Made to Make a Difference
Max Lucado explains (and shows) how it's done.
By Sandy Feit
“When your grandchildren discover you lived during a day in which 1.75 billion people were poor and one billion people were hungry, how will they judge your response?” Several years ago, this question was posed to Max Lucado, and it kept him up at night. The profound implications of staggering need made the pastor/author ask some questions of his own: “What if we rocked the world with hope? Infiltrated all corners with God’s love and life? What if we followed the example of the Jerusalem church? This tiny sect expanded into a world-changing force. We still drink from their wells and eat from their trees of faith. How did they do it? What can we learn from their priorities and passion?”1
This introspection eventually resulted in his latest book, Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference. Max recently spoke with In Touch magazine about how each of us can have an impact on others—perhaps even after our own lifetime.
IN TOUCH MAGAZINE: So many of us race through life at 90 miles an hour. How might you motivate a busy, overcommitted person to become more interested in helping others?
MAX LUCADO: I think it depends on who that person is. If that person is a Christian, I might be so bold as to say, “Well, this is what we signed up for.” I do understand people are overextended. Yet I do my best to convince them that small things can make a big difference—just like a concert, where each person in the orchestra plays his part and a skilled conductor brings out great music. That’s the way God is: if we just do our small part, we trust that He’s going to create something wonderful out of it.
What about when our interests don’t line up with a particular ministry or area of service? Should we assume God has a different “assignment” for us, or might we possibly still have a part to play in that effort?
One of the things we can do is examine the [strengths] and abilities that we have. By asking, What’s the one thing I could do that a thousand other people can’t do? we can identify what skill set we can bring to this ministry. For some people, it would be social activism or some type of policy making. For others, it might be prayer and fasting. For still others, it might be hands-on acts of compassion.
Do you talk to non-Christians in a different way?
I do—I would say, “You know, there’s a secret to the Christian life that you might consider, and that is, you really begin to find your life by losing it. [In other words,] you find the meaning in life by losing it in the concern for other people. Whereas common sense or street wisdom says if you want to find your life, you focus on yourself. Jesus inverted that; He said it’s really better to give than receive. And the happiest people in the world are those who are living for someone other than themselves.
You suggest praying for “a resurgence of compassion and outpouring of service.” Why do you suppose so many people have trouble feeling for the brokenhearted or allowing tragic situations to inspire involvement?
One reason is because the statistics are just mind-numbing, and I don’t think we can live in those statistics very long without feeling overwhelmed. “Compassion fatigue” is a real [issue]. People say, “Well, there’s another world disaster. First there’s Haiti, then there’s Chile, and now there’s Pakistan—all within a matter of months. How can we respond to this?” So we begin to feel a numbness, sometimes even a cynicism, toward the problem of needy people. I think we have to be careful about that; we have to realize, No, I cannot do everything, but I can do my thing. I can do the one thing that God has called me to do.
We can also get educated. There are some situations where we don’t need to help; I’m trying to call people’s attention to the large numbers of people who do work but still don’t eat, because they live in a culture where they simply can’t get ahead. Those are the people that I think we can help.
Sometimes we assume we’re helping but in reality are making things worse. Do you have practical suggestions for avoiding this kind of pitfall?
First, partnering when possible is really helpful. For example, I may have a heart to get girls out of prostitution in Cambodia. But it’s foolish for me to think I’m going to do anything by flying over there, walking the streets, and giving girls money so they can get out. It’s just not going to help. There has to be some type of sophisticated strategy. So that’s where an organization like World Vision, International Justice Mission, or Compassion comes into play. Sometimes our best play is to partner with a group that knows how to drill water wells or understands how to handle the government issues.
Then, right here in our own cities, there are important common-sense things we can do. At our church’s benevolence office, we have the saying, “If they have to have help right now, we can’t help them,” because they should have known better. That’s kind of a hard stand, isn’t it? But we’ve found that there are things we can do [for immediate needs]—we never give cash, but we might give a voucher for groceries. And other practical things like explaining how to postpone paying their electric bill. Very seldom will the company really turn the power off if someone calls and makes an appeal.
You also advocate taking time to “see” the other person. How do we actually do that?
We help people on three levels: in our neighborhoods, in our cities, and internationally. I think the best thing to do is to begin in our neighborhood. There’s a man on our street—his next-door neighbor was a single lady who was so overwhelmed by bills and needs that she couldn’t even cut her grass. When the homeowners’ association was about to come down hard on her, this guy thought, I wonder why she can’t cut her grass. So he visited with her and found out that she had legitimate financial and health issues. Then, in a wonderful neighborly act, he recruited some of us to go and clean her yard out. That’s what “seeing the problem” means: finding the story behind the problem.
So understanding leads to compassion?
It really does. We have a lady in our church whose son is homeless. She allowed me to interview her in front of a leadership conference, so I asked why she was willing to share her story, which many people wouldn’t disclose because of the social stigma. She said, “I want to change the way people see the homeless. I want them to stop seeing problems and begin seeing mothers’ sons.”
Part of the idea is to place yourself in the shoes of needy people. The example in the Bible is Peter and John. Near the Beautiful Gate, they saw the crippled man (Acts 3:4a), and when they saw him, they could respond to him.
Why isn’t the golden rule more intuitive? We’ve all been on the receiving end and know what it feels like to be ignored or dismissed. Why, then, are we so deficient at offering compassion?
It’s just so easy to put a “cocoon” around ourselves—we can really stay out of touch with people and not know suffering. But when we do know suffering, we are overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of it, the volume of it, the impossibility of it
We can get angry and think, Oh man, somebody else needs to be helped.
I think the biblical response to that is: First, realize you cannot do everything, but you can do something—and trust our sovereign God [for direction].
Second, align yourself with healthy churches or healthy nonprofits or both, who do know how to help the poor, even though we do not.
And third, guard against that cynicism—it’s not from God. God gives compassion; the Devil gives cynicism. Matthew 9:36 says that when Jesus saw the crowds, He had compassion upon them. Somehow He knew they were sheep without a shepherd, and they needed somebody to guide them. In other words, He understood them. So a good way to begin is by praying, “God, keep my heart soft, just like Yours.”
1 Outlive Your Life, p.6
Editor’s Note: Outlive Your Life not only explains the value of making an impact locally and globally but also serves as its own illustration. One hundred percent of the book’s royalties will benefit women and children through World Vision and the James 1:27 Foundation, a small San Antonio ministry that assists single moms.