Thoughts : Poverty : Nearly Quitting my Studies – to Immediately Serve the Poor!

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One of the more unforgettable incidents for me in Australia occurred during the beginning of my 2nd session of studies in 2002. On the 28th July 2002, a day before my 2nd session in the University of New South Wales (UNSW) started, my best friend and I talked on the phone. It was a conversation that nearly changed the direction of my life. And even if it didn’t change it as dramatically as it could have, that phone call and the subsequent events thereafter would forever remain in my mind.

Winston was in Singapore and had just finished reading Malcolm Muggeridge’s “Something Beautiful for God” – the classic biography of Mother Teresa’s life that, along with Muggeridge’s film about her, propelled her to “stardom”. Inspired by the book and the life of Mother Teresa, he soon got in contact with me and on the phone excitedly described his plans to forsake all to help the poor. That is, forsake his studies, his scholarship (he was a few months away from departing to the University of Trent in Canada to begin his University studies), and everything else and go directly to Latin America (both Winston and I have a great love for that region) to help the poor.

He relayed an analogy (or maybe it was a dream) to me. It went something like this, though I’ve probably added a bit more here than was told to me then:

Imagine there were two people on a boat in the sea. One person has to leave this boat (and therefore die) if the other person is to live on. One of the persons on this boat is a rich man. The other person is poor. The $64,000 question is who should go off the boat? Who should sacrifice his life?

Many people would think the rich man should stay on since he would be of greater benefit to mankind. The poor man has nothing to offer and so why should he continue to live on? Shouldn’t he sacrifice his life for the rich man? What if the rich man told the poor man that if he were allowed to live on, he would donate all his money to the poor? Wouldn’t it be better then for the rich man to live on since the poor would not be able to be of much help to mankind as the rich man would?

Yet let us imagine if Jesus were in this scenario. What would he want to happen? The rich man to die and sacrifice his life for the poor man, or the poor man to die and sacrifice his life for the rich man? Would he want the poor man to sacrifice his life for the rich man since by doing so more people on earth would be able to benefit from the rich man’s generosity? Or how about if Jesus were the rich man (if we could imagine for a moment that Jesus was rich in terms of material wealth)? Would he say, “Well poor man, I think you should die because if I were to live, more people in mankind would benefit from my material wealth as I’ll promise to share it with all of them and give my wealth away”?

The conclusion of all this is that Jesus would most probably want the rich man to sacrifice his life for the poor man. If Jesus were the rich man, that is what he would do. If the rich man were a Christian, that is what Jesus would probably want him to do.

To God, sacrificing one’s life in love is the highest ideal. Love calls us to consider the interests of others before ourselves. It is self-sacrificing, it is not self-seeking or selfish. When in a position to be able to give our lives for someone in love, that’s what God would want us to do. In the scenario, it doesn’t matter if the rich man were to be able to do more for mankind and others if he were to live. God would still have wanted him to give his life for the poor man. That’s love.

Yes, following a utilitarian ethic would probably result in the poor man dying for the rich man because more in the world could benefit from the rich man’s wealth. Thus a utilitarian ethic would provide enough excuse for the rich man to not want to sacrifice his life for the poor. I’m very attracted to a utilitarian form of ethics yet I believe in such a scenario there is a higher call that God asks of us if we were the rich man in such a scenario. The higher call is to sacrifice all in love. If less people were helped because the rich man’s wealth would not be given to the poor if the rich man died (maybe he had willed it already to his children before), I believe God has other ways to help out the poor. The point is that in such a scenario, God would have us to love and sacrifice and give all. He doesn’t care about whether you’re rich or poor. God does not love the rich more than the poor. What he calls for is that in any scenario, we show love to other people. That’s a true expression of love: God’s agape love working in us.

The analogy illustrates, albeit imperfectly (as all analogies do!), when considering between 1) studying now, getting a degree and thus probably helping the poor people more later on because of we already have a degree (supposing that a degree would enable us to help the poor people more!) and 2) giving our lives right now (before we get a degree) to help the poor, the best thing to do (and the path I believe God would want us to go) is choice number 2) – i.e. giving our lives this moment to help the poor.

A similar analogy was also written by Muggeridge in his book. He wrote::

Imagine Bernard Shaw and a mental defective on a raft that will only hold one of them. In worldly terms, the obvious course would be for Shaw to pitch the mental defective into the sea, and save himself to write more plays for the edification of mankind. Christianly speaking, jumping off and leaving the mental defective in possession of the raft would give an added glory to human life itself of greater worth than all the plays that ever have been, or will be, written.

People are dying everywhere. People need our help now. To say we’ll help after we get a degree, or that we’ll help once we get rich and thus be able to give more to the poor, is a great cop-out! I believe all this is but merely an excuse to not get thoroughly involved and committed in helping the plight of the poor. We long to go the way of getting a degree because it’s a more secure and safe path. We want security, we want comfort. We don’t want to give up all for the poor.

