Can We Really Change the World?

[This piece first appeared on ChurchLeaders.com]

In Pursuing Justice, I write about the motto of Kilns College: Learn to Change the World.

A friend recently admitted that he was skeptical of my claim. He wondered if, at the end of the day, it’s possible to actually change the world.  Doesn’t history show that injustice and sin are intractable and constant?

I’ve faced this question many times.  Many people believe that the talk we hear about changing the world is simply triumphal and idealistic cheerleading designed to make us feel more important than we really are.

The truth is, those who believe that we can’t change the world and those who believe we can are both pointing at deep truths in the nature of reality.  One sees the fact that no matter what our efforts, we can’t permanently and fundamentally fix the world and eradicate evil from the human heart, while the other sees the fact that we can and do change the world every day in both small, yet significant ways, and, sometimes, in large and weighty matters.  How are we to understand these two realities?

Back in grad school, studying philosophy, the whole exercise of clarifying an argument always hung on a distinction – separating out a conflated idea into two clear and distinct truths.

The distinction here is: although we cannot fix the world, we can certainly change it.

My friend Keith Wright, International President of Food for the Hungry, has spent his life helping to grow healthy families and communities in the developing world. Recently, he shared with me a study by the World Bank that found extreme poverty, for the first time, has declined in every region of the developing world. Though that doesn’t mean we can fix every economic need in the world (after all, Jesus himself said that we would always have the poor with us), it does mean, however, that one significant and large element of the world is slowly changing for the better.

Another friend of mine is a very busy Urgent Care doctor in town.  In spite of the demands of his career, Randy uses his own money and personal time to drive around a fully equipped medical van, ministering to homeless folks who have no other access to health services. Sometimes he treats frostbitten fingertips and sometimes he literally saves a life.  Randy isn’t trying to fix every health need in town.  He knows that even the folks he helps will have more medical needs in the future, but he serves knowing that, in that moment, what he does somehow fundamentally changes the world, if even in a small way.

Multiply these examples as more and more people heed the call to justice and love for fellow man and the amount of change that happens in the world can grow exponentially.  This is why God commands us to do justice and why in the Old Testament he punished his people for neglecting justice, because what we do does make a significant difference for good or for bad in the world.

We don’t have to remake the world.  Just because we can’t control nature, eradicate all evil or ensure that the hard-won gains of justice will last, does not mean that we cannot bring about worthwhile positive change in the world.  Change is fluid; cultures evolve and devolve.  Changing the world doesn’t guarantee that our victories will be permanent.  And that’s okay.

There are always those who will react to idealism and the ever-prevalent change-the-world language today by choosing to adopt a pessimistic outlook on the potential for deep and lasting change in the structures of the world.

We can be hopeful, without being triumphalistic, however, and we can be realistic, without being pessimistic.

Only God can fix the world; but as we fulfill our calling and carry God’s good news of salvation and healing and justice into the world we become a very real part of changing it.

My friend Dave, who spends his life rescuing young girls from the sex trade, recently had a telling conversation along these lines while at the gym.

Dave was on the treadmill and the guy beside him asked him what he did for a living.

“I save girls from the sex trade by ransoming them out of brothels and slavery.”

The man responded, “Isn’t that kind of futile? If you save one girl, won’t they just grab another one to replace her?”

Dave replied, “I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that.”

The man looked confused.

Dave continued, “I’m not qualified to say whether it really made a difference, you’d have to ask the girl I ransomed from the brothel if it made a difference to her.”

The world changes every day in both big and small ways. I want to watch where God is moving and join him there, recognizing that changing the world is less about being heroic and more about being faithful.

The distinction is necessary: just because we can’t fix the world, doesn’t mean we can’t – and don’t – change the world every day in significant ways.

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Theology and Culture