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As Christ-followers become increasingly active in social justice, what is motivating their efforts? Steve L. Porter argues that the sustainability of Christian social action is ultimately dependent on receptivity to the energizing presence of Christ. Felicia Heykoop, Barbara Miller, and Todd Pickett each reflect on the practicalities of implementing such a model in a college, student-learning environment. Mr. Porter is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University. Ms. Heykoop is a graduate of Biola University, where Ms. Miller is the Director of Christian Formation and Ministry and Mr. Pickett is the Dean of Student Development.


Various cultural observers have noted in recent years a heightened sensitivity and renewed commitment to social action in American society, including conservative North American Christianity.1 This increased social consciousness—what we are calling here the “social justice turn”—seems to have emerged instep with increased environmental concern, animal rights advocacy, conservationism, and so on. No doubt there is a complex set of sociological factors that provides some sort of explanation of what has transpired when it comes to this important cultural movement.2 And to the degree that this increased social/global awareness contributes to an increase in human flourishing and creation care, the sociological factors that have influenced this change deserve to be understood, if only to ensure that the mindset continues to be engendered.

This is particularly vital when it comes to the renewed commitment to social justice amongst conservative Christians.3 This is because followers of Jesus need to be about social justice in season and out of season, both when it is popular and trendy and when it is cliché and forgotten. Adam Taylor writes, “The challenge facing the church is how to make social justice more than simply an extracurricular activity within the body of Christ but part and parcel to discipleship.”4 The worry is that if the same sociological conditions that provide momentum to the ONE Campaign (, for instance, also provide the impetus for the church in its social justice efforts, then the church will likely move on to other priorities when those sociological conditions fade.5

Alongside the influence of sociological factors, there is also the question of the unique psychological forces that motivate individuals and groups to be involved in justice-work. In many ways, these psychological forces are more fundamental. They can be triggered and shaped in significant ways by the social context, but they are ultimately the more direct source of energy for human effort. In other words, humans expend energy (for example, make choices, commit time, give money, and so on) in line with what they are moved to do. Motivations are complex psychological structures made up of beliefs, reasons, values, desires, and character traits.6 If one is psychologically motivated to help bring about a more just society, then in principle that commitment will be unmoved by shifts in sociological conditions. So, it is important to understand the various motivational structures that can and do generate participation in justice-work. If the turn toward social justice in the church is going to remain once the celebrities have turned elsewhere, then understanding the motivational structure behind social action, especially amongst Christ-followers, is of extreme importance.

The central argument of this article is that the quality and sustainability of our efforts to bring about social justice is ultimately dependent on the motivational structure which gives rise to such efforts. We first explore three deficient motivational structures: (1) social action fueled by moral outrage, (2) social action fueled by ego-enlargement, and (3) social action fueled by spiritual emptiness. It is argued that each of these motivational structures leads to justice-work that is lacking in quality and sustainability. As an alternative to these models, a biblical-theological model of sacrificial service is presented that motivationally grounds social action in the energizing presence of Christ within the Christ-follower. According to this model, on-going spiritual formation in Christ instills a motivational structure that brings about a rich and sustainable commitment to social justice. However, a major concern with this model is that the dire condition of those in need demands an immediate response that is in tension with the often-slow progression of spiritual formation. This concern is addressed through a treatment of how it is that sacrificial service both flows out of spiritual formation and is also a means of spiritual formation such that the urgency of justice-work is taken seriously. We conclude with some practical considerations when it comes to implementing this model in a Christian college, including from the perspectives of a student involved in social action (Felicia Heykoop), from a director of student ministries (Barbara Miller), and from a dean of spiritual development (Todd Pickett).

Three Deficient Motivational Structures

While there are numerous complex motivational structures that can and do engender social action, three problematic ones are moral outrage, ego-enlargement, and spiritual emptiness. Moral outrage is a legitimate and important part of human moral experience. While any moral judgment (‘I believe x is wrong’) tends to motivate action in line with that judgment (‘I stand against the doing of x’), weakness of will, depression, apathy, competing desires, limitations, and so on often prevent us from living out our moral convictions.7 But moral outrage is an extra-ordinary type of moral motivation. In the face of some gross injustice we become enraged by the injustice, and this moral emotion overrides what might normally prevent us from getting involved.8

Of course, gross examples of injustice should outrage us and such outrage should lead to concrete participation in helping those who are suffering as well as preventing further injustice. But it does not appear that moral outrage is sustainable as a motivation for justice-work, nor does it tend to bring about our best efforts. For one, humans tend to become desensitized to cases of gross immorality such that in the face of recurrent exposure to injustice our moral outrage is diminished. Since moral outrage moves us to get involved and involvement tends to acquaint us with the worst of the problem, our outrage is gradually lessened through repeated exposure resulting in decreased motivation. This is part of what has been referred to as “compassion fatigue,” in which caregivers suffer fatigue and burnout in response to the pressing needs of others.9 Furthermore, moral outrage calls for a quick termination of injustice (for example, Jesus’ clearing out the temple).10 Unfortunately, the complexities and systemic nature of injustice oftentimes necessitate a long-term and strategic response. Outrage and long-term strategy are in tension with one another. When change does not come quickly, outrage can easily turn to despair, pessimism, and cynicism. Finally, many factors impact what does or does not outrage us such that moral outrage is not always accurately aligned with the reality of injustice. For example, sometimes we are outraged about trivial matters (for example, a questionable speeding ticket) and fail to be outraged about clearly immoral situations (for example, police brutality). Outrage alone is a somewhat unreliable guide as a motivation for social action.11

Perhaps considerations such as these are behind the biblical suggestion that while anger is an appropriate human emotion (for example, Eph. 4:26), humans were not meant to carry their anger long-term, but rather, leave wrath against injustice to God (for example, Is. 63:1–6). God has unique qualities that enable him to handle anger regarding injustice in a manner that his finite creatures are generally incapable of. For instance, Paul encourages the church in Rome:

Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:19–21; cf. Gen. 50:19).12

Or, as James puts the point, “let every person be … slow to anger, for human anger does not produce the righteousness that God requires” (James 1:19, 20). Of course, this point must be balanced with God’s desire for his people to intervene in unjust situations (for example, Is. 59:15–18); it is simply that such interventions should not be primarily motivated by outrage (See Prov. 14:29; Col. 3:8; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 4:26).

