Discussion with Tim Keller (Part 2)

Welcome back. This is the second section of our interview with Tim Keller here on Desiring God Live. We’re capturing this here on Roosevelt Island just off New York City’s Upper East Side, and we’re here in the home of Tim and Kathy Keller. Thanks for having us. And we want to talk a little bit now about your book Generous Justice. I wonder if just right off the bat, what’s the thesis of the book? What’s the main point you’re trying to make?

It’s in the subtitle: grace makes us just. Let me draw that out just a tiniest bit. The more you understand the gospel of grace with the mind and experience it with the heart, the more likely you are to care about people who are poor, marginalized, and hungry. I think that’s actually a very important biblical theme. So justice is not part of the gospel, but anyone who understands the gospel, it moves you toward living a just life. That’s the thesis.

And why did you write that? Are you looking around and that’s not happening very much in terms of motivating people?

In the intro I mentioned several reasons, and I don’t want to take too long. I’d say there are people on two sides.

Who’s your audience?

Well, the two main audiences I’m writing to are Christians who are getting very enthusiastic about justice. But they haven’t thought about how this fits in with everything else Christians are supposed to do. In fact, it can almost overwhelm everything else. And they think this is the only thing Christians should do. And on the other hand, actually, I think there’s people reacting to that right now, perhaps overreacting, but at least reacting. And they don’t like any talk about Christianity and social justice at all.

They’re suspicious of it?

They’re suspicious of it for several reasons. I think the best reason is because they’re afraid that it’s going to smother the primacy of the ministry of the word in the life of the church. I think a less worthy reason is that people are afraid that any talk of social justice means liberal politics. And some people feel like, since we don’t believe in liberal politics, we can’t talk about social justice. But I think you’ve got to be informed by the Bible. You can’t be reacting to political parties that you don’t like. You need to be informed by Scripture.

Okay. Does the book have a word to the skeptic as well?

All my books try to do that. There’s a chapter about that, especially near the end. I’d say the last two chapters are particularly for people who are skeptics. I worry a little bit that a really secular person might not wade through the first five chapters, which are almost nothing but bible exposition and exegesis. However, to my surprise, I have seen, for example, Publishers Weekly — which doesn’t do little reviews on most Christian books, and didn’t review my last couple — wrote a review saying, “This is a really important book because it’s so balanced and it’s biblical, and yet it’s talking about social justice.” And that’s a secular group, and they liked the book and felt like it was an important book, which surprised me because my last few books, which I love very much, they didn’t think were significant enough to even review. So perhaps there is something for them as well.

Why are you interested in justice? What are the roots of this in your own life? Where is this coming from?

Well, actually my own story is when I was in West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in the late 1970s, I thought I would do a Doctor of Ministry, because being a Presbyterian, I felt all Presbyterian ministers wish they were doctors. So I just need to know that. The joke of course is that 50 percent of all Presbyterian ministers are doctors and the other 50 percent are working on it, figuring it out.

I went to Westminster Seminary. I had originally said to my advisors, “Maybe I’ll do something on elder training.” And I remember George Fuller, who was the president of Westminster at the time and was an advisor of mine, said, “Do deacons.” He said, “Everybody does elders.” He said, “Everybody’s neglecting the deacon.” And he gave me a book called Service in Christ edited by James McCord. It was not a particularly evangelical book, it was just a series of learned essays on diaconia, which was the church’s deed ministry through the years.

And he also told me quite a bit about the diaconate, especially as it developed in the continental churches in the Netherlands and other places like that. And it fascinated me. So I did my whole Doctor of Ministry program on how to train deacons to make them into ministers of mercy and not just janitors and treasurers. In Presbyterian churches, deacons tend to be just the people who fix up the building. But originally in Presbyterian ecclesiology, the deacons were people who cared for the poor. And so that’s where my interest actually started. I did my whole doctor ministry on that and I found there were rich resources in traditional Reformed theology for what was called the “ministry of mercy” and caring for the poor. And that’s where it started.

