A new biography of Lord Shaftesbury was launched today – the first for over 20 years. Shaftesbury (1801-85) was the driving force behind reforms to the conditions of mental health patients, factory workers and child labourers.
He was one of a number of campaigners for whom faith was not just a private ‘hobby’, but a driving, motivating force. They looked at the world around them and saw huge injustices and needs. They could have prayed for the salvation of the souls of the children working down mines and up chimneys, to give them hope for the life after their (inevitably early) deaths, but they didn’t.
This is a question I’ve been wrestling with (at a low level) over the past months. Which is more important – prolonging and easing lives, or saving souls?
When sick people came or were brought to Jesus, he very often started by forgiving their sins, and only went on to healing their diseases and disabilities almost as an after thought.
Surely his example must be the right one to follow?
And yet Isaiah 58 tells us:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
I’m still trying to get my head around this, but I think at least part of the reasoning is that if a man is exhausted, starving, demoralised or otherwise weighed down with the cares of life, it is almost impossible for him even to hear, focus on or understand the offer of God’s salvation. “Glory and riches are beyond our grasp,” to misquote A Knight’s Tale, “but a full stomach – that dream can come true!”
Winning hearts and souls sometimes means tending to bodies first, in order for the whisper of God’s love to be heard over the screams of physical need.
I’m still trying to figure this out, but in the meantime I’m doing my best to learn from the lives of those who did have a handle on it. I’ll keep you posted. And I’ll post a review of the book when I’ve read it.