A second motivational structure that is worth considering is social action fueled by ego-enlargement. Due to the social justice turn, being a socially engaged Christian has become popular. For example, on my university campus, a recent candidate for Associated Student Body President has as a part of his campaign platform a commitment to encourage student involvement with justice causes. In many respects this is fitting, but the politicization of social justice also suggests that it has popular appeal. Whatever good has no doubt come from the popularity and even celebrityism of social justice efforts, such positive associations position justice-work as an attractive means to have one’s ego stroked.

All humans deal with unfulfilled ego-needs to be known, valued, affirmed, appreciated, accepted, loved, and so on.13 One common strategy to get these needs met is to perform in ways that lead those around us whom we respect to take notice and admire us. Behaving in socially approved ways can generate positive attention from others that appears to offer some gratification of one’s legitimate ego-needs. This motivation to appear attractive to others in order to receive acceptance and affirmation is what some psychologists understand as the construction of an idealized or false self.14 Ministry involvement in general has been highly esteemed in evangelical circles, but as of late social justice ministry in particular has been given a preeminent value such that there is high social approval of those involved in justice-work.

Unfortunately, when ego-enlargement is motivating our justice-work, the fuel to carry on in this work will go hand-in-hand with the amount of attention and affirmation we receive. This breeds a culture of competition amongst activists who are often working in organizations where the ones able to give such attention and affirmation are few and far between. It takes a fairly secure person to do the requisite ego-stroking and, even for such a person, stroking another’s needy ego can be quite draining. The pressure to get around to everyone and make sure they feel valued and cared for can be incredibly time-consuming and emotionally exhausting. If there are many who are looking for ego-enlargement and not enough affirmers in the offing, then resentment can set in amongst persons who feel unnoticed and underappreciated for their “sacrificial” work. When our egos are at the center of our ministry efforts, those who do not get noticed often become hurt and bitter, those who do get noticed can tend to become aggrandized and arrogant, and those who encounter failure in ministry often quietly fade away. For, in truth, social action motivated by ego-enlargement is ultimately not about the other but rather about one’s self. In the end, there is no “sacrificial” service if my ministry efforts are driven by a need to receive recognition from those I serve or those who see me serve.

A third deficient motivation for justice-work is spiritual emptiness. Consider the following hypothetical interaction between a spiritually struggling college student, a well-meaning Bible major, the leader of the school’s evangelism club, and a member of the school’s chapter of Evangelicals for Social Action. The struggling student confesses, “I am feeling distant from God, apathetic towards Scripture, disillusioned with the church, and I am sinning … a lot.” Our well-meaning Bible major might say in response: “Have you been in the Word recently?” The leader of the evangelistic club might say: “Did you share your faith with an unbeliever this week?” And the member of ESA might respond: “You should really think about volunteering at the downtown soup kitchen.” All three of these hypothesized, stereotypical respondents have a point. There is certainly something to time in the Word of God as spiritual nourishment, evangelistic outreach as an opportunity to embody the central truths of our faith, and acts of service to those in need as a spiritually reorienting experience. But the potential difficulty with each of these responses is that each one can also become a way to avoid and cover up the loneliness, disillusionment, guilt, confusion, and emptiness that the student is experiencing. A peril with activism of any sort is that it is behavioral and therefore under our direct control. Being socially active is something we can easily “turn on” when life gets too disorienting in other areas. “Getting busy for the Lord,” covers over a multitude of feelings of guilt and shame that often accompany spiritual emptiness. On this point, J. I. Packer poignantly writes:

This is activism: activity gone to seed through not being grounded on sustained self-distrust and dependence on God. But activism is not holiness, nor is it the fruit of holiness, and the activist’s preoccupation with his own plans and schemes and know-how tends to keep him from either seeking holiness or increasing in it.15

While the motivation of ego-enlargement considered earlier is largely an attempt to use justice-work as a means to be known and affirmed by other human persons, the motivation of spiritual emptiness is largely an attempt to use justice-work as a means to hide from our need to be known and affirmed by God. The crucial problem in this case is that social action has become a substitute for cultivating our communion with God. James Davison Hunter writes:

By making a certain understanding of the good in society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective. When this happens, righteousness can quickly become cruelty and justice can rapidly turn into injustice….To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do.16

As Hunter makes clear, when social justice is used as a substitute for cultivating our spiritual life, our work to advance God’s kingdom purposes becomes idolatrous. The practical problem with this is that social action is a miserable idol—it does not feed us well. To try to fill our hunger and thirst for God with ministry involvement is disastrous. Social action makes great demands on our emotional-relational energy. So when it becomes the replacement for the ultimate and inexhaustible Source of emotional-relational energy, we are left even more depleted than when we started. Our inner lives yearn for a fullness of love and acceptance that continues to go unfulfilled. This tends to bring about loneliness and desperate attempts to fill that loneliness with immediate pleasures or escapes (such as food, sex, substance abuse, and so on). This can result in repeated patterns of being drained in ministry, dissatisfaction with the results, loneliness in the aftermath, and desperate attempts to anesthetize the pain.

An Alternative Model of Sacrificial Service

The good news is that Jesus extends to us a uniquely reliable source of motivational power for justice-work that offers an alternative to moral outrage, ego-enlargement, spiritual emptiness, and other unsustainable motivators. Jesus promises that his own energizing presence will remain with and in his followers through the indwelling Spirit (Mt. 28:20; John 14:16–23). As we will see, this dynamic relationship is meant to sustain and empower the human motivational system such that persons are moved with compassion for the needs of others and find themselves desiring to care tangibly for those needs.17

For instance, in his letter to the Colossians Paul is fervent regarding his desire that the church would continue to mature spiritually in the face of an encroaching syncretistic philosophy that threatened to undermine their faith (Col. 2:8). His prayer for the Colossian believers is centered on the power that is available from God to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord … bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10; see also 1:11).18 In this context, Paul lifts the lid on his own ministry motivation. He writes, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29). Paul’s ministry work is energized (energein) by Christ’s empowering presence.19 It is clear Paul is working diligently, but his work is at least partly fueled by a personal power beyond his own merely human resources. Regarding this passage, James Dunn writes, “no room for doubt is left as to Paul’s own utter dependence on God’s enabling for the exhausting schedule that he followed, or as to its effectiveness.”20

In his second letter to Timothy Paul refers similarly to the energizing/ empowering presence of Christ in his ministry efforts. Paul warns Timothy to beware of Alexander who did Paul “great harm” through “opposing” the gospel message (2 Tim. 4:14–15). Recounting his experience with Alexander (apparently a trial of some sort), Paul reports, “at my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 Tim. 4:16–17). Again we see a strengthening/empowering (dunamis) presence of Christ described as a “standing with” analogous to what it would have been like if Paul’s ministry companions (such as Demas, Crescens, and Titus) had stood with him. Paul testifies that the strengthening presence of Christ made it possible for him to remain firm in his witness in the midst of persecution.21 The strengthening presence of Jesus made up for the absence of the human relational support in this instance.