Do you see your book on the ministry of mercy fitting together with Generous Justice as a primer or as a step one, step two, or as an early understanding of your theology in this area? Or are these books really separate reads?

No, they compliment each other. There’s one chapter in the Ministry of Mercy book where I talk about justice, but I don’t really develop it. And so you might say this is more of a development of it.

However, in the Ministry of Mercy the last half is extremely practical. And actually in some ways, it still wouldn’t be a bad book to read as a follow-up to the Generous Justice book. Because my justice book had to be a little more broad brush. There was so much to say, and in the end I didn’t really get down to brass tacks — what would you do right now in your little church, in your town? So they would supplement each other. The Good Samaritan parable I give an extended treatment to in both books. There would be some overlap, and you’re going to see a person who is 25 years younger, so it might be interesting to compare them. But apart from that, they actually compliment each other.

Define justice for us here tonight. What do you mean when you’re calling people to do justice? What are you calling them to do?

Giving everybody what they deserve.

All right, tease that out a little bit.

There are two such radically different aspects to it. First of all, to give people what they deserve means when someone’s doing wrong, when someone’s doing evil, you should stop them. You should stop them and you should punish them. You should give them what they deserve. And there’s a law-and-order part of justice, which is very, very important. On the other hand, every human being is in the image of God. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in the last couple of years, wrote a book called Justice: Rights and Wrongs, which is not an easy book to read. It was written by a top-tier philosopher to other philosophers. What he would say is that a person in the image of God comes into your presence with certain claims on you, and that is they have the right not to be killed, not to be beaten, etc. There’s a whole lot of things. Now I think we all intuitively know that because of the image of God we may not treat them in certain ways, and therefore, they deserve to be treated with dignity. They deserve to be treated with a certain amount of kindness.

See, that’s the opposite in the way of law-and-order. The law-and-order side is if they’ve done wrong, they deserve to be punished. But the other side is as people in the image of God, and they deserve a certain kind of fair treatment, care, and you have to go through the whole Bible to find out what those things are. And that’s the reason why the whole Bible really is about living justly. You have to say, “What does your neighbor deserve from you?”

There’s a place in Proverbs 3:27 where it says, “Do good to your neighbor because . . .” It is actually a very hard text to translate, but the best translation I think is, “Do good to your neighbor if they have need, which is their due.” Now you owe it to them to love them. In fact, Paul said so. Paul of course says you owe no one anything except the debt of love (Romans 13:8). You owe it to people to love them. And so that’s the reason why justice in the end becomes a very big comprehensive thing. Maybe too comprehensive for some people’s taste. Some people have actually said my definition is too broad, but I think it’s what the Bible says. That’s what Paul says. You owe it to people to love them.

I think a lot of people hear justice and they think charity, and you want to distinguish those?

Not too much. On the law-and-order side, which I think is the Hebrew word mishpat. It generally means more righting wrongs, finding people who are doing unjust things like mistreating people, harming people, killing people, and stopping them. You put them in jail, or whatever. That’s law-and-order and that’s more negative. It’s mishpat. The word tzedakah, which is another word that means “righteousness” or “justice”, has more to do with living in just relationships. And just relationships means living in your community where you’re treating people with dignity.

Frankly, the best place to see tzedakah is Job 29 and Job 31, where he says, “When I see a person who’s blind, I do this. When I see a person who’s poor, I do this. When I see a person who’s a widow or an orphan, this is what I do” (Job 29:15–17). And those things we actually owe people as far as I can see in Job 29 and 31. So in a sense, charity is not coerced by the government; it’s voluntary giving. And yet from God’s point of view, he expects you to be generous with what you have. If you have more than someone else, you should be generous with it. And in that sense, it’s justice to be generous. Now some people say that’s just not true. Justice is only as punishing evil doers and charity is not part of justice. But actually I argue in the book that it is.

Well you take a lot of time — and I so appreciated the first two or three chapters of the book — unpacking the Old Testament teaching on this subject. What do you say to the person who might hear that and say, “Yeah, but that’s the Old Testament.” How do you go to the laws that governed a theocratic nation and extrapolate from that, mandates for the church today? Walk us through that a little bit.

