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What Does Justice Look Like?

Charity, justice, compassion ... all these things sound like something we "should" be doing, but the terms can seem vague and abstract. However, justice is more familiar and closer to home than you might think—and a right vision of it is what sends us out

Jordan recently attended a justice conference, where he was inspired and convicted to begin to live differently. The workshops gave him ideas. The worship was good. He stayed up late into the night in impassioned dialogue with his new friends. It had all the earmarks of personal revival. Six months later, he’s still raising awareness in his church, but otherwise his life really looks pretty much the same as it did before the conference.

Erin has a small bank account but a big heart. When the tsunami hit Japan, she cried and texted a donation. When she heard a presentation about the need for clean drinking water in Africa, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She felt awful and reached for her phone again.

Garrett is studying urban planning. He’s excited about a career spent combating gentrification and creating green spaces in the inner city. But there’s one nagging problem at the back of his mind: He doesn’t actually know anyone living in any low-
income neighborhoods.

Ashley feels like she’s floundering. She’s passionate about God’s call to help the poor and feels guilty when she thinks about their desperate needs and her own comfort. She wants to do something big for God with her life—but for now she waits tables and goes to class. She helps different causes, for now, by reading about them and retweeting the occasional statistic.

Is this what justice looks like?

Is this level of involvement a passing fad—the Christian cause du jour—or a genuine expression of biblical justice?

Redefining Charity

Modern-day charity is well-meaning. Motivated by sympathy, kindness, or pity, a charity mindset earnestly desires to respond to human need and injustice, but that response usually comes from a safe distance. It’s comfortable giving. It’s anonymous activism. And it requires very little personal risk or sacrifice.

Our charity mindset keeps the boundaries crisp by delineating between the giver and the recipient, the helper and the helped. It calms feelings of personal guilt and makes the giver feel better in between semi-regular doses.

But rather than real engagement, this kind of “charity” is just a handout.

Real charity, at its root, is fundamentally different than this modern-day connotation that’s weighed down with the baggage of distance and personal comfort. The word “charity” comes from caritas, Latin for agape love. This is why the King James Version reads, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Paul certainly isn’t praising a well-intentioned tweet here as the greatest of Christian virtues. He’s talking about the powerful, life-changing, value-altering agape love of God—the love that defies self-centeredness and sin and alters the course of a human life.

Caritas—the agape love of God—obliterates the safety of sympathetic anonymity, requiring instead a deeply personal response. It asks Christians not only to give but to give generously, joyfully and sacrificially. It challenges believers to open their homes and live with a type of hospitality that welcomes strangers and outcasts like they’re family. Such love invites Jesus-followers to embrace even enemies and go the extra mile. It challenges God’s people to love the world like God does—a love for which He willingly paid the highest price.

So, how does one get there? How can Christians move from good intentions, fickle passions and distant sympathies to genuine engagement with human need? What shifts the trajectory of a life away from well-meaning “charity” into true caritas-driven justice?

Christians can take several steps to move themselves away from charity as a cold concept and toward a multi-dimensional portrait of
biblical justice.


It was a day that seemed normal enough. Twenty-two-year-old Elena* was listening to the radio on her way home from work when she heard a spot about human trafficking. Rather than brush it off, she found herself struck deeply, and her interest grew even more after she went home and researched its effects worldwide.

Today, six years later, Elena lives in Southeast Asia and ministers full-time to victims of sex trafficking.

“Becoming informed is a critical step,” she says. “If we’re not aware of the issues, there’s nowhere to place our passion.”

But Elena’s journey into justice didn’t begin that day in the car. According to her, it started much earlier in her spiritual life through her study of Scripture. “The Bible tells us pretty clearly that God wants us to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to be people who love mercy and do justice,” she says. “My heart was already learning to beat for justice because of my love for God—so when I learned about lives being sold into sex slavery, it gave my passion a place to land.”

A life of caritas-driven justice is founded on a passion for God’s Word—studying Scripture and delving into the stories of God’s care for the orphan and widow and Christ’s ministry to those in need.