Lest one think that such a motivation for service is unique to Paul, it is clear in various New Testament texts that this model of ministry is the ideal to which all Christ-followers are called. Jesus himself suggests such a flow of ministry in his vine and branches discourse in John 15. One prevalent interpretation of this discourse is that to abide or remain in Jesus is a relational dependence upon him that can occur in varying degrees.22 To the degree that we remain in communion with him, we are nourished by his relational presence like a branch is nourished by a vine. Fruitfulness—that is, character traits and the good works they engender—is the natural outcome.

Jesus shows the converse of this teaching in Matthew 7:21–23 where he refers to those who did amazing ministry feats but did so without knowing him. Since their good deeds were accomplished apart from an interactive relationship with Jesus, he declares that these persons were actually “lawless” in their good works. Similarly to John 15:5—“apart from me you can do nothing”—the idea seems to be that good work done apart from an interactive relationship with Jesus lacks ultimate value.23 It is not that good works apart from abiding in Jesus are not in some manner good (see Phil. 1:15–18), but they lack the most important and most fundamental good of living one’s life aligned with the Lord of life and doing good in and through his empowerment.

In various places Paul teaches his churches to follow this same ministry pattern. One salient example is 1 Thessalonians 3:12 where Paul writes, “may the Lord make your love increase and overflow for one another and for all people, just as ours does for you” (NIV). Eugene Peterson puts the passage this way: “And may the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you.”24 Again, the model is that Jesus is able to fill a person’s life with an abundance of love such that her love for others becomes a natural outflow from her life (see Phil. 1:9). Loving others does not have to be forced. Rather, it becomes the natural thing to do.

A paradigm Pauline passage that supports this model of service is 2 Corinthians 9:1–8. In this passage Paul is concerned that the Corinthians will not be as ready to give financially to the church in Jerusalem as they had previously promised. He exhorts them to be ready to make their contribution (vs. 1–6), but then qualifies it with the following: “Each one of you should give just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver” (vs. 7). Paul desires the sacrificial giving of the Corinthians to be motivated by cheerfulness—not a forced duty or obligation. Cheerful giving is giving that is done in line with one’s desires. We are happy to give when we want to give, when our motivation is aligned with our action.25

But the question is how to bring about such a cheerful disposition in sacrificial giving. Paul continues with a terse theological description of what we have seen was his own experience as well as the teaching and experience of Jesus: “And God is able to make all grace overflow to you, so that having all sufficiency (autarkeia) in all things at all times, you will overflow in every good work” (vs. 8). It is important to urge that the “grace” that is abounding or overflowing is not financial or material blessing.26 God’s grace, as Paul makes clear in various texts, is God’s empowering presence acting in one’s life in a manner that is undeserved (see 2 Cor. 4:15; 6:1; 12:9). The abundance of God’s grace strengthens his children and brings about an inner sufficiency or contentment (autarkeia) that is the motivational breeding ground for generous giving (see 2 Cor. 3:5–6).27 Persons give cheerfully when they are giving out of a true experience of having all, when it is all said and done, that they really need.28

But Does It Really Work?

But at this stage we are liable to view relationship with God as the motivational structure for justice-work as cliché or perhaps simply another example of an unsustainable motivational framework. For those who have been around contemporary Christianity have heard this model before—perhaps too often. We are fond of saying, “We love because he first loved us,” (1 John 4:19) which is, in fact, a succinct statement of the model of sacrificial service presented above. But while such a view sounds nice in principle, in practice it is difficult to know when one is actually loving others out of the love of God as well as how to cultivate such an influx of Divine love. Without a clear path forward into such a way of service, this model can appear just as problematic as moral outrage, ego-enlargement, or spiritual emptiness.

In response, it is important first to see that however trite or impractical it may seem, Scripture does present us with an ideal for sacrificial service that involves our being moved by Christ’s on-going presence with us through the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit. Since such a model is presented in Scripture, it must be that the principle is profound and sustainable. Indeed, the profundity of the principle, and thereby its in-principle-sustainability, is best seen through understanding relationship with God as a vital, nourishing, empowering reality in our lives that we were designed to draw strength from to greater and greater degrees (see Eph. 3:14–19). The Trinitarian Father, Son and Holy Spirit know us, accept us as their own, love us as we are, competently care for us, and are actively with us throughout each moment of our lives. These are not mere doctrinal assertions, but, on the contrary, direct us to a living and life-giving Reality in which we can live and move and have our being.29 Growing into the fullness of this relationship quite naturally brings about love, joy, peace, patience, contentment, and the like. There is an anthropological connection between the human reception of Divine love and the emotions and character traits that such love engenders. We might think of the biblical notions of perfect love driving out fear (1 John 4:18), or the Lord’s shepherding eliminating one’s sense of need (Ps. 23:1), or trust in God’s competent care eradicating anxiety (Mt. 6:25–34), or God’s faithful presence bringing about contentment (Heb. 13:5), or abiding in Christ resulting in fullness of joy (John 15:11).30

One way of getting out from under the tendency to view a transforming relationship with God as cliché or magical is by considering the analogous way that human relationships impact our attitudes and characterological states. For instance, there is a dimension of fear and worry that is lessened, if not eradicated, by receiving the care of competent and loving others.31 A burdened shared is a burden halved, we say, and that platitude carries with it an experience that we all know to be true. Human others, let alone the Divine other, can make a difference in how we experience ourselves, others, as well as our life circumstances. The love, joy, peace, patience, and contentment that proceed from a deepening dependence on God provide a fertile soil from which kindness, generosity, compassion, and self-sacrifice naturally spring.32 The point here is that the biblical model of sacrificial service has a clear rationale to it. The problem is not with the principle itself.

