In the essay Wells argues that when we think that our most pressing problems are human mortality and limitation this distorts Christian mission and service. In light of that, Wells suggests that perhaps our deeper problem isn't mortality but isolation:
Most educated people in our culture assume the fundamental human problem is mortality, specifically, and human limitation, more generally. But here is my argument. What if it turned out that the fundamental human problem was not mortality after all? What if it turned out that all along the fundamental human problem was isolation? What do I mean by this? If the fundamental human problem is isolation, then the solutions we are looking for do not lie in the laboratory or the hospital or the frontiers of human knowledge or experience. Instead the solutions lie in things we already have—most of all, in one another.Wells goes on to suggest that if isolation is our deepest problem, the real ache at the root of our sadness and suffering, then Christian mission shifts in an important way. Wells describes this by contrasting the words "for" and "with." If human limitation is the fundamental problem we are always trying to fix things. We do things "for" people. But, Wells argues, doing things "for" others doesn't get at the root issue of isolation.
It seems that the word that epitomizes being an admirable person, the word that sums up the spirit of Christianity, is “for.” We cook “for,” we buy presents “for,” we offer charity “for,” all to say we lay ourselves down “for.” But there is a problem here. All these gestures are generous, and kind, and in some cases sacrificial and noble. They are good gestures, warm-hearted, admirable gestures. But somehow they don’t go to the heart of the problem. You give your father the gift, and the chasm still lies between you. You wear yourself out in showing hospitality, but you have never actually had the conversation with your loved ones. You make fine gestures of charity, but the poor are still strangers to you. “For” is a fine word, but it does not dismantle resentment, it does not overcome misunderstanding, it does not deal with alienation, it does not overcome isolation.What to do? After examining how God is "with" us, rather than doing things "for" us, Wells suggests that we shift mission and service from "for" to "with." What overcomes isolation is being "with" others. And being "with" rather than doing "for" radically alters what Christian mission should look like. This makes "with," in Wells' opinion, the most important word in the bible:
We have stumbled upon the most important word in the Bible—the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purpose and destiny for us. And that word is “with.” That is what God was in the very beginning; that is what God sought to instill in the creation of all things, that is what God was looking for in making the covenant with Israel, that is what God coming among us in Jesus was all about, that is what the sending of the Holy Spirit meant, that is what our destiny in the company of God will look like. It is all in that little word “with.” God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be “with” us.Read the whole essay. Share it widely. It's really one of the best things I've read in a long, long time.
In a lot of ways, “with” is harder than “for.” You can do “for” without a conversation, without a real relationship, without a genuine shaping of your life to accommodate and incorporate the other...What makes attempts at Christmas charity seem a little hollow is not that they are not genuine and helpful and kind but that what isolated and grieving and impoverished people usually need is not gifts or money but the faithful presence with them of someone who really cares about them as a person. It is the “with” they desperately want, and the “for” on its own (whether it is food, presents, or money) cannot make up for the lack of that “with.”