Seven years isn't such a long time, but when you're spending that time in San Quentin, each minute seems to have its own sunrise and sunset. George Jackson (not his real name) has spent the last seven years of his life in that California prison, and he'll spend the remainder of it there. Besides working at his prison job (dishwasher) and playing a bit of handball, he writes. Lying on a hard, metal cot in a room with no windows, he records each day's thoughts and feelings in sort of a self-descriptive novel about his life behind bars. George is no different than most of the other prisoners, except that he's now a Christian — a member of the Worldwide Church of God. And he's growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ because someone in God's Church, in an act of unselfish Christian concern and love, cared enough to visit him — a total stranger. "Before my conversion, I was completely alone," George wrote to The Good News. "I had a mother, a father, sisters, a wife and two kids, and in six years I had received one letter from my mother. It's hard to believe that a total stranger took me in and made my life worth living again." In Matthew 25, Christ clearly shows the importance God places on our individual acts of mercy for those who are less fortunate. "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them from one another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. "Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me" (Matt. 25:31-36). Because of their selflessness in service to Christ, these righteous ones were given a place in the Kingdom of God. But they could not understand Christ's mercy and their great reward. "Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?" (verses 37-39). Christ's answer, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (verse 40). The epilogue of the story is that those who did not serve and comfort even the least of the brethren went away into everlasting punishment. They failed to understand what true religion is all about. God says that pure religion is this, "To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself [oneself] unspotted from the world" (Jas. 1:27).
Our individual responsibility
Each of us has a personal, individual responsibility placed on us by Jesus Christ to serve our brothers with genuine concern. Christ said that whosoever desired to be great in His Kingdom could show his greatness through service (Matt. 20:26-27). He also prophesied that in the end time as lawlessness abounds, people's hearts will harden, and the love of many will grow cold. That attitude can affect even God's elect, and we must guard against it with all our might and the power of God. Many in the Church have already allowed this attitude of nonconcern to penetrate their defenses. It is obvious by their works or lack of them. More than a quarter of a million men and women are serving time in state or federal prisons in the United States alone — thousands more worldwide. When was the last time you visited one of them? And there are 24 million poverty-level Americans from families that earn less than $6,500 a year, which is more money than millions of Third World families will see in their lifetime. When did you last give any of them a loaf of bread or a pair of shoes? And how long has it been since you've comforted just one lonely stranger? Most of us fall far short in our personal responsibilities as Christians. Reasons abound for not caring and not showing concern through good works. But there are no excuses. You are being judged, right now, by your actions, and it is those actions that determine your position in the Kingdom of God. "The time has evidently arrived for God's judgment to begin, and it is beginning at his own House... And if it is true that we are living in a time of judgment, then those who suffer according to God's will can only commit their souls to their faithful creator, and go on doing all the good they can" (I Pet. 4:17, 19, Phillips translation).
Created for good works
The performance of good works is as central to the concept of Christianity as is belief in Christ and His teachings. From the beginning, God's Church and His people have been committed to doing good. Paul wrote in Ephesians that this is the very reason for our existence: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10, Revised Standard Version). The Church is doing many great works in nations around the earth. The Work — as it is called — has grown from a small West Coast operation in the United States to a worldwide concern expending millions of dollars a year to do God's Work. Today, as prophesied, we're doing an even greater work than Christ Himself did. Each month the Work mails millions of magazines and other pieces of literature, and multimillions of watts of radio and television power are used in fulfilling our commission. But what about you as an individual Christian and your own responsibility in doing good works? Is just being a part of an organization enough? God says it isn't! It is all too easy for individuals involved in a mass effort to hide behind the skirt of corporate religion, neglecting their own spiritual duties. But God says at the judgment, He will render to every man according to his deeds, not according to the deeds of the Church he belongs to (Rom. 2:6). We cannot depend on the Church's record for our own salvation. Too many of us, resting on the laurels of the organization, feel justified by the dollars we send in and the prayers we send up. Instead of being active Christians, we are acting Christians, and the latter will be spewed out of God's mouth at the judgment. Jesus hates hypocrisy. To him religion is not an exercise in intellectual vanity or self-righteous satisfaction. It is actively living and doing the commandments of God. He continually attacked the scribes and Pharisees for pretending to be something they were not. These religious leaders of Jesus' time were the antithesis of true religion. They were continually wrapped up in numerous talmudic dos and don'ts while neglecting the more serious considerations of outgoing love and concern for their brothers.
Faith through works
Brethren, it is up to Christ to satisfy the needs of a world that is dying from spiritual malnutrition. As Jesus said in John 6, " I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst" (John 6:35). But as disciples of Christ and heirs of His Kingdom it is up to each of us, individually, to bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the royal law of Christ. We are hypocrites if we say we have faith in the commandments and do not show that faith through works. "What does it profit, my brethren, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith save him? "If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled; notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit? "Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone" (Jas. 2:15-17, paraphrased). Thousands, like George Jackson, are alone in this world. Millions more are hungry and naked. And they all are made in the image of God. If you've been lax in showing real concern for others, especially your own brethren, start immediately to practice the love and concern that God's Church has preached for years. In so doing you will be establishing your place in the Kingdom of God.