Photography by: Stephen Voss
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In his new book “Tangible” (NavPress, 2013), PCA pastor Chris Sicks talks about two kinds of people in the church today: “Deed” people, he says, get their hands dirty. They feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and come alongside the poor. “Word” people, on the other hand, live with both eyes fixed firmly on mankind’s eternal future. Word people, Sicks explains, proclaim the Gospel, defend the faith, and engage hearts, minds, and intellects with a reasoned presentation of the Gospel message.

Too often, these groups are at odds. And that, Sicks tells his readers, not only weakens our attempts to extend mercy; it dilutes our proclamation of God’s Good News. According to Sicks, God means for these groups to work hand-in-hand. When we tend to the poor, sick, and hungry, we not only meet their immediate, material needs — just as Jesus did; we also open their hearts and minds to the words that explain why.

ByFaith editor Richard Doster recently spoke with Sicks about a few of his book’s overriding themes.

You’ve coined the phrase “apologetic of mercy” to summarize the book’s theme. Maybe we could begin with a short explanation of what that means.

Mercy and truth came together most clearly in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, so the apologetic of mercy is not an entirely new idea. My goal is simply to show what role mercy ministry plays in apologetics.

Apologists have long recognized that you have to be sensitive to your audience. Depending on whom you talk with, you might reach in your apologetic quiver for a presuppositional, epistemological, or classical arrow. Those apologetic approaches target the mind of the person you’re speaking to. As Douglas Groothuis put it, “Christian apologetics is the rational defense of the Christian worldview as objectively true, rationally compelling, and existentially or subjectively engaging.”

That’s often effective among people with philosophical doubts. But many other people — perhaps most people in the world today — face other obstacles to faith: pain, hardship, suffering, persecution. They aren’t interested in an intellectual argument for the existence of God, because they are too distracted by their child’s illness, the lack of clean water, or their poverty and oppression. They will probably have a hard time believing in a compassionate God until we show them some compassion.

I am not in any way advocating experiential apologetics. I just think our message of Good News will lack credibility if we preach to people’s minds and ignore the pain in their bodies and hearts (see James 2:15-16).

John Calvin, in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” said, “The heart’s distrust is greater than the mind’s blindness.” Suffering often causes people to doubt if God cares or even exists. If we want to persuade them that He does exist and does care, we should respond to both their pain and doubt.

Thinking of apologetics and evangelism in this way can help us approach anyone in the world. For instance, people who have intellectual doubts need to hear rational answers. They want to know why it’s reasonable to believe God exists, became human, suffered, and died to save sinners. Other people have pressing material needs and long first for material help. It’s hard to hear the Good News when the loudest sound is the growl of your empty stomach.

The apologetic of mercy combines word-and-deed ministry in a way that is persuasive. God does this throughout Scripture. We read in Joel 3:16-17: “But the Lord is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel. So you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” Here’s the surprising algebra in this verse and many others: Needy people + God’s merciful aid = Knowledge of God.

Many people today think, “God has forgotten me. God doesn’t care about my pain.” We respond with an apologia in both word and deed — providing comfort and help that is itself an argument for the existence and compassion of God.

You tell readers that human needs are the lens through which people can see God. How does that work? And how does it affect the way we — God’s people — interact with others?

I became an atheist when I decided I didn’t need God. I became a believer when I realized I needed Him desperately. Isn’t that the case with everyone? It is our need that makes us run to Him, after He quickens our hearts so we can see both our neediness and that He’s our only hope.

Yet, our needs come in many forms. God knows that. Augustine wrote, “God is all this to you: if you hunger He is bread to you; if you thirst He is water to you; if you are in darkness, He is light to you.”

While our need for justification before God is our most fundamental need, are most people thinking about that? They more often feel their need in emotional, relational, and material ways.

The important thing to remember is why needs exist at all. All human suffering results from a broken relationship with God.

Eating the fruit was Adam and Eve’s way of saying to God, “We don’t need you.” God responded, “Actually, you do. Here are thousands of painful reminders of how much you need me.” Pain and suffering are the fruit of the Fall. They are also intended to draw us back to Him once again (see Amos 4).

That’s exactly why needy people were drawn irresistibly to Jesus — lepers who needed healing, outcasts who needed restoration, blind men who needed to see. Their suffering exposed their deepest need, and they saw Christ as their only hope.

Buddhism and New Age philosophy try to convince us that such suffering is not real. That’s nonsense. People in pain know how real pain is. They need real answers, real mercy. How will people experience God’s mercy? Surprisingly, the sovereign Lord of the universe chooses to use human beings as His Body. He uses us to deliver His mercy and aid to those in need.

Just as people feel hardship and pain in tangible ways, we offer tangible comfort and aid.

People’s needs can be an open door into their lives. God asks us to walk in, to address the hunger, fear, injustice, and sickness that are foremost in people’s minds.

Of course, we aren’t being the church if that’s all we do. Our job isn’t complete until we tell people about the God who loves to meet physical and spiritual needs.

When we address the physical needs that result from the Fall and explain to people that God also wants to heal the broken relationship that caused those needs, then we help them see themselves and God more clearly.

There’s an amusing illustration in the book about Bill Monroe. Customers at a truck stop refused to believe that he was truly the country music star — until he played. You use the example to ask: How will people recognize God today? How do they? And what’s our role in making Him known?

Did you have a painting of Jesus in your Sunday school classroom? Well, it wasn’t Him, was it? We don’t know what He looked like. So, how will people recognize Him today? According to the Apostle John, one of the most recognizable things about God is His love. And we have a role to play in revealing that love: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:11-12).