And yet, if this is true, why does the principle of overflowing love for others through dependency on Jesus seem so difficult to realize? We often find it difficult to love our close friends and family members who often have much to offer us in return, let alone our neighbors and enemies who often do not offer much in return. The chief difficulty is that the empowerment for social action that is meant to proceed from God’s presence in our lives is conditional upon our being receptive to his presence. The Apostle Paul speaks of the Spirit’s readiness to bring the nourishing wisdom of God to the Corinthian believers, and yet he says, they are “not ready to receive it” (1 Cor. 3:1–4). We have the amazing potential to abide in Jesus and receive the reality of God into the depths of our lives, but there are various obstacles to our doing so. To enter into this kind of life is to enter into a process of spiritual formation (or sanctification) and such a process immediately confronts the classic Christian barriers of the world (see, for example, Rom. 12:2), the flesh (for example, in 1 Cor. 3:2–3), and the devil (such as in Eph. 6:11). Suffice to say, a treatment of the way of spiritual formation in Christ that takes these barriers seriously would involve a much more lengthy discussion as well as a lifetime of experimental progress.33 The relevant implication for the purposes of our thesis is that social action grounded in the love of God is easier said than done. It does not happen overnight and the way forward is fraught with difficulty.

The Contemplative Life versus the Active Life

But herein lies a practical problem—indeed, a kind of moral dilemma: we are aware of injustice that we are in a position to do something about and that demands an immediate response, but we are lacking in the spiritual maturity to act from an overflow of love. It is morally preposterous to pass by a child being abused because to stop and intervene would cause us to miss our appointment with our spiritual director or because we are on our way to a solitude retreat. We would be out of step with the love commandments of Jesus to wait idly for our spiritual maturity to move us appropriately to action. We are Divinely called and morally obligated to do what we can even in the midst of mixed motives. Nonetheless, we are also confronted by the biblical ideal of sacrificial service flowing from the love of God in our lives. That is the good life of service for which we were designed and such a way of service is good, both for ourselves and those we seek to serve. How, then, do we take seriously both the immediate demand of justice-work and the biblical model of overflowing love that takes time to cultivate?

While there is much to be said here, I will mention two points. First, to the degree we have entered into and have received God’s love, we are able to love truly. There is always some grace that is being received by the redeemed human heart and it is out of this grace that we act for the good of others. No doubt we underestimate how far we fall short of following through on the desires to serve that do arise within us which are in fact fueled by the love of God. In other words, whatever our maturity level, there is much we can do out of the flow of God’s love that is already at work within us.

But, second, as we discover that our motives are mixed—that we are partly moved by outrage, by trying to get our ego-needs met, by covering our spiritual emptiness, as well as by the compassion for others that God’s love engenders—we can intentionally turn our social action into a means of embracing our need for deepening dependence on God in our work. Indeed, we are obligated to act for the good of others in many ways each day without the appropriate desires/motivations to do so. Being a parent, a spouse, a friend, a driver of a car on the roadway, a human being aware of the global situation, and so forth, places us under various demands to act on behalf of the other even when our desires are not always or completely aligned with the demand to so act. We miss the biblical model of sacrificial service only when we disregard such dissonance. But we engage the biblical model head-on when we allow that dissonance—the dissonance between what justice demands of me and my lack of right motivation to act in accordance with that demand—to reveal how void of God’s love I actually am. The dissonance shows how much I desperately need him. We should not allow mixed motives in social action to disqualify us for service, but we should also not act with mixed motives without confession and repentance. What we repent of is that while we know the good and we choose to do the good, we do not do the good out of a God-given love, peace, and joy. We confess to God that our hearts are not completely aligned with his will and yet we lead with the body in doing what we take to be his will. And, as we do so, we use this confession as an opportunity to open more deeply to our dire need to receive more of God’s love in our lives. As we find ourselves with mixed motives, we may pray something like the following:

Lord, I confess to you that I do not want to serve my neighbor in this way right now. Nevertheless, I know it is the right thing for me to do. My lack of desire shows how much your love has not yet pervaded my being, how much I still depend on myself and do not trust you. I approach this act of service that is done in some measure apart from you as a means of opening my life more deeply to my desperate need for you. Help me, Lord, to do this in you and not apart from you.

With such a prayer on our lips, confessing that our justice-work is done at least partly apart from him becomes an opportunity to abide in him. We acknowledge our dependence on him in confessing the ways in which our hearts are not aligned with him, and we repent from that autonomy by acting as he wills.

Practical Concerns

If something like the above spirituality for missions is correct, one question that arises is how to implement such a model of justice-work within communities of Christ-followers. Implementation, of course, is context-specific. One problem that arises on the Christian college or university campus is that it can be difficult to present a coherent message regarding the relationship of spirituality and ministry across the curricular and co-curricular branches of the institution. For instance, it is challenging for the Bible/theology/religion professors who teach on spirituality and mission to collaborate meaningfully with the university chaplain who oversees chapels and other formative opportunities as well as the persons in charge of organizing and developing university-sponsored student ministries. Moreover, even if the university gets its messaging consistent, the students might not resonate with the unified model.

In an attempt to connect theory with praxis, this article turns to three Christian higher education practitioners, each of whom seek to implement a model of sacrificial service in the context of a Christian university. The first perspective is that of a recent graduate of Biola University who, at the time of writing this article, was finishing her senior anthropology thesis documentary on the rise and fall of student activists. The second perspective comes from the Director of Student Ministries at Biola University who seeks to encourage ministry effort done from an increasing fullness in communion with God. The final perspective is that of the Dean of Spiritual Development at Biola University who seeks to encourage missional-formation amongst Christian college students.

A Student’s Perspective (Felicia A. Heykoop)

The fervor with which I have seen my classmates respond to the new social justice movement has been impressive. It seemed everyone I knew had some sort of apparel to signify his or her allegiance to one group or another. If not the shirt, then it was the rubber wristband. However, the rate at which the same people abandoned those activities they previously dubbed their “calling” created potent discouragement. The t-shirts were uncool, suitable only for wearing as workout gear. Silly Bandz replaced the wristbands and now, as a college senior, the new trend is to be skeptical of these do-gooder non-profits.

