GENEROUS JUSTICE: HOW GOD’S GRACE MAKES US JUST
By Timothy Keller
Dutton, $19.95, 256 pages
A most beautiful thing happens on the very last page of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas
Carol.” Old Scrooge, after that exceptional Christmas Eve, has been so transformed by his overnight ghostly experiences that - from that day forward - the townsfolk witnessed a man who “knew how to keep Christmas well” all year long. Truly, Dickens’ “covetous, old sinner” experienced a heart deeply changed. In “Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just,” author Timothy Keller shows us how a similar kind of spirit - one of generosity coupled with justice - can thoroughly alter not only a person but, ultimately, society as a whole.
In his previous books, “Counterfeit Gods,” “The Prodigal God,” and the best-seller “The Reason for God,” Mr. Keller tackled theological issues dealing with modern-day idols and the very existence of the Almighty. In “Generous Justice,” Mr. Keller makes the case that true believers in a God of mercy and justice should be on the front lines, pouring their lives sacrificially into helping the less fortunate.
But, it is complicated - and not because of the character of an all-loving, all-giving God, but because of the temperament of self-centered, self-gratifying human beings. Since people are complex - both those in need and those hoping to help them - solutions always require prudent considerations.
One of the best examples Mr. Keller gives is from his first pastoral ministry in Hopewell, Va. The diaconate (a church office associated with service) of this small-town congregation decided to financially support a single mom of four by giving her enough money to pay her overdue rent and bills. Months later they found out that, though none of the rent or bills had been paid, the children all had new bikes and had dined out many times at area restaurants.
The reflexive response from the diaconate was what you would expect: “That was God’s money and she wasted it!” But, when they confronted the woman, they found out why she had used the money the way she did. She was so anguished that her children did not have the ordinary playthings and treats other neighborhood kids could afford, that she wanted to “buy them the nice things other kids get.”
The story goes on: “When [the mom] had the church’s money in hand, she could not resist the temptation to take the children out to restaurants and buy them bikes, because it made her children feel like they were now part of a normal family. Her actions were not simply selfish.” The diaconate continued to work with the woman to help her manage her money better and to eventually get a sustentative job. Additionally, they became “big brothers” and “big sisters” to the children, acting as mentors, tutors and friends. “In other words,” Mr. Keller concludes, “this family needed much more than [just] a financial subsidy.”
There are so many stories - some sweepingly grandiose, some deeply intimate and personal - and they span decades, from how first-century Christians changed Roman culture to modern-day miracles in Baltimore’s community of Sandtown. We learn of front-line ministers such as Mark Gornik and John Perkins whose model ministries to entire underserved neighborhoods have spawned thousands of glorious copycats both nationally and internationally.
Now, even though Mr. Keller states in the book’s introduction that “Generous Justice” is for Christians and non-Christians alike, he often “preaches to the choir.” However, the themes are universal. Consider, for instance, Mr. Keller’s call to “always try to err on the side of being generous.” Generosity has a ring of good cheer for humanity writ large.
Many gems are to be mined from “Generous Justice,” and of the richest is this:
“For indeed, grace is the key to it all. It is not our lavish good deeds that procure salvation, but God’s lavish love and mercy. That is why the poor are as acceptable before God as the rich. It is the generosity of God, the freeness of his salvation, that lays the foundation for the society of justice for all.”
That endearing ragamuffin Tiny Tim exclaimed, “God bless us, every one!” Will we who have already received God’s blessings respond as the old Scrooge or the renewed Scrooge to those who are less fortunate?
Albin Sadar is a writer living in New York City.