With care. I mean the basic principle is that the Old Testament laws have some abiding validity, but Christ changes it. For example, in the gathering up of the manna, you were supposed to gather and not hoard it and everybody was supposed to have equal amount. You had these rules for gathering the manna, which clearly are not applying to us, because we don’t get manna. And yet Paul in 2 Corinthians 8 and 2 Corinthians 9, when he’s talking about if you’re a church with more money and here’s a church of poor people, like the poor Christians because of the famine, you should give to them so that there would be equality, so no one has any lack. And he quotes the passage on manna to show that the principal is still there.

And then of course there’s I think a very poignant one is the place where in Deuteronomy 15 it says, “There should be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). If everybody is really living justly the way God wants you to, there won’t be any permanent poor people among you. They may fall into poverty, but you’ll lift them out because you’ll all be so generous. The Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 15:4 is actually quoted in Acts 4, where it says that because everyone shared their income with each other, there were no poor among them (Acts 4:34). It’s a direct quote. So even though it’s not the same — it’s not a theocracy, it’s not done coercively, there’s no taxation the way it was in the Old Testament and you had to give to the Levites and you had to give, and the land went back to Jubilee principle every 50 years, and all that is now fulfilled in Christ and — yet there’s some abiding validity that you can see in what the way Paul and Luke look at the justice of the Old Testament and say that should somehow still characterize our relationships in the church. So you can’t just write all that justice stuff off and say that’s the Old Testament.

You make the point in the book that basically in the Deuteronomy 15 passage, if Israel was living the way they were supposed to be living, extreme poverty, ongoing poverty, ought not to happen.

Right. That’s right.

You see that carrying over in how the New Testament church dealt with their own as it were in the quote from Acts 4:34 that there were no needy persons among them. Do you see any suggestion in that of the primacy, or maybe a triage, of when it comes to doing justice that the corporate community should care for its own first, and then look outward? Talk about that a little bit.

Well, it’s natural. Galatians 6:10 says, “Do good to all men, especially the household of faith.” It’s actually not that hard to see. In my own family, my first response should be if somebody falls into need within my immediate family or my siblings or my wife’s siblings. In other words, if I see people inside our family beginning to fall into poverty, they’re our primary responsibility to help out and we might have to really dig down deep to help them so they don’t lose their home, so they don’t go into poverty, or something like that.

Then in my church, that’s the next level of responsibility. They’re the next level, more than just anybody. The people in my own church. They’re brothers and sisters and we’ve got to help them. And then you move on out a little further and I think you have the church in general, and then you have everybody. When I was in South Africa — at the same time Pastor John was there and you were there too — I visited the home of a wonderful Christian woman in Soweto in the black township. She lived in a shanty town. She was a vibrant Christian woman. She lives in conditions that I think any American would just find absolutely astonishing and appalling. And she’s a Christian.

What’s my responsibility to her? Isn’t she in the household of faith? Yes. So I don’t know quite what I’m supposed to do about that, but I do think that I have some responsibility. If you’re a Christian in Minneapolis (according to Galatians 6:10), I think you have some responsibility to what we are supposed to be doing for those folks. There’s a lot of poor Christians in the world. So I do think it’s intuitive and biblical that you might have stages of responsibility, most for your immediate family, next for your local church community, next for Christians anywhere in the world, and next for your neighbors, your non-Christian neighbors, and next for any human being. So I could actually go out to five or six layers or levels.

Let’s go to your chapter on “Justice and Jesus.” You talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan and maybe that’s a good segue then. You’re out now at that kind of wider sphere. If you have concentric circles, we’re now talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Talk about the influence of that parable in shaping your own understanding of what generous justice is all about.