A Christlike concern for global issues—for justice, compassion, creation care, concern for the vulnerable and more—is the overflow of a mind informed and shaped by Scripture.

Rather than living a comfortable Christian life focused on oneself, those seeking to embrace true justice invest in learning about the needs of others. They keep up with the news, study stats and research, attend conferences and explore causes in greater depth. And as their God-inspired passion for a cause grows, they inform others through advocacy efforts.

But the movement can’t stop there. If a cause becomes more about jumping on a trend than serving people in need, justice efforts quickly become ingrown
and immobile.

“It’s just so hip, it’s just so sexy to be all about a cause,” warns Christopher Heuertz, senior strategist for Word Made Flesh, a nonprofit organization that fosters community-based ministry in some of the world’s most impoverished slums.

“We can easily become so branded by the issues and the causes that we’re concerned about,” he says. “We buy the hoodie, we pad our Facebook profile with concerns that make us look illuminated and compassionate, we sign all sorts of digital petitions. But the danger is, we end up dehumanizing the real people who’re being victimized by making them simply a ‘face’ for our chosen cause.”

If Christians don’t move beyond a cause-driven mindset into true engagement, their advocacy efforts can become more about making themselves look and feel good than true mercy motivated by love. The only way to avoid this trap is to turn one’s attention toward others and identify with the real people behind the need.


“For many people today, doing charity or being for a ‘cause’ can be done from a comfy office or by a text or by filling out an online petition or by emailing your senator,” says Sandra Van Opstal, director of worship for the Urbana Student Missions Conference and author of the forthcoming book Mission of Worship (IVP). “Of course, I believe we need to do those things, but there’s no personal connection there.”

On the other hand, Van Opstal says, “When we start to realize, ‘That person could be my brother. That could be my mom. That could be me,’ we don’t do ‘charity’ anymore.”

Identifying with those who are victimized by injustice starts to happen in those epiphany-like moments of self-awareness: What if I were abducted and sex-trafficked? How would I feel? What if my family had no access to clean drinking water? What if my baby was left orphaned? What if I had to work long hours in a sweatshop?

These pivotal questions can swing a person into unsafe territory because the answers—even at a purely hypothetical level—demand a concrete and personal response.

Christians can grow to identify with those in need by recognizing the common humanity behind the surface differences of language, economic background, culture, ethnicity, lifestyle and appearance. At an even deeper level, it begins with glimpsing the imago Dei stamped on another’s soul—recognizing their inherent dignity, value and beauty. Believers begin to see a person, just like them, who has friendships, laughs at good jokes and harbors hopes and dreams.

Essentially, identification places Christians in a posture of empathy that fully embraces Scripture’s challenge to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

On a practical level, identification means trading all exterior labels like “the poor” or “the marginalized” and getting to know all people instead as friends. “I truly believe you cannot have a sustainable, deepening commitment to a cause without relationship,” Van Opstal says.

For five years, Van Opstal led InterVarsity’s Chicago Urban Program, an inner-city immersion opportunity for college students. Today, she and her husband, Karl, live in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, an inner-city community struggling with poverty and violence.

“When you have relationships, injustice keeps you up at night,” she says. “Not because it’s a ‘cause,’ but because now there’s a face to that cause.”

Heuertz laments the reality that many North American Christians don’t have relationships with people living in poverty—an idea he explores in Friendship at the Margins (IVP). “We have insulated and isolated ourselves in these spaces where we don’t have friends in places of need,” he observes. “We need to confess the poverty of our own friendships.”

Cultivating a friendship creates a much different dynamic than a helper/victim mentality or a donor/recipient relationship. Van Opstal advocates instead for reciprocity in relationships. “You are blessing others, but you are also receiving a blessing,” she says.

Beyond trading causes for relationships, Scripture invites Christians into the ultimate step of identification: seeing Christ in the person in need.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats that illustrates God’s Kingdom, Jesus defines righteousness in terms of face-to-face relationships carried with those in need: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me ... Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40, emphasis added).