You see what John is saying, right? In some mysterious way, we bring the love of God to fulfillment and completion when it is visible, tangible, reflected — in us. John tells us, in effect, “No one can see God’s face. Jesus isn’t here physically anymore. But when we love one another, we reveal God’s loving character. The invisible God becomes more visible through our love.”

We also have Luke’s implication that Jesus “began to do” His ministry while physically on the earth, and Christ’s promise that His followers would do “greater things” after He ascended to the Father.

Paul even says in Ephesians 1:23 that we in some way are the “fullness” of Christ. Our ministry is the fruit of the tree (the church) that Jesus planted. What does that fruit look like? It should reflect Christ’s priorities: compassion for the suffering, outcast, and stranger.

John Piper has said, “To be a Christian is to move toward need, not comfort.” I love that, even as it makes me squirm. I squirm because I really like to be comfortable. But think of Jesus. He put our needs before His own comfort and safety.

When we move boldly and compassionately into the lives of hurting people, we reflect the proactive mercy we ourselves have received from Christ. We strive to live and love like Him, and call others to repent and trust Him for themselves.

You make a connection between God’s names and mankind’s needs. You then explain how that connection informs our ministry. Would you talk about that?

My wife has stage IV breast cancer with two tumors on her brain. She’ll be on chemo for the rest of her life. God’s comfort has been very precious to us — even more precious because we need it so much.

As a result, we understand very well why the Holy Spirit is called “The Comforter” and Paul calls God “The Father of all Comfort.” Those titles were once just words to us — but through the lens of our needs they help us see God more clearly.

This comfort we receive is not just for us, though. Paul says that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, italics added).

God, our Comforter, pours comfort into hurting people, and expects us to then pour that comfort into other people’s lives. He’s the manufacturer of comfort, and the Spirit is the wholesaler, and we get to be the retailers.

When we comfort those in pain we provide tangible evidence that there actually is a God who calls Himself Comforter. We also stand with the persecuted because God is an Advocate (1 John 2:1). We house refugees and explain that God is their Shelter (Isaiah 25:4). We help orphans and point them to the Defender of Orphans (Psalm 10:14).

We have to point explicitly, of course, by putting the Gospel into words. Deeds alone do not communicate the Gospel. But hurting people may more readily believe in Jehovah-Jireh (I Am your Provider) after His people have provided for their needs.

In the chapter titled “Presence” you use the phrase “incarnate words.” What are incarnate words? How does this idea inform our interaction with others?

Our broken relationship with God is the ache that lurks behind every other pain. That ache can make people skeptical and cynical about love. So when someone says, “God loves you,” they often respond “Really? Then why am I in so much pain?”

There is a big difference between love as an idea and love in action. If I merely tell a lonely widow, “Jesus loves you!” and “God is good!” my words are as two-dimensional as a bumper sticker until that lonely woman actually sees and feels love. After that, we can begin to tell her about the Source of love.

Sometimes the most effective apologetic approach begins by addressing people’s emotional and material needs. That can open the door to talk about their spiritual and relational needs. Yes, we must testify to the character and nature of God — we must proclaim the Gospel — but we may want to start with deeds rather than words. To show first, and then tell.

The Christian truths we proclaim and believe are invisible. But the roots of our faith are visible in the fruits of ministry. That’s what Isaiah 58 is about. When we truly know and love the Lord, it will bear fruit — including compassion and concern for the suffering. As they see our faith blossom into the fruit of service and love, faith itself becomes more credible.

You use the feeding of the 5,000 to make the point that “feelings of helplessness should not be obstacles to ministry.” Would you explain how, when we feel helpless, our ministry might be energized?

We often laugh at the disciples, don’t we? They seem so confused and forgetful. But how would you respond if Jesus said to you, “Feed these 5,000 people with that boy’s lunch”? You’d feel rather helpless, right?

Over and over in Scripture, God calls His people to do big things they can only accomplish if they depend on Him. Feeding thousands of hungry people is just one example.

When you see the hunger, pain, and despair in this world, and realize that God wants you to do something about it, you ought to feel quite helpless. We don’t like being helpless, of course. That’s why: (1) We abdicate to government and nonprofit organizations our responsibility for the poor. (2) We say, “The world’s a fallen mess, and the poor will always be with us. It’s hopeless.” (3) We bite off less than we can chew. We like to succeed, and we like to get the credit for success. So we sometimes set the bar low enough that we guarantee the outcome and never have to ask God for help.

The most exciting prayer meeting I’ve ever attended was with International Justice Mission (IJM). We prayed about undercover operations to rescue children from brothels. We asked God to protect staff members threatened by assassins. We begged the Lord to change the hearts of judges and cabinet ministers who refused to prosecute slave owners.

IJM is doing big, bold things. They are actually freeing slaves! The Body of Christ is doing exactly what Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4:18.

It’s hard work, though. The staff of IJM is very smart and talented — best in their field. But what they do causes them to feel helpless on a daily basis. They know for certain how much they need God’s help. That’s why the entire staff meets every day for prayer. So when they accomplish big things, their faith grows, and God gets the glory.

Chris Sicks serves as pastor of mercy at Alexandria Presbyterian Church in Virginia. Previously, Sicks was a deacon and director of mercy ministry there. He has also worked at a homeless shelter and drug recovery program in Washington, D.C. Prior to his work in ministry, Sicks was an editor and reporter for The Washington Times. He and his wife, Sara, have three children.


About the author, Richard Doster

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (March 2008) and Crossing the Lines (June 2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.