Well, that parable goes all the way out to the edge. The idea of putting a Samaritan and a Jew together in the parable is a way of Jesus showing that in the end, any human being in the image of God is your neighbor, and you can’t completely get rid of your obligation to help. That’s all. I heard Ed Clowney expound that parable long ago. I don’t even know where. I don’t know if we have any written sermon by him on it, but I heard him expound it once and it was just amazing, and it went through me. And then I made it the basis for the book Ministry of Mercy. The main idea though was is that Ed showed me was that if he’d put a Jew on the horse and a Samaritan in the road and told a Jewish man the story, and said, “A Jewish man was going on the road and he saw a Samaritan beaten and robbed and lying half dead, what should that man have done?” And of course, the Jewish listener to the parable would’ve said, “Run over him and put him out of his misery. He’s a Samaritan. We hate Samaritans, and they hate us. That’s the way.”

He’s telling the story to a Jewish man, and he’s putting the Jew in the road and a Samaritan in the place of power, and saying, “If you were in the road and you were about to die and a Samaritan came along, what would you want him to do?” And the answer is, “I would want him to show mercy on me.” Then He says, “Then you must show mercy on anybody in your road no matter who they are, whether they’re a believer or non-believer.” I mean, to me that’s the strongest statement where Jesus says, “You do have to take care of the non-believer too if they’re in your road.” Now what does that mean? People always say to me, “I’m overwhelmed with the needs of the world.”

Whenever people say to me, “How in the world are we going to take care of everybody in the world?” They read the book and they say, “You’re just making me feel guilty. I only have limited means.” And I always say, look, churches never say, “We only have enough money to obey eight of the 10 commandments this year because there’s a recession on.” No, what you do is you take the money you’ve got to obey all 10 commandments and you just do your best with the money you’ve got. And I just say, you look out there and there’s plenty of needs and you only have so much time and energy and money, so use what you have on the needs that are there. That’s all.

And the reality too of this parable that you cite in the book later on, regarding Jonathan Edwards’s argument, is the fact that it really will cost you something. There’s a real sacrifice involved in being generous in dispensing justice.

Yeah, that’s where he says, “Look at that term, bear one another’s burdens.” He says, “Do you realize what that means? It means if you bear somebody’s burdens that should burden you, or you’re not really helping them.” And the illustration is if somebody’s carrying 100-pound weight and you’re going to help them bear the burden, a certain amount of that burden will fall on you. And then he gives an example that it’s just so brilliant. He says, “If somebody says, ‘I can’t afford to help the poor,’ well, what you mean is you can’t afford helping the poor without it burdening you.” And therefore he says, “But that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to help the poor in such a way that it’s a problem, that it means giving up something. It means it should almost create a hardship.” And he says, “That’s what it means. They’re in hardship. If you’re going to bear their burden, some of that hardship falls on you.”

I mean, Edwards was devastating in that famous treatise on Deuteronomy 15. It was originally a sermon. It’s called “The Duty of Charity,” and it was originally a sermon and he developed it into a long treatise, and he put it out there and he devastates anybody’s objections to caring for the poor in ways that only Edwards could do.

That includes objections like, “I wonder if they abuse it. I wonder if they won’t repay me. I wonder if they don’t snap out of their bad habits.” All of the modern 21st century objections, he really blows them away.

Who is the Great Samaritan? I love this few pages in the book, a really beautiful unpacking of the Great Samaritan. Who’s the Great Samaritan?

Well, that’s what I got from Ed Clowny long ago. I remember him saying, “Who is it that has come along and found us lying in our own blood, lying practically half dead in the road, and who does not owe us anything but the opposite of mercy?” See, Samaritans and Jews hated each other, and therefore the Samaritan did not owe the Jew, because probably the Jews hurt the Samaritans. He did not owe the Jew mercy. He owed him something else. So who came along, found us laying in our blood, and actually owed us not mercy, but the opposite? And yet got down, put us in his place, at his own expenses, and healed us. Does that sound like anybody?

I mean you might call it a sanctified imagination, but it’s Jesus. Jesus is the Great Samaritan who found us and owed us not mercy but judgment, and instead of judgment he gave us mercy, put us in his place, took us, and healed us. That’s another place where Ed Clowny changed my life. I heard that. I said, “Boy, what does that mean?” Then along came the Doctor of Ministry project, which led me into the whole subject, and that’s the only reason why the book is out there now.

