Everyone wants to help the poor. Yet, no one can agree on how to do so. Poverty is a hot-button issue. Emotions run high. Tempers flare. Politics abound. It seems the conversation brings more division than unity. Yet, it is an issue that must be addressed.
What are we to do as Christians? While most people want to help, a harsh reality exists. The poor and underprivileged are certainly among us. It breaks our heart. However, we all have met people who know how to take advantage of people’s generosity. They want a handout, not a hand-up. Here is the vital question: How do we help without creating an environment of dependency? How can we teach a man to fish rather than continuously giving him fish?
Does the Bible have anything to say about this? Each person and situation is different, I admit. You must look at his this case-by-case. But here are a few biblical principles to guide us.
• All believers are called to help the poor, needy and oppressed (Proverbs 31:8-9, 1 John 3:17, Romans 12:13). John even states that a person who sees his brother in need and doesn’t help him does not have the love of God abiding in him. This should be our delight, not a duty.
• Motive matters. Are you truly hoping to show the love of Christ or simply hoping to brag about it on Facebook? If our motives are not pure, God detests our good works (Amos 5:21-23, Matthew 23:27-28).
• No one seeks after God. Romans 3:9-20 is clear: No one seeks after God. Everyone seeks to please themselves. The natural man is by nature wicked, not good; a sinner, not a saint; lazy, not hard-working. Romans 3 reminds us that all men are totally depraved wretches. This is one glaring flaw in the political climate of the day. Many elected officials refuse to acknowledge that some people would decline even the best job with the best pay because their sinful condition causes them to focus only on themselves. Some people will never take responsibly for their actions because their sinful nature will not allow them to.
• True poverty is not the “poverty-line.” We should broaden our scope beyond the U.S. government’s “poverty-line.” Come with me to a 3rd world country and see the way people live. I’ve met very few people around here with dirt floors and mud huts. Those living below the poverty-line in America would be rich in most countries. This does not mean we are exempt from helping our neighbors. It merely offers a wider perspective.
• Help without enabling. Paul was direct – “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10). Our church has a great strategy – We will help anyone who is willing to work-off their debt around the church. Random people show up (nearly) weekly asking for money. Most leave immediately when they learn of our policy. How do we identify who truly needs help versus those who just want a handout? Most of the time we can’t. The smart play here is to partner with organizations that have the ability to screen applicants (Community Missions, Food Pantries, etc.). Give funds to these agencies, and send people their way. They have the infrastructure to help without enabling addictions, slothfulness, abuse, etc. — as well as to meet their greatest need.
• Meet their greatest need. More than food, clothes or even their next breath of air ... they need the gospel. When you see another in need, look at it like this: Their GREATEST need is the gospel. God likely brought them into your life for you to disciple. Get to know them. Love on them. Take them out to dinner. Make sure you meet their greatest, eternal need – the gospel. I love Peter’s example of this in Acts 3. He tells the beggar, “Silver or gold I do not have but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). He gave this man what he really needed. Spiritual healing.
May God give us all compassion, wisdom and discernment as we help the poor, both spiritually and physically.
Andy Waits is associate pastor of worship and students at First Baptist Church in Springville.