The desire to serve Christ Himself can undergird justice efforts, especially when it’s too hard to say, “He is like me”—when the other seems too different, too addicted, too angry or too smelly to really relate on a personal level.

This principle of seeing Christ in every human face strengthened Mother Teresa to work, day in and day out, among some of the poorest and sickest and lowliest of the world. She prayed: “Dearest Lord, may I see You today and every day in the person of Your sick ones. While nursing them, may I minister unto You. Though You hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize You. Enable me to say, ‘Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve You.’”


The theological current running through Mother Teresa’s prayer is essentially the truth of the Incarnation, which is the ultimate example of caritas-driven justice. Mother Teresa was able to envision Christ in others because God Himself “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). God didn’t love humanity from a safe distance but instead, as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, He “moved into the neighborhood.” In the ultimate demonstration of caritas, in the person of Jesus, God became one of us—the fullness of divinity embodied in human flesh. In a unique way, God was with and became like humanity.

Christians who answer Jesus’ call to “follow Me” (Matthew 9:9) strive to walk in the way of Jesus—in the way of the one who eschewed comfort, safety and distance for discomfort, sacrifice and contact. Following the example of the Incarnation, Christians are called to be physically and relationally present—“in the flesh”—among those in need.

The move from safe “charity” into caritas-driven justice happens when one lives within it—when the reality of a need or issue or concern shapes one’s actions, one’s choices, one’s relationships and one’s spiritual life. Beyond sympathy, retweeting a cause, wearing a T-shirt or going to a conference, caritas-driven justice invites believers to truly love and invest in people, to joyfully give time and financial resources in places of need, to labor in committed prayer and to take concrete action to address critical concerns.

What does embodied justice look like? It looks like nourishing the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the impoverished, nursing the sick and encouraging the prisoner. It looks like concern for fair wages for the working poor and addressing the practical needs of widows and single moms, orphans and immigrants. It looks like actively fighting modern-day forms of oppression and slavery and refusing to turn a blind eye to another vulnerable and hurting human being. It looks like stewarding creation in a way that honors the Creator above one’s own comfort and convenience. It looks like a lifestyle of sacrificial generosity that defies our culture’s obsession with consumerism.

It looks like a way of life that challenges human selfishness to the core—a love that costs something.

Elena says her work with sex-trafficking victims in Southeast Asia is “definitely hard.” Among the many sacrifices and struggles she’s dealing with are “physical illness, loneliness, missing family, loss of comfort, loss of convenience, financial sacrifice and giving up the dream of going back to school.”

But she says, “What makes it worth it is love. If I were to just care about someone from a distance while keeping myself safe and untouched, it would naturally limit the amount of love I experience for that person. But when I start getting actively involved—getting inside—then the hurt, the cost, the messiness touches me. And that cultivates a deeper love. I feel Jesus’ love in me, filling me and going through me to those I work with and have grown to love. It’s the most alive feeling I know.”

How can one find the strength to love like this—to live incarnationally, even at a high cost to oneself? Christians must be fueled by more than just earnest effort.

Heuertz emphasizes what he calls contemplative activism—making it a priority to spend time in prayer, to listen and to pay attention to God’s presence while serving.

“If we’re only well-intentioned activists,” he says, “we won’t be able to sustain that activism very long in a world that’s so terribly marked by exploitation and suffering. But when we live contemplatively, we learn to live in a posture of consent, a spirituality of surrender.”

Van Opstal finds strength for engaging incarnationally in another spiritual discipline: celebration. “When we look at Christ’s example in the Scriptures,” she says, “Jesus loved the people He was with. He enjoyed them. He certainly wasn’t like, ‘Do I have to be down here with these people? Father, take Me back!’ No, Jesus wasn’t like that. Jesus shows us that incarnation is full of love and joy.”

Yet this joy doesn’t erase the discomfort inherent in incarnational living.

In an intentional choice to live like their low-income neighbors, Van Opstal and her husband have no air conditioning in their home. It seems like a small sacrifice, but she says, “I’m not going to lie to you. When it was 105 degrees last week, I was upset. The reality is, I don’t like some of the things we’re doing—it’s not all fun.”