Amen. Well, moving toward the second half of the book, you talk about the levels of involvement there can be in doing justice. And I was really helped by three clear categories that you established here. The idea is that we can provide relief, then development, and then there’s social reform. Can you just briefly unpack those three levels for us?

Relief is picking the guy up. This is what the Samaritan did. Relief is saying, “Oh, look at this person. He needs medical care. He needs transportation. He needs money to subsidize his stay at the hospital.” That’s relief. At the other end of the spectrum is reform. I’ll jump over the middle one. Now, here’s what reform is. Every single month the Samaritan takes this road down to Jericho, finds another guy, and says, “We have to do something about this. Instead of me just picking these people up, we need better police protection, or we have to figure out what’s going on.” And he decides to do public policy change so that he doesn’t have to be constantly picking people up off the road all the time. That’s reform. Now, development, actually, I don’t know. I have to leave the metaphor now.

Development is taking somebody who’s hungry and homeless and not just simply giving them something to eat and a place to stay, but doing job training, or perhaps counseling for drug addiction to put them in the position where they actually can get on their own two feet and that they no longer need to be recipient of charity, but they can actually become a giver to people in need instead of a recipient. So relief is just patching them up, development is putting them in a position of self-sufficiency, and reform is changing public policy so people don’t keep ending up down in the gutter.

And individuals can embrace that as well as organizations, churches, and other ministries? That model of looking for relief, ways to provide development, and macro solutions at the reform level.

Yes, but it’s not just that. It’s also that you can do it corporately, as well as individually. What I mean by that is that corporations as bodies as well as individuals can do it, yes. But you can also do it for bodies or individuals. So to develop a family to get them out of poverty might mean you provide childcare for the single mother, so she can go to school and get a certificate so that she can get a job by which she can support herself. So you give her the money to go, you pay her rent while she’s going, you watch her kids and help her in all those ways, and you get the kids a big brother, because they need a man as a friend, at least the boys do. And that can all be done by one individual family for another individual family.

The other thing is a community development corporation, a Christian community development corporation can adopt 10 blocks, and say, “We’re going to try to turn a very poor area into a working-class area. We’re going to help people rehab their homes. We’re going to try to help them get jobs. We’re going to try to make the public school in that place better, so that the kids coming up actually are able to go on to college and adopt an entire area and do development of the whole area together, not just to one person individually.”

Good. In your chapter on doing justice in the public square, you talk about two aspects that should characterize the Christian’s work: humble cooperation and respectful provocation. Unpack that a little bit for us.

I’ll give you a perfect example. Humble cooperation means you work with people together, who are non-Christians, to deal with a problem like sex trafficking. You’re trying to stop it in your city. You’ve got some Mormons, you’ve got some Orthodox Jews, you’ve got some Secular Atheists, and they all want to help you. A humble cooperation means you don’t treat them as second-class citizens, and you say, “All right, well we’re trying to do this and let’s do it together.” When it comes to evangelism, the only other people who are going to help you evangelize your city are other Christians. But when it comes to doing justice, there are plenty of people who are not Christians who want to help. And I think humble cooperation means not treating them as second-class citizens and saying, “Okay.”

You hit on common grace here as being a significant aspect of this.

Yes, an atheist doesn’t really have the intellectual warrant to believe in human dignity, because we just are here by accident. We evolved out of lower life forms and we feel that human beings have this great dignity, but actually why? And yet all atheists still know intuitively that human beings have dignity. They know that we’re in the image of God even though they would never admit it. And so, by common grace they have a value there you can work on.