Students from junior high to college age are hoping to answer a lot of questions: Who am I? What is it that I do? Where do I fit in? What does God want of me? As Porter discusses above, identifying oneself with a cause is a quick fix for an identity crisis. Joining the ranks of a youth-focused organization such as Invisible Children offers students “something to believe in,” “a purpose,” and “something to do and not just feel bad about,” or so a number of former Invisible Children campus chapter presidents told me in interviews I conducted for my senior thesis documentary.34 At the time of the interviews however, none of these campus chapter presidents were involved any longer in Invisible Children or any other social justice organization. What happened?

During my interviews I noticed a narrative pattern common in the interviews of students as well as young, non-profit professionals. The process, similar to how many people describe their Christian conversion, involves hearing a message to which the student has a strong emotional response (often a sort of moral outrage). This message, often in the form of a video, reveals a world of suffering beyond the student’s imagination. Life is turned upside down. The student scrambles for more evidence, support, affirmation—anything that can make sense of what to do in light of this message. As the desperate need crystalizes, the student also yearns to find something to give himself or herself to—something to fill the void of identity. There is also the spiritual disorientation that many of these students are experiencing that would be “fixed” by obeying God’s will. The pressing need, the empty ego, and the spiritual emptiness coalesce and the student commits to a cause.

One non-profit leader said to me that focusing on youth was important because of our extreme ability to mobilize. Adolescents are passionate. If you work with students, you already know this. But, our passion can get ahead of us and like Wile E. Coyote, we run ourselves off a cliff, feet still spinning before we realize we are about to fall. The students I was interviewing had more or less burnt out and not because of anything Invisible Children did. The locomotion had simply slowed to a halt. No emotional fuel was stoking the engines anymore. My interviews revealed that without constant ego-affirmation from peers or superiors, students lost the desire to be a champion for social justice beyond coffeehouse conversations with friends. Their spiritual lives not only did not take off, their social justice efforts often created more disorientation in their relationships with God. For some the subject of social justice had become unattractive altogether. They were skeptical that organizations were really doing everything possible for the good of the suffering beneficiaries or that the issue, such as the war in Northern Uganda, would never be resolved. The students’ driving passion had turned to despair.

Students need more than rallying cries, nation-wide protests, or loyalty shirts, and the social justice movement needs more dedication than a couple years in our late teens or early 20s. If answering the command of Micah 6:8 is uncool by our junior year of college, social justice organizations need to take a good, hard look at their recruitment tactics. As emerging adults, we may respond well to emotional pleas to “save the kids” but what would really help is if social justice organizations and Christian colleges introduced us to a spiritual lifestyle of sacrificial service.

If you ask a high school student why they are going to college, many will say to get a better job and a higher salary. Seth Maxwell of the Thirst Project asks the same question at his high school speaking engagements.35 For Maxwell, rallying kids for a social cause is about giving them permission to live differently than the “college, job, mortgage, die” cycle. What if students said they were going to college to study botany so they could advocate for creation care? Or to study law so they could be an investigator for the International Justice Mission? Or, better yet, what if students said they were going to college to advance their discipleship to Jesus and be led by him to help meet the needs of the world? As members of the social activist community, we should constantly be presenting students with the alternative to what every other high school graduate is going to do and die doing. As Christians, we know what the alternative is: it is a lifestyle that places Christ as king of this world and allows his Spirit to empower us for service in his kingdom.

A Student Ministries Perspective (Barbara Miller)

As Christians in student development, we often direct our efforts into creating structures and opportunities for students to grow in their faith through practical ministry involvement. We come alongside students as they learn to participate in acts of mercy, love, and justice. My aim as a campus minister is to help students learn to operate through the energizing power of the Holy Spirit as they live out their Christian callings. I want to see students intimately connected to Christ as the source of their motivation, joy, strength, and power because I know that helping students into a spirituality of sacrificial service will sustain them in ministry for their lifetimes.

Of course, it is one thing to have that as a goal and another thing altogether to implement that value practically into a student ministries program. The student ministries staff seeks to pay attention to some of the unsustainable ways that students are motivated in ministry—for instance, the strategies of moral outrage, ego-enlargement, and spiritual emptiness discussed above. This enables our staff to avoid colluding with these kinds of motivational structures and instead offer structures that assist in helping students to abide more deeply in Christ as they move through life and ministry.

With this in mind, we have identified several practical ways to help foster an “abiding in Christ” approach to ministry:

  1. We intentionally seek to create structures that lead students into a deepening intimacy with Christ. First, we program space to pray, to worship, to be silent, and to process with others what God is doing in them and through them. All ministry teams are encouraged to spend as much or more time in prayer as they do in actual ministry service. Various forms of prayer are structured into team meetings, training sessions, and staff meetings. This sets the tone for seeking and hearing from God both individually and as a ministry community. Second, individual spiritual direction with a trained spiritual director is part of each student leader’s ministry commitment. This calls them to relate honestly and intimately with God and to grow in self-knowledge. Third, we encourage all ministry participants to take part in campus “Sabbathings,” which are day-long, guided retreats that provide them with space and structure to spend extended time alone with God.
  2. We structure the ministries into student-led peer communities so that they will experience the sharing of joys, burdens, and experiences. This helps them gain perspective on their ministries and situations through the “normalizing” of their experiences. As they debrief and unpack together the realities of suffering, sin, and evil that they encounter, they are practicing the importance of spiritual community. It provides a context for students to learn how others see and experience them and to work through conflicts and struggles that arise on their teams as they minister.
  3. We integrate foundational scriptural formation principles into the structure of our student ministry training. We emphasize the application of scriptural truths to the common temptations they experience in ministry. This is seen as an opportunity to ground students into the kingdom values of servant leadership, abiding in Christ, identity in Christ, and understanding their calling to engage and impact the world for Christ.

As a student ministries staff, we value grounding our work with students in a theology of spirituality and mission. We have met with various theologians on campus (including Porter) to help ensure that the students are hearing a unified message regarding spirituality and missions. While each of us will have our unique take on the best practices by which to form mission-minded students, there has been a significant amount of collaboration on Biola’s campus in order to help develop long-time, faithful servants of Christ in the world.

