relief agency. We are called to showcase how encounters with Jesus change lives. We are called to build community and relationships. We are called for the long-term, not the easy fix. We are called to respond with grace and mercy and forgiveness and show repentance. To live the Gospel.