However, respectful provocation means you do have to, I think, explain to people what you’re doing when they want to know why you are so involved in this justice issue. You say, “Because of my beliefs in Jesus Christ.” And you should not be afraid to say that. I’ll give you a great example. Very often the abolitionists said, “We have a vision for a slave-free country, a country where there’s no more slavery. And no matter who you are, if you want to help us get there, we’ll work together. We will be equal partners.” And they would say, “We want you to know though that we are getting our passion for abolition out of our Christian beliefs. It’s Jesus and what he’s done for us and his liberation of us. That’s the reason why we’re willing to do this. That’s why we’re willing to put our lives on the line for these slaves. But if you for other reasons want to help us, you are an equal partner.”

So there’s a combination there of both witnessing to Christ and at the same time, inviting them in. And in the end, that’s very attractive. If you want a great witness, that’s the way to do it. You’re open about it, but at the same time very non-condescending to them. You want their help. So that’s the balance between respectful provocation — saying, “But we’re Christians, and he’s where we get our values” — and humble cooperation.

Have you found in the course of your ministry there are times where the need is so great or the injustice is so beyond the pale that you have to come in with a greater sense of prophetic edge to be heard, or to make the point, or to lead the way?

Yeah, perhaps. My temperament isn’t to do that. Some people’s temperament is, but I’ve always appreciated the ones who do. Some people are like Luther. As much as I love Luther, I do not have his bull-in-a-China-shop kind of temperament. By the way, it’s not just Christians, there are numbers of people who are really activists and have gotten a lot of good done in the world partly by being very prophetic, strident perhaps in some cases, and often getting people mad. But it’s the best way to go.

And to the example that you just gave there, does that presuppose that the church or the Christians in your case were leading the way? In other words, is it easier when you’re setting the agenda and you have the platform, as it were, as opposed to the candlelight vigil over in the park here that might be happening tonight that’s run by some group that you’re not comfortable associating with even though you care about stopping crime?

Yes, if it was your idea. If you put up the social —maybe financial and emotional — capital to get something started, I think you have got more right to talk about Christianity. In the city here, for example, some Christians got together a really good organization to try to help women out of sexual slavery basically, out of sex trafficking and prostitution and things like that. And they’ve gotten some very, very good press recently where secular pundits and people have noticed it and said how great it is, that kind of thing. Because Christians started it, they have much more of a right to talk about Christianity and set the agenda. If you go into a good cause, but it’s one started by other folks, frankly, you don’t have the same right to do respectful provocation. If you want to come along, it would probably look like you’re trying to take control. So the answer is yes, it’s helpful if you started it. It does help.

But as individuals, there’s no reason why Christians can’t be involved in a local tutoring program for the kids in a public school. And they can probably find opportunities to share their faith with the families, but inside the organization, it would probably be rude for them to be sticking up and talking about their Christian commitment all the time.

Well, as we close this section in discussing your book, to go back to your thesis now, it is a profound experience of the grace of God that changes our understanding of these things. I was really helped by how, in a couple of different sections, you hit on this issue of what should motivate us. You cite Jonathan Edwards’s teaching about the believer who appropriates the grace of God, and thus is able to see the beauty of God, and that being something that changes and grants whole new motivations for living a life of generous justice. Can you talk about that a little bit, the connection between seeing beauty and doing justice?

Well see that’s more along the lines of the Desiring God book, which maybe we can talk about in a second. I think when I first read Desiring God by John Piper, he really was attracted to Edwards’s idea of excellency, which is Edwards’s coined word that is probably best paraphrased as “beauty”. It’s the idea that God is beautiful and glorious, and in fact the essence of worship is to enjoy him. To enjoy God because it is an end in itself. He’s just beautiful. The illustration I like to use is that I’ll pay a lot of money to listen to Mozart, because I love Mozart. Why? What am I getting out of Mozart? What’s the value? And the answer is, it’s beautiful. Someone might say, “So why are you listening to Mozart? What are you getting out of it?” I say, “I’m not getting anything out of it’s an end in itself. It’s beautiful. And therefore I just enjoy it and it just enriches me, et cetera."