And anyway, once we’re in the path of getting a degree and once we’ve got it, we will have no motivation whatsoever to give our lives to help the poor. We’ll most likely get a steady career and eventually settle down in a comfortable life, giving money to charity occasionally to satisfy our consciences.

The above was roughly what motivated Winston to come to the point of wanting to sacrifice his university life, studies, degree to help the poor. He told me on the phone after relaying his dream:

——, I know you won’t want to give up your studies and follow me in what I’m going to do. But I hope and believe you’ll join me after I’ve done all this. You’ll be motivated by the path I’ve gone and after your degree you’ll join me to help the poor.

My response to him was that “I’m more than willing to go with you to Latin America NOW. There is no need to wait till after I graduate. I can quit my studies now. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about all this recently and everytime I think of the poor and suffering, I wonder what on earth I’m doing studying and enjoying life. How come I’m so blessed and yet not even doing much to help those who are dying everyday? Studies have become meaningless to me. There is no need for that when you’re already blessed with life and wealth, a wonderful family and home. What I should really be doing is to go and help those people who are less fortunate. And not go in 5 years time. I should be going NOW. For NOW is the time and there shouldn’t be any delay. Nor should there be any excuses! Not when even this second people around the world are dying, while I’m living in comfort.”

Winston told me to find out more about Latin America and where we could go. I was very serious about the whole thing and so was he. I didn’t have to think twice about giving up my studies for my heart had already been prepared. Over the past weeks or months I had been thinking about how I can study when people are dying elsewhere. I had started to despise the lifestyle of those people (including myself) in the Developed World. Not only do we consume too much without considering the plight of those dying of hunger in the Third World but we also tend to follow a lifestyle that is focused on studies, then getting a good degree, then settling down with a family, then caring for our kids…etc. Our whole life cycle is all focused on ourselves and our families. Never do most people in the First World consider long enough that for thousands and millions of people around the world, to merely survive is a great achievement. For us, we have not achieved until we’ve got a great job, are earning much and have a happy family with kids.

That night I called three of my closest friends in Sydney together. It was quite late and I’m sure they wanted to get an early night for the start of school the next day. Yet I told them that I wanted to talk to them about something very important. I spent the next hour or so sharing with them about how I’ve been feeling the past few months, about the questions I had about continuing my studies and about my talk with Winston and our plan to try to go to Latin America. I told them that I may not be studying in UNSW for this coming semester.

Over the next few days, I thought a lot about what had happened. Obviously eventhough my heart was being prepared for this moment of quitting my studies, there were still some reservations as it was a big decision. I didn’t put much effort into enrolling and attending lectures to see if the subjects I was thinking of enrolling in were good. After all, all this may not be of any consequences if I were to quit my studies. I also started to find out about which organization in Latin America or which place in Latin America we would be able to go to. All this of course sounds ridiculous – just quitting my studies (and for Winston giving up his scholarship and studies) without thinking longer about what we will do or how we will do what we want to do in Latin America. But then, I think that some things that ought to be done would seem ridiculous to many. Blindly following the Status Quo isn’t always the way to go. Especially in such a situation of knowing thousands are dying worldwide when you’re more than able to survive – this knowledge that continually pricks your conscience also tells you that doing the ridiculous isn’t the wrong way to go, but rather the right. And if anything should be called ridiculous, it’s perhaps the lifestyles of the people in the developed world who couldn’t be bothered about the millions dying elsewhere.

What happened eventually? Winston eventually decided not to go along with our ‘ridiculous’ plan after having consulted his mother. I think his mother wasn’t too for his plan and thus he decided to abandon it. For myself, I would not go there without another friend going with me on this ‘ridiculous’ trip.

I can’t say I was too happy about his withdrawal. In a way I was relieved that I didn’t have to sacrifice and give up all to go there. Yet, I guess I knew that I wanted to do it because I felt it was the right thing to do in this world today – i.e., I think we need people to do the ‘stupid’, sacrifice their lives and appear ridiculous for the sake of the poor and suffering in the world.

I didn’t allow Winston to rest in his decision to withdraw. I reminded him that whatever his mother says shouldn’t sway his decision. I strongly believe that because what we’re doing is for God and for the poor, not for our mother or parents. And whatever we feel God calling us to do, we shouldn’t think twice just because of our parents. I told him that using his mother is just an excuse, a justification for not wanting to sacrifice all. It may sound very wrong of me to say that but I believe it, just as I believe for myself that my not going because Winston is not going is just an excuse and a justification on my part for my not wanting to give all. I told Winston this:

