Justice and GenerosityNovember 2010
by Tim Keller
I’ve written a book that will be coming out this month called Generous Justice. A number of people have asked me why I wrote it, and others have asked about the title itself. My answers to these two questions go together.
One group of people I hope will read the book is the young adults who express a passionate interest in social justice. Vol-unteerism is the distinguishing mark of an entire generation of current American college students and recent graduates. The NonProfit Times reported that teens and young adults are creating enormous spikes in applications to volunteer programs. As a Baby Boomer it is interesting to me that volunteering rates were high in the 1970s but had fallen off until the last half of the last decade when they began to rise again. Of course I consider this an excellent trend.
However, many people have imbibed not only an emotional resonance for rights and justice from our culture, but also a consumerism that undermines self-denial and delayed gratification. While they may give some of their time, they spend large amounts of money on entertainment, their appearance, electronics, and travel. For a great number, then, volunteering is part of their portfolio of life-enriching activities, but it is not a feature of a whole life shaped by a commitment to doing justice, including radical generosity with one’s finances.
One of the things that struck me as I was studying the Bible’s teaching on justice was how often financial generosity is considered part of doing justice. Job says, “If I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless...if I have seen...a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep...these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high. (Job 31:13-28)
Many people believe that “justice” is strictly the punishment of wrongdoing, period. They don’t think we should be indifferent to the poor, but when we help them they would call such aid charity, not justice. But Job says that if he had failed to share his food or his fleece—his assets—with the needy, that would have been a sin against God and by definition a violation of God’s justice. Of course, we can call such aid mercy or charity because it should be motivated by compassion, but a failure to live a lifestyle of radical generosity is considered injustice in the Bible.
Our culture gives us a mixed message. It says: make lots of money and spend it on yourself; get an identity by the kind of clothes you wear and the places you travel to and live. But also do some volunteer work, care about social justice, because you don’t want to be just a selfish pig. However, Christians’ attitudes toward our time and our money should not be shaped by our society; they should be shaped by the gospel of Christ, who became poor so that we could become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The main theme of my book is that the gospel of grace will turn anyone who truly believes it into a person who does justice for those in need. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but also generosity and social concern, and a willingness to live a more modest lifestyle in order to be generous to the church and to the poor. This kind of life reflects the character of God (Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Psalm 146:7-9.) We have the Biblical and spiritual resources to overcome the superficiality of our culture and become what the spiritual descendents of Abraham should be—a true blessing to our city and to the poor. (Genesis 12:1-3; Galatians 3:7)
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