A Student Development Perspective (Todd Pickett)

It seems undeniable that this generation of Christian college students are more aware than previous ones of the world’s overwhelming needs and the call of Christians to respond with ministries of compassion, justice, reconciliation, evangelism, and missions. They would agree with Thomas Merton, who many years ago wrote, “No Christian can remain unconcerned in this [renewing] work…the dimensions of the task are as wide as the world itself.”36 At this time our students, fortunately and for a variety of reasons, feel this deeply. Equally fortunate is that nearly every member school of the CCCU has mission statements that in some form give voice to this outward call: “[for] changing the world,” “ to help build the church and improve society,” to prepare students “for leadership worldwide,” to be “agents of renewal in the academy, church, and society,” “to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ,” and “to make a difference in today’s world.” These missional phrases resonate with our students, as they should, and Christian colleges and universities are moving ever more intentionally to create programs that give students the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to be change agents in the world.

Of this work, Merton goes on to say:

Nevertheless, the task begins within each Christian soul. We cannot bring hope and redemption to others unless we ourselves are filled with the light of Christ and with his Spirit. In order to be able to share effectively in the Church’s burdens [its “participation in all the struggles, problems” of the world] we must first gain strength and wisdom. We must be educated in love. We must make a beginning of holiness.37

An “education in love”—that is a significant and intriguing phrase, and one that is very important in the spiritual formation of students in our ministries. If such an education in love is our calling as educators, it should make us wonder what this requires. Certainly, it involves students not only in the awareness of the world’s needs, but the intellectual, analytical, creative, and behavioral competencies to “do justice and love mercy” (Micah 6:8). We want our students to be excellent in these world-changing disciplines and crafts, and we want our Christian colleges and universities to be distinguished by the work of these graduates in the world. This is what students want, too. But this is also where a temptation lies. At the same time that college and universities are offering to make their students distinguished and excellent in their training, students are looking for an identity by which to justify themselves—identities that this generation of Christians increasingly wants to find in their power to impact the world.

Speaking developmentally, college-age identity questing is normal. “It is the age of identity explorations…of trying out various possibilities, especially in love and work. It is the age of possibilities, when hopes flourish, when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.”38 Having individuated from parents, plucked out of their high school social groups, living now as smaller fish in a larger pond of high achievers, and aware that they will soon have to make a living of their own, college students tilt toward the future with questions that must be answered not only for pragmatic reasons but also for identity formation: Who will I become? What will be my field of study? What will be my profession and calling? How will I impact the world? These are normal and important questions for students to ask. However, they have been given an anxious and self-conscious edge by a Western culture whose ubiquitous media parades before us images and stories of success, influence, achievement, and fame that belong to the very few. As a result of these media saturated comparisons, students “have higher expectations in every area.”39 Unfortunately, evangelical Christian college and university culture by and large has unwittingly compounded this desire for distinction in students through its own parade of high-profile Christian achievers and celebrities, who are rotated through university chapels and lectures—ours included. As one sociologist has put it, for this generation of American college students, “Feeling good is connected to being significant, being known widely.40 For many Christian students, we might say, feeling good about one’s self is connected to doing good in ways that are not only highly effective and powerful, but that are also cutting-edge and cool enough to garner attention. In this tournament for attention and distinction, the command to love our neighbors can in practice get hijacked by the self-love of ego-enlargement. This is not inevitable, but it is common, and not just for college students but any of us whose ministries or Christian competencies have become calling cards for our own identities. We are all more or less continuously tempted to wrap ourselves in the clothing of achievement, success, and distinction in order to cover our limits, our failures, and our fears. The unsustainable motivations of ego-enlargement and spiritual emptiness loom large on the college or university campus.

As a campus minister, I regularly meet students whose desperate searches for identity appear to be driving their pursuit of ministry and vocational choices. It often comes in the form of an urgent desire to found a new ministry, lead a new movement, or create a new kind of gathering that will launch revival and change their fellow students whom they perceive as apathetic. The key word here is “urgent.” There is an impatience to it. They have a vision that is much needed for our world, but which also brings an emotional solution to filling the hole in their chests—patching up the feelings of smallness, limit, and ordinariness as well as their frustrations with their own sanctification. Sometimes the catalyst for this has been a chapel speaker who, with much sincerity, has called students to a new horizon of activism. At other times, it stems simply from a sense of impotence in the face of the world’s problems or even those of their own lives. For students seeking ministry as an identity-crisis stop gap, engaging in one of the college’s or university’s ongoing student ministries is often not as appealing as leading or founding a new one from scratch. I am frequently asked if this or that new ministry vision could also become part of our official or required chapel or student ministry offerings. In identity development paradigms, this request makes sense. Often our identities do not feel real until we sense that the larger community mirrors and affirms them in some official way.

Time usually tells whether the energy that motivates our callings is from the Holy Spirit or from our overweening identity hunger. So I force students to take time. When I receive emails from them pitching the idea of a new university ministry or service that will transform the student population, I agree to meet with them—but on one condition. I ask them to take two weeks and pray for two or three particular students they know, asking God for help in discerning what obstacles keep these friends from complete surrender to the will of God in these ministry areas. More often than not, two weeks later when I contact the student, he or she has lost an interest in pursuing the vision. While I suppose this could be considered a missed opportunity, the sower’s seed on the hard path whisked away by the enemy, I think it is just as likely that the seed of the vision was not inspired chiefly by the love of God. The student’s identity crisis, to which the vision answered, had now passed for the moment, or they found some other way to address it. In the cases where they no longer want to meet with me, I am disappointed, having hoped to hear from them what they have discerned about “the education in love” required to overcome the obstacles that keep us from the will of God, especially expressed in neighbor love.

The next step of course is toward our true identity. In our college’s education of student ministry leaders, the keynote is a return to an identity founded in the cross. When we regularly recognize and repent of our tendency to live out our callings in an effort to prop up our egos and fill our emptiness, it allows us to fly to the cross, revisiting and re-experiencing our complete acceptance in God, through Christ. As we do this daily and weekly, thanksgiving gradually overtakes anxiety, and ministry flows more and more from love, “for we love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). When students grasp this, they are relieved. Indeed, they want to experience a freedom from the self-absorption that identity seeking requires. They are eager to find the spiritual practices for deepening the gospel in us. We offer them some, but remind them that the Holy Spirit will lead them in this as well, and it will take time. Chiefly, it will be life’s trials that will show us when we have over-attached to ministry identities, and it is these same trials (if we let them) that will lead us again and again to an identity rooted in the love of Christ. Identity turns out not to be found in what we do but to whom we belong.