Winston, if you’re not going, I’m not going. But please let it be known that the fact that you’re not going is not because of your mother or that you’ve thought about it and that you can do better to help the poor after you’ve gotten your degree (which is also the reasoning of his mother and perhaps everyone else). You can’t use that as a justification for your change in decision because we’ve talked over all this already. The little analogy you told me about calls for us to give all now, to sacrifice. The talk about helping the poor better in future if we have a degree is all hogwash! Inside, you know it as well as I. You’re not going because you’re a coward and let that be known. And the fact that I’m not going isn’t because you’re not going. That’s just an excuse because even if you don’t go, I can still go by myself. The fact that I’m not going is simply because I’m a coward too. You and I are both cowards. We don’t have guts. We don’t really want to sacrifice all because we want comfort. We treasure our security. So Winston, please never say that you didn’t go because of your mother. Don’t use that excuse. And I won’t use the excuse that I didn’t go because you didn’t go. When we look back upon this decision of ours, we must not try to make up excuses and deceive ourselves. Truth be told, we’re cowards, gutless people, selfish, self-centered, sinful people. FULL STOP!

And so ended this whole interesting event in my life. In a way, a defining moment in my life that was not to be. A defining moment that lacked any characteristic of being defining at all. Perhaps, it should just be called a “moment” in life. But though this moment was not that defining in any great sense, I will continue to look back on it often. It could have been defining. It could have changed my life forever. The fact it was not to be is all in God’s plan. For everything works for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. But that doesn’t excuse Winston and my weakness, our frailty. I would still continue to argue that we should have given all. That’s the ideal. For too many are dying for us to turn our faces away. Too many are dying for us to say, “wait”. For the more we say “wait”, the more will die…

PS: I know most may disagree with my the idea I put forward that we (especially as Christians) should be giving our lives NOW and perhaps not even worry about getting a degree. Some may say that God has different paths and callings for different people and different timing for different people. I’ve heard this so many times but in my opinion this is just another convenient excuse to justify our apathy and indifference to the dying out there. If we look at this world from afar in a dispassionate and disinterested way and see the many people dying – for example, 20,000+ people die daily due to hunger and almost 30,000 children die daily due to preventable diseases – and then see how the majority of the developed nations’ citizens or Christians live in a me-centered (studies, career, family, house) lifestyle, I dare anyone to say that God is pretty ok with these First World citizens or Christians doing their ‘thing’. I dare anyone to say that most of us Christians are following our true calling or living the lifestyle God would want us to live when millions are dying. Truth is, we are doing way below of what we should be doing to help the suffering and poor in the world. If we say that by getting a degree and studying more, we can help more, well, that has proven wrong because the situation isn’t really improving. If we say that God has different callings for different people, does that mean that he has called Christians to what they are doing now. That can’t be so because we have utterly failed to help the poor in the world. God does not want to see anyone die these preventable deaths. If there are any deaths (and there are lots), it means that we Christians have failed to listen to God calling us to help them. In the end, it’s really not about getting a degree or not. It’s about sacrificing our whole lives to reflect God’s heart of compassion by helping the poor and suffering. You can do it with a degree, you can do it without. My guess is that with a degree, it’s easier to forget that call to give all because once you get a degree, you have more to lose when you give your all. Furthermore, I see no point in getting a degree when lives are at stake each and every second. The call is to help NOW, not to wait. For in waiting, more die.

I guess I write all this in a passionate tone because I strongly believe in it. I’m not here to pass judgement on others. I’m here to pass judgement on us all – including myself! I believe the ideal has been laid out – it is to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow Jesus. It is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, act mercifully and justly. It is to feel for the poor, the dying. It is to be compassionate and understand how they feel and do something about it. The modern Church as a whole has failed in all of this. That includes you and me. That’s all I have to say. We need to do better. God help us all…

PPS.: I know many Christians may not feel comfortable when I talk about judgement above. Matthew 7:1 after all tells us to “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Yet, as Josh McDowell said, this verse is one of verses Christians freely quote that is most taken out of context. The verse doesn’t teach us not to judge, but to judge accordingly to God’s righteous standards (see also 1 Corinthians 5:12). After all, we’re not to keep silent about sin. Prophets of old were not afraid to speak harsh words of rebuke to the people of Israel when needed. It is false prophets who speak of “peace” when in reality God is not pleased with our lives. And furthermore, the Word of God ought to be used as a rebuke and encouragement and challenge to Christians (2 Tim. 3:16). I don’t see how we as a Christian community can remain silent about our great apathy towards the suffering and dying in this world. Perhaps it’s because we just want to speak of peace and love and grace – yet true peace and love and grace applied to the lives of those people dying in Africa is when we in the First World sacrifice our luxurious lifestyles for the sake of giving to them. Maybe I should end with some wise words from that great social activist rock star singer Bono of U2, whose love for the poor and activism on behalf of them was inspired by nothing else but his faith in Jesus Christ:

I believe God is on his knees to the church, to us, to act and turn around the supertanker of indifference. God Almighty is on his knees to the Church. How do I know? Because the gospels are filled with verses about the poorest of the poor. Christ talks about the poor in Matthew 25. “I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you let me in.”

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