Christian defeatism responds to issues like racism, injustice, and poverty with statements like, “This will always be a problem. It will never be solved. So, why keep talking about it?” Whenever issues of sin and brokenness arise, you will likely hear some level of Christian defeatism. While there may be a measure of truth in defeatist statements, the attitude itself is highly problematic.
I’m quite certain someone is preparing to quote Matthew 26:11 to me, “For you always have the poor with you.” It’s true, we will always have to deal with issues like poverty. The only thing that will completely eliminate poverty, injustice, and racism is Jesus coming again.
But when Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you,” he wasn’t being a defeatist. He wasn’t telling people to be unconcerned about those in need. He was commending Mary for anointing him with, “expensive ointment” (see also John 12:1-8). Jesus was saying his temporary presence with them justified such an extravagant gesture of love and devotion.
We do not honor Jesus or his words when we take him out of context to excuse ourselves for being unconcerned about the poor, especially while spending extravagantly on ourselves. If we would turn back just one chapter, to Matthew 25:31-46, we would hear Jesus say that when his disciples give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, hospitality to the stranger, clothes to the naked, and attentive care to the sick and imprisoned they do these things for Jesus himself.
If we want to honor Jesus the way Mary honored Jesus, we will do what he told us to do. The fact that poverty will remain is no excuse to avoid doing everything in our power to help those in need.
Misunderstanding the Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus spent his entire ministry preaching, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He told the crowds that the kingdom of heaven would be “planted” or “hidden” as something small, but would eventually expand to become disproportionately great (Matthew 13:31-33). In other words, Jesus described the kingdom of heaven not as a place people would be going, but as a reality he would be bringing. Our problem is that we are waiting to go to the kingdom of heaven instead of embracing the reality that it is here right now. We should be like the man who found the treasure in the field and “in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
The kingdom isn’t something for which we are just waiting, but is something we should be finding. And if that’s true, we must live like it. We must embrace and live out the kingdom reality, even before it covers the earth. The words, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” should be something we not only pray, but also live out.
The Christian defeatist, who believes he is supposed to simply wait around until Jesus comes, is not living as someone who has already found the kingdom of heaven. The early church sold and shared their belongings to ensure there “was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). They did this because they knew they had found heaven’s kingdom. They began to live out the reality of the kingdom even in the midst of a broken world.
That is the joy of the Gospel, heaven’s kingdom is breaking through into our world right now. Just because there is still brokenness, does not mean the kingdom of heaven is not a present reality. When Jesus rose from the dead, the new creation came with him from the tomb. That is why, amongst those of us who believe and proclaim this Good News, there is no room for defeatism.
Mischaracterizing “Spiritual” and “Physical”
One thought I hear constantly from Christians is that Jesus is concerned with the “spiritual” rather than the “physical.” Or the church should not concern itself with “physical” issues, only “spiritual” issues. Not only can this be a form of Christian defeatism, it also has far more in common with the teachings of Plato than the teachings of Jesus.
In his ministry, Jesus did not have any contempt for material or physical things; nor did he show preference towards that which was non-material. Actually, the whole idea of incarnation (God becoming a human being) undermines this sort of Platonic ideology. At this very moment, and forevermore, Jesus is the one in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus did not surrender his bodily existence when he ascended to heaven and his concern for the physical needs of humanity has never ceased.
When Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and shared meals with social outcasts, he was not just showing off or giving object lessons. His concern and care were genuine and he filled his disciples with his Spirit to continue caring for the physical needs of others in his name. We may not be empowered by the Spirit to miraculously heal the sick today, but we can certainly care for the sick, the poor, the mistreated, and the marginalized by loving our neighbor as ourself.
Isn’t that what it looks like to, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? I don’t know a single person who is only concerned with his or her own “spiritual” needs. We all want to experience things like nourishment, health, comfort, freedom, and justice. Loving our neighbors as ourselves, means caring that they experience the same sorts of things we want to experience. We are filled with the Spirit to help accomplish that mission of love (see Ephesians).
For more on this point, see also, Spiritual Things NOT More Important Than Physical Things.
I realize some will accuse me of preaching a so-called “social gospel,” likely without realizing that the pejorative phrase, “social gospel” is itself a product of Christian defeatism. Sadly, many Christians believe the Gospel is powerless to disrupt the sinful social order of the world. I strongly disagree.
When the Gospel is TRULY proclaimed and embraced, it begins to set the social order straight. Relationships between spouses, neighbors, parents and children, employers and employees all begin to be transformed and redeemed. Slaveowners are convicted about owning and oppressing their brothers and sisters. Sculptors who made a fortune crafting idols, change their business model. Mothers who disposed of babies they didn’t want, adopt babies others don’t want. Feuding families and tribes forgive injustices of the past and move forward without animosity. The Gospel has been exposing and disrupting societal evil for 2,000 years.
If we remove the name of Jesus, the power of the Spirit, the importance of the church, or the hope of resurrection, our message ceases to be the Gospel. But if we remove the society-transforming aspects, our message also ceases to be the Gospel. The Gospel isn’t just about future hope, but about present victory over the powers of darkness; that is why there is no room for Christian defeatism.
I love you and God loves you,