Even in light of more serious dangers, like crime and street violence in her neighborhood, Van Opstal asserts, “These difficulties don’t negate the fact that there’s so much beauty in my community to enjoy and be celebrated. In fact, I believe that without joy—without the discipline of celebration—commitment to a cause is simply
not sustainable.”

The Holiest Way

So, what can people like Jordan, Erin, Garrett and Ashley do to move forward in their justice journey? What can you do? In a world of pressing need and pervasive injustice, an active life of caritas-driven justice can take many different forms, depending on how you are uniquely gifted and called by God.

It may mean moving across the globe to work with sex-trafficking victims or intentionally living in the inner city as an incarnational presence. It may mean advocating for environmental stewardship and working to ensure others have access to clean drinking water. It may mean working in a third-world orphanage or fighting domestic poverty by tutoring illiterate adults. It may mean donating maternity clothes to a teenager in a crisis pregnancy or providing English lessons to immigrants. It may mean “adopting” a family whose parent is incarcerated.

It may even mean using vocational skills in a out-of-the-box way, such as providing free haircuts to single moms if you’re a cosmetologist, doing pro bono work for a family in the adoption process if you’re a lawyer, or providing mentoring to a creative, at-risk kid who needs a safe place to land if you’re a visual artist.

“So often people feel like the ‘holiest’ way to practice justice is to do something radical, like grab a backpack and live among the poor under a viaduct in the city,” Van Opstal observes. “But really, the holiest way is to be obedient to where the Lord is uniquely leading you. You can answer God’s call to justice in so many unique and distinct ways—there’s freedom in that call.”

Whatever the specific call ends up looking like for you, a lifestyle of justice is ultimately one saturated in caritas—the all-encompassing, unconditional, grace-filled love of God. It’s a life that sees, knows and loves those in need. It’s a life of passion for a cause that is equally matched with compassionate action. It’s a life in which your own hands and feet and life get dirty as you wade into the messy, painful reality of human need and suffering.

And when you do, perhaps even by surprise, you will discover Christ Himself present in the mess.

* Elena’s last name and other ministry details withheld for security reasons.

KELLI B. TRUJILLO is an editor and author in Indianapolis whose heart for justice was profoundly shaped as a college student by Urbana and the Chicago Urban Program. She is the author of the Flourishing Faith series and blogs at



Rebekah commented…

This was absolutely amazing. I can't begin to tell you how much this article touched me and inspired me. Thank you for the differentiation between comfortable trendy social justice, and what it actually means to have a heart for the people you're helping. And sharing how we can be motivated by seeing Christ in all of our actions.


Amber commented…

Sometimes I don't even like the label, "Social justice" as it seems like extra curriculars for Christians who have "time" to help others.

This is the heart of kingdom work - serving others, protecting the vulnerable, etc. Looking forward to the day when kingdom work looks more like what Christ mentions how he will know who his real followers are - Matthew 25 - helping the hungry, sick, prisoners, etc .and less like having coffee with a friend and discussing Christiany things.


Sam Hudson commented…

This article is fantastic. It's so good to see the difference between what's trendy and what we're called to do as followers of Christ. Thank you so so much for posting this!


Anonymous commented…

Wow! So brilliant! This is the message the church needs to hear and grasp and run with and you hae really delivered it in a non judgemental but non able-to-easily-avoid type of way so well done. I am going to post a link to it in my blog []and stick it all over facebook cos it really should be read by all Christ following people. Thank you!

strength in Him
love brett "fish"

Brian H.


Brian H. commented…

Great article and a mission statement for all Christians. I preach on the idea that God didn't put us here to be mere bumps on a pew. God wants us to do good, and a lot of it. I write quite often about this in my books and want more and more people to know that doing good, being active Christians in the way Jesus wants us to be active is actually quite attractive to those people who look at church and Christianity as irrelevant. Doing good for others is quite evangelistic.

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