So what I get from Edwards is that the excellency of God means that we should enjoy him and we find him beautiful. When we find him beautiful, that changes us, it fills us, and it puts us in a less needy position. John Piper would say there’s joy and there’s a kind of overflow. Now what I tried to do in the book was bring out the fact that a woman named Elaine Scarry at Harvard wrote a book called On Beauty and Being Just, and I read the book some years ago. It was intriguing. She basically was trying to give a secular account of what Edwards talks about. She felt that an experience of beauty decenters you, makes you less selfish and needy, makes you happier, and it makes you, therefore, more attentive to other people.

She gives an example that I use in the book where Iris Murdoch, who was a philosopher, talks about how she was filled with self-pity. She saw this beautiful bird soaring, and the beauty of it smothered her heart. And then afterwards she said, “Why am I being so self-centered?” So the idea is that an experience of beauty somehow decenters you from self-centeredness and it makes you more willing to be attentive to other people’s needs. And I read that and I saw some other secular reviewers who said, “That doesn’t really work.” And they actually talked about the fact that the Nazis went out and killed people during the day and they slaughtered people at night and that kind of thing. And they were filled with beauty.

But I kept saying, “You know what? I think that she’s trying to get at something that Edwards had and it was right about.” I don’t think just beauty in general makes you good and just, but I do sense that being smitten with the beauty of God takes you out of yourself so that you’re no longer so filled with self-absorption. To me, the essence of being charitable and just is not to be thinking so much of yourself, and being willing to give away things instead of hoarding them. So I really thought that when I read that book that Jonathan Edwards version of that is the beauty of God makes you just. I don’t think she’s right that beauty only makes you just, because too many people love beauty and then they’re mafiosos and they kill people, and then they listen to wonderful music at night. So that’s the part of the book you were thinking about, right?

Yes, very much so. I can’t remember if you coined it or if you cite someone else, but you talk about the idea of being middle-class in spirit. As we struggle with being turned in on ourselves, needing the gospel, and needing to have it transform us to have this outwardness, you talk about the difference between being middle-class in spirit and being poor in spirit. Talk a little bit about what you mean by middle-class in spirit and how that affects one’s view of those who are materially poor around them. If you’re middle-class in spirit, you’re going to have a certain view of those materially poor around you.

Yeah, I just meant that most middle-class people, rightly so, work hard for what they get. I think at one end of the spectrum, very often poor people give up. I mean they know that if they work they’re going to get minimum wage, and they can’t even pay their rent. They just give up. They don’t have the skills and they give up. And obviously, it’s possible to be wealthy and not work because you have the money. That’s not usually true of first-generation wealth. But for second and third generation wealth, you give kids too much money and then they don’t know what they want to do. Middle-class people are hard workers and they’ve earned what they get. And I’m afraid the middle-class in spirit are basically legalists. Spiritually speaking, these are people who say, “Yes, God loves me and I deserve it because I’ve worked very hard. I read the Bible and I pray and I’m keeping the 10 commandments and I’m trying my best, and he owes me a good life.” That’s middle-class in spirit. And in the book, that’s my idea.

What that means then of course is you look down on poor people and you tend to say, if you’re spiritually middle-class, “What’s their problem? Look at me.” To be poor in spirit means I know I’m saved by grace, and I’ve only been saved by an act of God’s intervention, and I actually am bankrupt spiritually. And by His sheer mercy and grace he has come down and saved me. And he spent himself. He emptied himself in order to save me. That has to affect the way in which you look at the poor. It just has to. You look at a poor person and you say, “Why didn’t you pull yourself up by your bootstraps?” And of course, if God said that to you, you’d be dead spiritually.

And you say, “Well, if I do give the person my charity and grace, then what if they abuse it?” But of course, that’s happened to you. God’s given you grace and charity and you’ve trampled on it. You haven’t lived the life you should live. See, the more you see yourself as spiritually poor and the recipient of God’s wonderful grace, the more your heart is going to go out to the poor. And when you look at the materially poor, in a sense, you’re looking in a mirror. And that’s my whole point. Generally speaking, you see in the Bible that if you are poor in spirit, you care about the poor, even the materially poor. And if you’re middle-class in spirit, you don’t care about the materially poor.

