On knowing and “mercy ministry”

One of the great obstacles to being of real help to others is our failure to know and understand the people we are seeking to help. I have often wondered in counseling whether I am counseling the real person in front of me or a pretend person they are presenting to me. I may be offering great counsel to the pretend person (or maybe not!) but if I am not actually talking to the real person that counsel is not going to be of much benefit.

There are many different factors that keep us from really knowing and understanding other people. This is especially true I think when it comes to cross cultural mercy ministry. A failure to know the people you are working with leads to so many problems in missions and yet, really knowing those people can be so difficult! We come with so many preconceptions. We are proud and slow to listen. We often approach this kind of ministry with an us helping them mentality or a get a project done kind of attitude instead of with a desire to build genuine relationships and learn and grow alongside of other people.

Because we come to the ministry with this proud attitude or some sort of Messiah complex, instead of offering themselves, the people we are working with are sometimes happy to oblige us and offer a project for us to fix instead. They offer that because that is what we want. Relationships are messy. Projects make us feel good and important. Because we are self-centered and have a difficult time really seeing people for who they are and caring deeply about their real needs, the person we have come to “help” faces very strong temptations to present to us a false perspective of themselves and their situation or at least a slightly distorted view in order to better gain our compassion and help. We are so self-centered that people sometimes have to do a lot of work to even get us to see or listen to their needs and sometimes they are tempted to magnify their problems in order to get us to care or act.

It can become a real game. In his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton describes what often happens like this, “The recipient” (of charity) “must figure out the rules of the system, determine the kind of appeal most likely to secure the maximum benefit, learn the language that best matches the dispenser’s values and above all be sincere. Half-truths are acceptable. Fabrication may be necessary. It doesn’t really matter since this is about working a system, not joining a community.”

What can help us with this? Humility on our part is a start. (And maybe it is the end as well!) Seeing Jesus as the Savior – not you. Recognizing that money is not god. Understanding that God in His providence in working in that crisis for your good and for the good of the person who is going through the difficulty as well. Slowing down and working on developing a real relationship which means that you are going to see the person and people you are working with as individuals and people from whom you have much to learn. Fighting against allowing anyone to act as if they were your inferior and you were superior to them simply because you have more money or come from another country. You may like the respect, but make sure the respect is based on God’s values not the worlds otherwise that respect can be more like manipulation and make it very difficult for you to really know the people you are serving alongside.

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