In 2006 I made a one-year commitment to not purchase any clothing items that were manufactured outside the United States so I could ensure that I wouldn't support sweatshop labor. I remember thinking, "this is my calling as a Christian. Now that I'm not supporting sweatshop labor, my conscience can enjoy a lightened burden, free now to better experience the Christian faith.
Sadly, much of my perspective that year became tainted by judgment of those who didn't share my new-found convictions. "Don't they care about sweatshop labor?" I thought. "Shouldn't the top priority of all Christians be justice for the poor?"
Well, yes and no. Yes, our hearts and actions should be loving toward those who are poor, broken, marginalized and oppressed. But what I didn't yet understand, and what I still struggle to fully balance, is that the fight for justice can't supersede our lifelong battle to more fully know the Lord.
Social Justice is hip. It warms the soul, looks good on a resume and helps us sleep better at night thinking we did our part to make a difference. But social justice can't save us. The deepest, most complex problems facing mankind simply can't be solved solely by justice efforts alone. One piece of evidence for this is our miserable failure to end world hunger even with enough food on the planet at any given time to feed every mouth six times over.
Somewhere along the way we made the mistake of believing that Jesus was just one big charity, and that if we did enough good then we'd make him happy. But now five years out of college I've observed that many of those who boarded the Christian ship and enthusiastically flew the justice flags are nowhere to be found. Jesus gave them a temporary vehicle to further their causes, but eventually he demanded more than their rallies and that was too big of a sacrifice. Justice could be promoted elsewhere at much less of a cost.
Holy Spirit-Ignited Gospel Action
The primary focus of our Christian effort must be Jesus and the inside-out transformation that he does in us, not what we do or how we look on the outside. Because if we exchange that internal focus for our outward efforts or appearances then our pursuits become imperialistic and based on our own twisted and unrefined perspectives of the way things should be. Yet when a Christian sacrifices his or her own preconceived notions of what it means to seek justice and instead whole-heartedly pursues Jesus through prayer, scripture study and fellowship, then the result is Holy Spirit-ignited gospel action that naturally brings love and justice to all situations.
Justice won't justify you before God. All of your good deeds presented to him will be viewed as a pile of filthy rags when compared to his perfect and glorious righteousness. It is by grace we have been saved, through faith. Only then can true justice begin to emerge as a result of our transformed hearts and minds. Those who call themselves Christians but seek to promote their own causes think they are somehow better that others, and that their deeds will justify them before God. Those people come and go faster than their trends. But the Christian who devotes their time and energy to knowing Jesus and becoming a true disciple will be ignited by the Spirit and will be unstoppable.
The God Behind Justice
In my lifetime I want to see real justice. I want to witness sustainable change in the system of generational poverty so urban kids can have tangible life goals apart from long-shot dreams of the NBA. I want to see teenagers appropriately educated about sexual behavior and identity so they aren't taught that their feelings and emotions must determine their behavior. I want to know that Christians are working tirelessly to fight the sex-trade by leading the charge in developing comprehensive systemic and therapeutic interventions instead of just donating tax-deductible dollars to get a wrist band.
But more than all of these, I want to know the God who called me to care. I want to read his words, listen to his voice and know his people. Only then could I even begin to do his work.
Burton Miller studied Social Work at the University of Nevada, Reno and graduated in 2008. He spent three years working in Child Welfare in Reno followed by two years in urban youth development non-profit work in Boston. He is currently attending Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts pursuing a Master of Divinity. Burton blogs at Postcard Theology, from which this article was taken with permission.