By Dick Stenbakken … Knowledge is a wonderful thing. The Bible encourages us to seek God’s knowledge above silver or gold. Knowledge, linked with wisdom, is more valuable than jewels and brings wealth and recognition when rightly used and appreciated (Prov. 8:10-36).

Knowledge of the Bible, its doctrines and prophecies, is great, but there is something beyond knowledge: the ability to put that knowledge into practical work shoes and gloves to touch the lives of others. Paul’s thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians spells it out well. He says without love, the practical fruit of knowledge, without application of what we know, we are just making noise to no practical end. The results are zero. In fact, our noisy sharing of knowledge might just be irritatingly counterproductive.

The Scriptures challenge us to know. But beyond the cerebral sacrament of knowing, there is the reality of applying what we know to the needs of those around us: the honest, no-strings-attached life that demonstrates belief by unselfish, selfless service.

Jesus lived out what He knew. He touched lepers. He spoke to outcast women. He healed ceremonially unclean women and morally unclean men. He demonstrated His theology by his actions. His was a ministry of presence, an incarnational ministry we are invited to mirror. He ministered to people with a no-strings-attached love. He left the choice of belief up to them. There was no quid quo pro demand or expectation.

I have seen that kind of incarnational ministry, and it is winning and warming (as well as challenging!). Here are some examples:

Joe Martin was selling books when he encountered a man who said he would love to buy the books, but he didn’t even have money for shoes. Sure enough, as Joe looked, the man had no shoes. “What size do you wear?” Joe asked. When the man replied, Joe’s face lit up: “That’s the size I wear too! Here, take my shoes. They will fit you,” he said as he quickly removed his shoes and gave them to the shocked, but appreciative man. Yes, the books were “truth filled,” but Joe’s actions spoke an immediate and more readily understandable truth about God’s love than the printed pages of the books the man couldn’t afford.

Or, consider the woman who was teaching Sabbath school one winter when she saw a family come in dressed in well-worn, but clean clothes without any coats. “Did the children leave their coats in the hallway?” she asked the mother. “Well, no . . . they don’t have any coats,” was the timid response. The teacher smiled and said, “We are going to do something very different for Sabbath school today! Mom, you go to the adult class. We’ll meet you at the church service.” That day, the children’s class met at Target. When they got to the worship service, the children without coats all had new, warm winter coats and boots matched by ear-to-ear smiles. (You can debate the timing if you wish, but Jesus said something about the ox in the ditch on Sabbath. I think this equates.)

During the year I spent in Vietnam, I routinely went on convoys with the troops (remember the ministry of presence . . . incarnational being with people?). The troops started their day at 3 in the morning when their trucks would be loaded. At 7 or 8 they lined up and pulled out to deliver food, water, ammunition, supplies, and fuel to various locations. I was in an open jeep in the middle of the convoy (think “moving target in a shooting gallery”). There were safe (safer hopefully) stopping points where we would pause for lunch before going on to our destination. The drivers were young men with voracious appetites. But I never was on a convoy where I didn’t see many of the soldiers give their lunch, and extra goodies they brought along, to the ragged children who swarmed us like ants when we stopped. Somehow the news media never covered that, but I saw it time and time again.

Consider Greig, a Roman Catholic Army chaplain/priest assigned in the greater Washington, DC, area. His job was to give denominational coverage to multiple Army installations in and around DC. His schedule was brutal. He heard there was a brother priest who had been badly wounded in an Iranian IED blast and was now in Walter Reed Medical Center. He didn’t know the man, but he was a brother, so Greig went to visit him. When he got there, the man’s mother and sisters were in the room. They were haggard by the long vigil they were keeping, and by the serious injuries of their loved one. Greig visited with them, had prayer, then said, “If there is anything I can do for you, here is my home number. Feel free to call.”

When he got home, there was a message on his answering machine. The family was asking him to come sit with their loved one on Saturdays so they could get a break. Would he be willing to do that? Saturday! Saturday was Greig’s only free day. It was, essentially, his Sabbath day of rest.

Greig spent every Saturday for the next three months reading and conversing with a man who was so severely injured that there was no way of knowing if he was even aware someone was in the room with him, let alone comprehending what Greig was reading and saying to him. Greig told me he would read for up to eight hours on those days. He would read until he was so hoarse, he could speak no more.

Consider an adult Sabbath school class who was invited to help a teenager get some clothing that was appropriate for her situation: she barely had the basics. The class took up an impromptu offering, including IOUs for those who didn’t have checks or cash with them: the class raised more than $400 on the spot. Two weeks later, it was proposed that the class start a fund to help people in need and to have funds on hand to meet the needs when they arose. The class voted to do so. That was more than 10 years ago. Since then, there have been no appeals for funds. People just continue to give and meet needs as they emerge. Thus far, gifting has been more than $50,000. Funds have covered food for neighbors in need, payment for heating bills during a winter for an immigrant family, help for mission trips, and more. Recipients don’t need to be members of the church; all they must do is demonstrate a need. No strings. No hooks. Just modeling a willingness to put faith into action and theology into practice.

James, Jesus’ brother, put it well: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27, NIV).

It has been said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Esoteric knowledge about the Bible, prophecy, and theology has a place, but meeting needs and modeling the gospel is always appropriate. Compassionate ministry of presence opens hearts and blesses both the giver and the receiver.

We can be so absorbed in attempting to parse prophetic details that we miss needs and opportunities to bless others right around us. Beliefs that wear boots and gloves to lift others’ burdens bridges the gap between profession and practice.

The poet, Edgar Guest, said it well in “Sermons We See”:

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear,
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;
And the best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds,
For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it if you’ll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do;
For I might misunderstand you and the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how
you live.


Dr. Dick Stenbakken, retired army chaplain (Col.), served as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Services at the General Conference and North American Division. He lives with his wife Ardis in Loveland, Colorado. Email him