I grew up with a misunderstanding in my mind as it relates to how Christians serve others, and particularly the poor. While I have seen this misunderstanding primarily reflected in American conservatives, I am not blaming anyone in my life. I think that this misunderstanding led me at times to look down on others, to refuse help, and to protect my own interests. The misunderstanding is this: while the Bible teaches that we are to serve and help the weak and poor, we should only serve and help those who deserve it.
One of the first times I had to really wrestle with this bias in my own life was when I started volunteering at a homeless day shelter in Louisville, KY back around 2006. I had seen that great Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness. In this film I saw a man that was genuinely working hard, seeking to care for himself and his family, but because of situations out of his control he ended up homeless with his son. He was able to pull himself out of homelessness through extreme motivation, hard work, and the generosity of a few. As I started at the homeless shelter, I was expecting to be serving this type of person: the “deserving” poor.
As you may have guessed, this is not what I found. Instead, I found people that were often unkind to me, addicted to various substances, and most of whom would ignore opportunities to pull themselves out of poverty. I met there one young woman who was 22 years old. She said that she had parents that were willing to help her, but that she had refused because she wanted to do things on her own. She had lost several jobs because she was, “not the kind of person to work 40 hours a week.” I watched another man slowly go blind as he used government assistance to buy any kind of alcohol or drug he could get his hands on, including rubbing alcohol. I worked there with numerous homeless men who were over 300lbs. All of the food they needed to maintain such a weight came from tax payer dollars, or donations primarily from churches.
I volunteered for around a year, and honestly, I never met a Will Smith. I have since met many very hard working poor people (mainly women) in Cameroon. Most of them, however, are not kind, they squander wealth when they do get it, and have very different ideas of how money should be used in general. Further, I have been deceived into giving to unworthy causes. I gave one man money for his son to have a treatment for an infection on his finger. Instead of taking his child to the hospital, this man spent the money on alcohol and beat his wife. His son had to have his finger amputated. Others I have paid for work, and they blew it on junk and then asked me to pay for their kids to go to school. To be honest, it is maddening. And the Republican in me wants to throw my hands up and say, “I gave you a chance! You blew it!” and stop helping the poor altogether.
But, I can’t. I can’t abandon the poor. And as I have explored my own frustrations and compared them to the biblical calls to help the poor, I have found that I am the one who is wanting. Specifically, there are three realities that I have found in the Bible that have dramatically changed by attitude towards helping the poor:
1. The Bible never says to avoid being taken advantage of
It was absolutely shocking to me when I first realized that the Bible never tells us to avoid being taken advantage of. Apparently Jesus talked about finances more than any other single subject except the Kingdom of God. And in all that he said about money, he never told us to be careful when we give so as to not be taken advantage of. He never gives us a list of questions we should ask a beggar to make sure they are going to use the money wisely. He doesn’t tell us that we should put people to the test before giving to them. Instead, these are the type of things Jesus said about money:
- Luke 6:30 “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”
- Luke 6:35a “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back…”
- Acts 20:35b “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
- Matthew 5:42 “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
- Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
- Matthew 19:21b “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
- Luke 12:33a “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.“
I have found that when I read the Bible I love to read Paul, but Jesus has a way of making me feel really uncomfortable. He tends to say things like “sell your possessions and give to the needy” without any qualification! My immediate response is to say “Yeah, but…” (see my section below). But I have honestly just had to deal with what Jesus said. I have had to ask myself, “In what way are you obeying the command to sell your possessions and give to the needy?” In asking that question, I have discovered that my resistance to give is rarely godly.
2. The Bible says to serve your enemy
Just before we left Cameroon for our home assignment we had a bit of a blow up with one of the new Kwakum believers. He had been caught in sin and when confronted responded with anger, spreading lies about Stacey and me. The family of this young man makes up a large part of our village and for the most part bought into his lies. The weeks leading up to our departure were full of icy stares and passive aggressive comments. The day before we left one of these family members asked me to give some money for a medical issue. I have to tell you, my heart was cold to the request.
In the Mosaic Law, God told Israel at one point: “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother…” (Deuteronomy 15:7). Up until this point, I had always read this as a command to avoid stinginess, and certainly this is part of it. But I can see that some of my “stinginess” is not a love of money, but rather a heart of bitterness and unforgiveness. In the case above, my heart was not cold because I wanted to amass wealth, but rather because I was hurt by betrayal. This command in Deuteronomy was convicting, but it was just calling me to love my brothers.
Romans 12:20b-21 says, “‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” My fleshly response to offence is to withdraw and cease to help. The biblical response is to give, and to overcome evil with good.
As we are considering how to help people with our limited resources, God specifically calls us not just to love our enemies, but to help them, to give to them. When we are faced with poverty, need, and hunger, the command is the opposite of limiting our giving to the deserving. We are called to give to our enemies.
3. There are no deserving, even me
Ultimately, I found that I developed a cynicism whenever I was asked to give. When I saw people begging on the side of the road, my first thought was, “They are probably lazy, or worse, deceitful.” When reading and being convicted by Jesus’ words, it has caused me to ask myself: what is at the heart of that cynicism? I think that, at least in my heart, it has been pride. My search for the “deserving poor” has revealed a heart that considers myself deserving. I work hard, I provide for my family, I am able to be independent. Why should I give to someone who is not even willing to work as hard as me?
The fact is, I was believing lies. The Bible makes it clear that when Christ died I was considered “still a sinner” (Romans 5:8), an “enemy of God” (Romans 5:10), and “dead in my tresspasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). What would it have been like for God to wait until I was deserving before he gave to me? It would have looked like me perishing in my sin. While needy and poor, God gave me riches, not because I was deserving, but because he is generous.
Considering both the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) and the concept that we are supposed to forgive in response to the forgiveness we have received (Ephesians 4:32), it seems clear to me that we are to give as we have been given to: not based on worthiness, but based on the grace that has been shown to us.
OK, OK, OK. Though Jesus does not qualify his statement “give to everyone who asks you,” there certainly are some biblical principles that apply. We are called to “be wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16), we are told that only the “simple believes everything” (Proverbs 14:15), and warned that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). I have appreciated the teachers in my life that have pointed out that while sometimes our giving is limited, it should never be limited by a lack of forgiveness, or a desire to protect myself, or bitterness, or cynicism. Instead, there are times we limit our giving because of love. For instance, if I know that someone is going to use any money I give them for alcohol, I probably would not give them money. However, there are many ways to give that are not money. So, my love might say that I won’t give someone cash, but would give them something to eat or a pair of gloves.
My conclusion has been that God is much more concerned that our hearts be full than our wallets. God does warn us not to take advantage of others (1 Thessalonians 4:6), but not to avoid being taken advantage of. He tells us to give to the poor, and be wise, but never that it is sin to be deceived. I believe that if someone lies to me, and I give to him, he will be judged and I will be rewarded. That is a pretty good deal for me, and not something I need to be afraid of.
As a human, I feel the pull of limited resources. I am tempted to feel like when I give to the poor I am taking food out of my kids’ mouths. But when I read the Bible it becomes clear to me that God does not see it this way. All that I have comes from him. He is generous and promises to take care of me. He also calls me to give generously, and then tells me not to be afraid of what I will eat or wear, because he will provide them. Giving then, especially giving out of our own poverty, is an act of faith. As such, it should be done in faith, the way that God gives: to the undeserving, primarily because there is no one else to give to.