Well, let me read back to you then some of your own quotes here, and this will be our last question in this section here, because I want you to address a certain type of person who’s going to read these quotes and they’re going to be undone by them. For example, you have some powerful statements that indict us all and our lack of heart to the poor. On page 48, you say this. You’ve just talked about Luke 14, where Jesus is describing who you should invite to a feast. And you say, “To put this in a more modern context, he is saying that we should spend far more of our own money and wealth on the poor than we do on our own entertainment or on vacations or on eating out and socializing with important peers.” And later you note that, “Jesus is at least calling us to this: to not view our money as our own, and that we should be profoundly involved with and generous to the poor.” Later on in the book, page 94, you note, “If one doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced. And at the worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God.”

And again, you say, “If you look down at the poor and stay aloof from their suffering, you have not really understood or experienced God’s grace.” And of course, in excerpting quotes from the book like that, I don’t mean for it to sound more heavy-handed than it was. This was very pastoral and remarkably helpful. But people are going to read through this and there’s going to be a person who reads this and finds their heart filleted wide open by that, and they are deeply convicted, and they really want to change. So to that person who is experiencing, maybe from reading this, a deep conviction of their hardheartedness, or their lack of concern, or their lack of appropriating God’s grace, what do you say to that person? They’re at that point, what are some next steps for them? Where do they go with that next?

Well, they’re forgiven. That’s the first thing. I mean, you probably will only be convicted if you really say, “Oh, I do know that I’m a sinner saved by grace and I’m being hardhearted.” You’d only be convicted if you believed you’re a sinner saved by grace. So the first thing you do when you find yourself being filleted, to use your cute little term, is that you have to say, “Lord, please forgive me.” You need to ask for forgiveness so that you’re not responding out of kind of an open wound. In other words, you’re not responding strictly out of guilt. You want to be convicted by this, but I don’t want people to be just bleeding all over the page. They need to say, “Lord, forgive me.”

I think the second thing to do would be not to rush. I guess I don’t say it at all in there. One of the reasons why the poor are often not helped is because there is a simplistic understanding of how poverty comes. I do say something about this. In the book, I say the liberal approach to poverty is that it’s all systemic injustice. It’s just rich people holding onto their money, or it’s white people holding onto their money and oppressing non-white people, or it’s rich. So it’s all a matter of systemic racism, period. And in that idea, all you have to do is just basically give the poor rights and money and everything will be fine.

The conservative view is that it’s all about moral failure and family failure. And I found that if you actually go into real work with poor people, with either of those reductionistic approaches, you’re going to hurt those people. Because the realities are very complicated. I try to say that there are many aspects, and I just feel like people are just too quick when they start to feel guilty to run off. They’re almost afraid like, “I need to do something quick before my conscience hardens again.” I feel like they honestly need to take their time to find outlets that really are helping people, outlets that they can either give money to and a little bit of involvement, or give a lot of involvement to and a little bit of money.

Some people have more time than money, and other people have more money than time. And so you have to find the place to give either your time, or your money, or a certain percentage of both that fit you. And I don’t think it’s that easy to do. Even here in New York, I’ve got several great places to go, but I mean, not every place. It’s not good enough just to send your money off to some big relief organization. Though many times some of those big relief organizations do good work. It would be better for you and your family to get a little bit more involved in something that’s more personal. So just don’t be so quick.

We hope you’ve been encouraged by the broadcast tonight. If you’d like to learn more about the things that we’ve been discussing, especially this aspect of how the gospel of the grace of God can change our hearts and cause us to be generous in our justice, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Tim Keller’s Generous Justice: How the Grace of God Makes Us Just. If you’d like to learn more about Tim Keller or about the Ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, I encourage you to go to their website. I’m Scott Anderson, and on behalf of the staff and the crew here, we thank you for watching this edition of Desiring God Live, and we hope that you will join us again. Until that time, may Christ remain your treasure and your joy.

(1950–2023) was an author, theologian, and apologist. He was the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York, and a co-founder of The Gospel Coalition.