The Most Important Word in the Bible

With much gratitude to Tara, let me point you to this remarkable essay--"Rethinking Service"--by Samuel Wells. Please read the whole thing.

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.

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.”
Read the whole essay. Share it widely. It's really one of the best things I've read in a long, long time.

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17 thoughts on “The Most Important Word in the Bible”

  1. Sometimes when I think about the number of people I am truly "with"... it kind of hurts.

  2. Huge! Off to read the whole thing. I wonder just how many things in the bible we have changed to fit our needs and our culture?

  3. We were created by a relational God, who existed in Trinitarian form before there ever was. It makes sense that we would be relational if we were made in His image. As a school teacher I see kids on a daily basis that don't connect. It is painful to watch them. Some desire to connect and don't know how. Some have given up. I have come to see my position as a teacher to try in some way to make these kids matter. Its difficult to do at times.

  4. I am reminded of a counselors advice concerning parenting: that when a small child doesn't do what you ask, to do it with them. Stop all that you are doing to then lead them to the task you want them to accomplish, and do it with them. Not for them, not while yelling or threatening, but simply with them.

  5. Samuel Wells' thinking and preaching are really, truly, genuinely excellent. This line of inquiry changes prayer, too, as well as Jesus' interactions with the various needy persons that crossed his path.

  6. Really, really good stuff. I agree that it is one of the best things I've read in a long time as well. It is truly what I crave, and I know at a gut level that it is spot on. But oh wow, it is SO much easier to set up an automated monthly payment to World Vision or to drop off used clothes at the thrift store than it is to wade into the muck and mire of humanity in all its brokenness.

  7. Thank you for sharing this essay with us! Isolation seems to me to be the fundamental problem facing humanity since the Fall, with finitude (mortality/limitation) as a symptom. If isolation is at the root of all our sin and suffering, that suggests something really amazing: that community -- not individualism -- is how we overcome our finitude. Very counter-intuitive, like so many good and true things.

  8. I have been struggling with this concept. I have been on many missions trips hoping to get more out of each one I was a part of. I was scared of the "with" and thought I could go through life based on service "for". Thanks for bringing this concept to my attention. Opens up a new world of deeper relationships.

  9. Thank you, Richard. This is very good. It is so compatible with the weight EO gives to the Incarnation, which goes even beyond the current trend of being "incarnational" in mission.

    A common thought expressed among Orthodox is that we are all saved together; we go to hell alone.


  10. Oh my....this is a most timely and excellent essay. Thank you for sharing. It spoke deeply to me at a time that I really question not so much the existence of a god (I still believe there is "something" that we call god) but the idea of the Christian god. But this brings me back to a sparkle of hope....God being WITH us....Jesus being WITH us. Not coming to die FOR us to right a cosmic wrong. But to walk WITH us. And that the walking WITH Jesus is the destination and the journey, helping us to walk WITH others. Getting kind of rambly, but thank you again for the link.

  11. Once again you've managed to add to my current internal conversation. I think this goes along with the David Foster Wallace post from last week. As humans, and as spiritual beings, we are supposed to engage each other. All of the time. I think one of the fundamental problems of our world is our ability to create the "other": "illegals," "Muslims," "Republicans," "Democrats," "the stupid effin cashier," "that guy on the bicycle taking up the whole road." When we are truly engaged, and truly with each other . . . the sense of "the other" begins to diminish.

    I played at a fundraiser (I'm a musician/songwriter) the other night for a church mission trip. This wasn't a "church-y" kind of event, meaning I just played a bunch of my songs, and a handful of cover songs. So in many ways it could've seemed like any other fundraiser type show, but it didn't.

    A couple of things stood out to me:

    One, there was a slide show/Powerpoint photo show projected on the wall throughout the evening. All the photos showed close interaction between from people my church and the people in the communities they'd gone to help. That is, they weren't just there to paint houses, or build community centers. They were there to immerse themselves in the lives of the people they were helping. They learned each others names and formed relationships. They keep in touch, and look forward to seeing each other again.

    The second thing that stood out, was that a good portion of the people at the fundraiser were from my church. This is of course not surprising. But in this setting, our differences were illuminated and I became really aware of how much our shared spiritual community superseded our other differences. It's UCC church so there are plenty of liberals, but there are also plenty of conservatives and libertarians. There are bankers, and bikers. Artists and construction contractors. Poets and politicians. Together. Working with each other. Enjoying each others company. Enjoying being WITH each other.

  12. Amen! I have been struggling with similar doubts for a while, but this essay and your comment will make me rethink a lot of stuff. Thank you.

  13. Excellent article. Found this in my internet searching. The words of Christ, "I am with you, but will be 'in' you" came to mind. Now pondering if there is a deeper level of connection beyond being 'with.'

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