We must be gentle with those students—and with ourselves—when we sense that our and their enthusiasms are driven by inordinate identity needs. First, we do not have perfect knowledge of their hearts, and we do not want to quench what the Spirit may be doing. Second, this may be an important developmental moment for them, an opportunity for self-knowledge that may lead them to an identity grounded more deeply in the cross. These are truths that are best discovered with a mentor from whom they sense total acceptance, mirroring to them their full acceptance with God.

In all these cases, spiritual formation can work from the outside in. We encourage our students to “lead with the body.” As James K. A. Smith puts it,

We are now enabled and empowered to take up this mission precisely because of the gift of the Spirit…the Spirit meets us where we are as liturgical animals, embodied agents, inviting us into that ‘suite’ of disciplines and practices that are conduits of transformative, empowering grace.41

As Porter proposes, a life of service to others in whatever way God has called us is not optional. We strike out, doing our best to obey our particular callings, whatever the condition of our hearts on any particular day. But as we serve, we listen and discern. We let the anxieties, impatience, conflicts, joys, pleasures, disappointments, and failures of ministry lead us in a formational loop, back to God, praying unceasingly, “Lord what are you doing in my heart and how can I cooperate with it? How are you healing and sanctifying me so that I do your will with joy—not in an attempt to self-atone, to find distinction, or to found an identity apart from you—but to do so in Christ. What is the education in love you are teaching me?”

This constant discernment and prayer, we hope, brings with it humility—our need for an ever continuing education in love—in the gospel. This is walking humbly with God, the necessary third part of Micah 6:8 that protects our compassion and justice ministries from becoming mere projects of self-love for the maintenance of our own identities.


Pickett, Miller, and Heykoop each make clear that the Christian higher education setting is a challenging and strategic environment for students to develop life-long habits of ministry involvement. Each also identifies the tendency amongst college undergraduates to pursue justice-work from such unsustainable motivational structures as moral outrage, ego-enlargement, and spiritual emptiness. In the place of such distorted motivational structures, Pickett, Miller, and Heykoop agree with the primary notion of this article: that spiritual formation in Christ offers a unique empowerment for justice-work through the energizing presence of the Spirit of Christ. Moreover, each envisions practical ways to inculcate such a model within the Christian higher education context.

While it is as yet unclear whether the recent turn to social justice amongst Western culture and conservative Christians will stick, it is encouraging to hear from a student and two who work closely with students that a missional life centered on the empowering presence of God is a reachable goal. For such a life is fueled by a source that is limitless in supply and necessarily brings about a loving engagement with the needs of others. As has been discussed, maturing into such a way of life is easier said than done, especially given the pressing needs of the world. But our social action can then be seen as a discipline or liturgy that becomes an opportunity for confessing our deep need for God in the very act of service. It is our hope that this sort of integration of spirituality and mission will make sense to the emerging adults in our colleges and universities and propel the church forward into justice-work that is sustainable and Christ-honoring.42

Cite this article
Steve L. Porter, Felicia Heykoop, Barbara Miller and Todd Pickett, “Spiritual Formation and the Social Justice Turn”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:3 , 263-284


  1. For instance, see Brian Steensland and Philip Goff, eds. The New Evangelical Social Engagement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Mark Labberton, “A Mighty River or a Slippery Slope? Examining the Cultural and Theological Forces Behind the New Interest in Justice,” Leadership Journal 31.3 (Summer 2010): 20–24; Adam Taylor, Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010); Brian McClaren, et al. The Justice Project (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009); Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002); and Timothy J. Keller, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997).
  2. It is a complex sociological question as to what to make of the apparent increase in social action within the West amongst emerging adults and amongst conservative Christians in particular. For our purposes here, all that is required is some sense that there has been a “turn” to social justice amongst evangelical Christians. On this, see Brian Steensland and Philip Goff, “Introduction” and Joel Carpenter “What’s New about the New Evangelical Social Engagement?” in The New Evangelical Social Engagement, 1–30 and 265–279. See also Omri Elisha, “Moral Ambitions of Grace: The Paradox of Compassion and Accountability in Evangelical Faith-Based Activism,” Cultural Anthropology 23.1 (2008): 154–189 and “‘You Can’t Talk to an Empty Stomach’: Faith-Based Activism, Holistic Evangelism, and the Publicity of Evangelical Engagement,” in Proselytization Revisited: Rights, Free Markets, and Culture Wars, ed. R. Hackett (New York: Routledge, 2014), 431-452.
  3. While various definitions of the term “social justice” could suffice for the purposes of this article, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s definition can adequately serve to locate our discussion. Wolterstorff writes, “a society is just insofar as its members enjoy the goods to which they have a right.” For Wolterstorff, rights are “ultimately grounded in what respect for the worth of persons and human beings requires.” See Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2008), xii. Social justice, in this sense, would include the great good of persons having the freedom and opportunity to respond to Christ’s call to follow him as Lord and Savior. In other words, on a Christian view, respecting the worth of human beings requires ensuring access to the good news of Jesus.
  4. Taylor, 220.
  5. Mae Elise Cannon addresses this concern in her Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 11–12.
  6. For a helpful discussion of the psychology of motivation regarding moral choices, see Lorraine Besser-Jones, “The Motivational State of the Virtuous Agent,” Philosophical Psychology 25.1 (2012): 93–108 and Daniel Kelly and Stephen Stich, “Two Theories about the Cognitive Architecture Underlying Morality,” in Peter Caruthers et al., The Innate Mind, Volume 3: Foundations and the Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 348–366.
  7. This common-sense connection between moral judgments and motivation is called “motivational judgment internalism.” See Connie S. Rosati, “Moral Motivation,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( Accessed on March 18, 2011. See also, Derek Parfit, “Reasons and Motivation,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 71 (1997): 99–130.
  8. Moral outrage is typically distinguished from personal anger and empathic anger. Personal anger is directed at being harmed personally and empathic anger is directed at seeing someone harmed with whom one is personally connected. Moral outrage is a form of anger triggered by the perception of moral wrongdoing (whether or not we are personally connected to the situation). See John Haidt, “The Moral Emotions,” in R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, and H. H. Goldsmith, eds. Handbook of Affective Sciences (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 852–870; and C. D. Batson, et al. “Anger at Unfairness: Is it Moral Outrage?,” European Journal of Social Psychology 37 (2007): 1272–1285.
  9. See Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sells Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York: Routledge, 1999); and Cynthia Harr and Brenda Moore, “Compassion Fatigue Amongst Social Work Students in Field Placements,” Journal of Teaching in Social Work 31.3 (2011): 350-363.
  10. Some New Testament scholars see Jesus’ “cleansing” of the temple (Mk. 11) as a symbolic attack on the injustice of the temple system of sacrifice. For instance, see Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 347–349.
  11. Various social psychological studies suggest that moral outrage is influenced by, amongst other things, our ability to identify with the victim or our personal connection with the victim. For example, see Ward H. Goodenough, “Moral Outrage: Territoriality in Human Guise,” Zygon 32.1 (March 1997): 5–27 and Shunsuke Uehara, “Anger at Perceived Moral Violation: A Situational Determinant of Moral Outrage,” The Japanese Journal of Social Psychology 28.3 (2013): 158–168.
  12. This Scripture quotation is from the New English Translation (NET). All remaining Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  13. This need for ego fulfillment appears particularly acute in the aftermath of modernity and what Philip Cushman has referred to as the “empty self.” See Philip Cushman, “Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology,” American Psychologist (May 1990): 599-611.
  14. For instance, Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991). In Horney’s language, behaving in certain idealized ways to get affirmation from others is a movement “toward” the other as a “neurotic scheme” to attempt to satisfy legitimate ego needs.
  15. J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in our Walk with God, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 82.
  16. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 285–286.
  17. Cannon commends a similar position on the motivation for social action in her Just Spirituality, 1–16. See also Dennis Hollinger, “Mission and Ministry,” in Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed. Glen Scorgie (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 228–233 as well as James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 151–191.
  18. One commentator notes that in Col 1:11 Paul “stacks up four different power-denoting terms … to persuade them that they do indeed have access to incredible divine resources for living according to the standards the Lord has called them to.” See Clinton E. Arnold, The Colossian Snycretism: The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1995), 303.
  19. For more on this, see Arnold, 304–305 and Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 148.
  20. James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 127.
  21. See Philip H. Towner, 1–2 Timothy and Titus (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994), 211–212.
  22. See, for instance, Chrys C. Caragounis, “‘Abide in Me’ The New Mode of Relationship between Jesus and His Followers as a Basis for Christian Ethics (John 15),” in Rethinking the Ethics of John: “Implicit Ethics” in the Johannine Writings, eds. Jan G. Van Der Watt and Ruben Zimmermann (Kontexteund Normen neutestamentlicher Ethik/Contexts and Norms of New Testament Ethics, 3; WUNT, 291; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 250–263 and Andreas J. Kostenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 241–242, 503–504.
  23. For a relevant discussion, see Michael J. Wilkins, The Matthew NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 324–326.
  24. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1995), 434–435.
  25. Simon K. Kistemaker writes: “Paul says that the act of giving must be accomplished neither reluctantly nor grudgingly. Reluctance implies a clinging to possessions that one hardly wants to give; and when they have been given, the giver grieves. Giving grudgingly denotes that external pressures compel one to conform to the rules of society; that is, necessity forces one to comply with the community’s objective. Giving, however, must be voluntary and individually motivated.” Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 312.
  26. For one, Paul has just presented the generosity of the Macedonian believers (2 Cor 8:1–5) as an example to the Corinthians, and the Macedonians were very impoverished themselves. The Macedonians gave in abundance because God’s grace moved them toward extravagant generosity not because they were materially blessed. In comparison to the Macedonians, the Corinthians are materially well-off, but that is not the basis of Paul’s exhortation. Rather, the basis is the grace of God acting in the Corinthians’ lives as it acted in the lives of the Macedonians. For a discussion of the “economics of abundance,” see Frances Young and David F. Ford, Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 172–180.
  27. For a thorough discussion of the grace-filled, empowering presence of God bringing about overflow in the context of 2 Corinthians 9, see Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 436–440.
  28. Again, Paul illustrates this point in his own experience in Philippians 4:11–13. Here he tells the Philippian Christians that he can be content (autarkeia) in any and every situation because Christ is strengthening him.
  29. For a helpful treatment of this sort of conceptualization of communion with God, see H. H. Farmer, “Experience of God as Personal,” Religion in Life 2 (1933): 234–246. For a more recent account, see Paul K. Moser, “Faith,” in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, eds. Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 14–29.
  30. For more on such a view of relational transformation, see Steve L. Porter, “Contentment,” in Ibid., 126–144. See also the various contributions to a special issue on “Christian Spirituality and Christian Mission” in the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 6.1 (2013).
  31. Various psychological theories—object-relations theory, attachment theory, relational psychoanalysis—offer empirical evidence and explanatory frameworks for the formational significance of human relationality. For instance, see Stephen A. Mitchell, Relationality: From Attachment to Intersubjectivity (Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 2000); Robert Karen, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (New York: The Guilford Press, 1999).
  32. For a discussion of the connection between relationship with God, emotions, and virtue, see Robert C. Roberts, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
  33. There are various recent writers who have attempted to delineate the process of spiritual formation in Christ with a realism regarding the difficulty of such a formation process. See, for instance, David Benner, Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003); Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (HarperCollins, 1998); John H. Coe and Todd W. Hall, Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010); and James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).
  34. Felicia A. Heykoop, “Activism Fatigue in a Generation of Social Conscience: Why Youth are Too Valuable to Your Organization to Let Them Burn Out,” senior thesis, Biola University, submitted May 5, 2011.
  35. For more on Seth Maxwell’s story, see Accessed April 4, 2011.
  36. Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness (New York; Doubleday Books, 1996), 28.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Jeffrey Arnett, Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 8.
  39. “But they very quickly confront their limits and since few people can reach the goals of the perfect life, much anxiety, depression and loneliness is generated.” Jean Twenge, Generation Me (New York: Free Press, 2006), 104.
  40. Ibid., 110.
  41. Smith, 154.
  42. The ideas in this essay were first presented at the CCCU-International Justice Mission co-sponsored conference entitled “Student Learning and Global Justice” (April 2011). We are grateful for many helpful comments and interaction that took place over the course of that time.

Steve L. Porter

Biola University
Steve L. Porter is Professor of Spiritual Formation and Theology at Biola University.

Felicia Heykoop

Biola University
Felicia Heykoop is a graduate of Biola University pursuing a Master's in Public Health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Barbara Miller

VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System
Barbara Miller, formerly the Director of Christian Formation and Ministry, currently serves as Chaplain Resident for the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System.

Todd Pickett

Biola University
Todd Pickett is Dean of Spiritual Development as well as Campus Pastor at Biola University.