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Examining misgivings about giving to the poor.

June 6, 2011

Justice, as portrayed in the Bible, is this huge idea of giving people what they deserve as creatures made in the image of God. I’ve been learning a lot about this theme of justice in the Bible by reading Generous Justice  by Tim Keller, a book I highly recommend. There are quite a few elements of ‘doing justice,’ one of the main elements being giving to the poor.

When I think about giving to the poor, I can always think of good reasons why I shouldn’t help certain people. However, 250 years ago Jonathan Edwards wrote a really powerful message on giving to the needy and also took some time to answer many popular objections and misgivings that people had at that time. Turns out, they’re the same objections that we use today. Here are several of the most common excuses people can make for not giving to the poor; I will respond to each, as Edwards did, with the truth of the gospel.

Objection # 1: “He has brought himself to want by his own fault.” (In other words, “this guy is poor/homeless because of choices he made.”)

Response: To a real degree, this may or may not even be true, until you find out someone’s life story, you can’t know how they are in the situation they find themselves. Nevertheless, did God spare His Son because we made bad choices? Or did He love us and give up His own life for us in spite of our sinful, wicked choice to reject Him?

Objection # 2: “They know not whether he be in want as he pretends. Or if they know this, they know not how he came to be in want, whether it were not by his own idleness, or prodigality.” (In other words, “this guy could be pretending, I don’t know if he’s actually poor.”)

Response: God gave all people their life and breath, however we, dead in our sins, hated him for it and took his gift of grace and used it against him. Did that stop Him from giving, even though we abuse(d) it?

Objection # 3: “He deserves not that people should be kind to him. He is of a very ill temper, of an ungrateful spirit, and particularly, because he hath not deserved well of them.” (In other words, “He’s mean and ungrateful, so he doubly doesn’t deserve my generosity.”)

Response: (I’m sure you’re getting the idea here) Jesus gave His life for us when we hated him. (“Not that we loved God, but that he loved us” and “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”) How can we then refuse kindness and justice and generosity to someone based on their response?

Objection # 4: “…though they be needy, yet they are not in extremity. It is true they meet with difficulty, yet not so but that they can live, though they suffer some hardships.” (In other words, “He doesn’t have it all that bad.”)

Response: If I truly consider others as more important than myself (which Christ did in a real sense, on the cross), how can I not give them the comforts that I enjoy? Or do I really just think I’m better and more entitled to certain comforts, while poor people do not deserve them.

(A brief aside on this point, borrowed from Jared Michelson. Job says in Job 31, “If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless…then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint. For I dreaded destruction from God, and for fear of his splendor I could not do such things.” (emphasis mine) Notice that word “desires”…it’s not just about some food or money.)

Objection # 5: “I have in times past given to the poor, but never found myself the better for it. I have heard ministers preach, that giving to the poor was the way to prosper. But I perceive not that I am more prosperous than I was before. — Yea, I have met with many misfortunes, crosses, and disappointments in my affairs since.” (In other words, “I don’t seem to get blessed by giving to the poor, it actually leaves me worse off.”)

Response: Do you give to receive? Are you willing to change your life and change your economic stability in favor of helping the poor and oppressed? Christ died! He died for mankind. That’s what I would consider “meeting many misfortunes” on behalf of loving the poor.

I hope those points were helpful and insightful and that the Lord will change our hearts concerning the poor. As always, comments are always appreciated, in agreement or in challenge; maybe you believe you have a legitimate reason not to give to the poor, feel free to share.

Credits:

– These objections were mentioned by Jared Michelson this last Sunday morning during his sermon, so thanks to him for bringing these points by Jonathan Edwards to bear on our current thinking of giving to the needy.

– Quotes from Edwards located at http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/charity.htm

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Vickie permalink
    June 6, 2011 3:49 pm

    Someone in my extended family would give her last dollar to a beggar. Now she works in a drug/alcohol rehab and knows that most of those begging are using the money to buy booze or drugs. She would not help a beggar anymore, b/c of the substance abuse her job forces her to deal w/ daily.
    I think we need to be careful when just doling out money. If a person holds a “hungry” sign or is looking for work, many times he will not be very happy to have food given to him, and will not work. I know, b/c we have offered food, as has another relative of ours to give work to the beggar.
    We definitely are to help the poor. The above reasons not to may be some that are used for today, but the ones I have posed are also viable.

  2. June 6, 2011 4:41 pm

    I agree, we don’t want to be “enablers” as some have termed it. I think that’s wise. I also agree that when possible it may be more wise to give food or clothes, as opposed to money that would allegedly be used for such things.

    However, in a lot of cases where we would have opportunity to give, we won’t know enough about individual or their situation to know how they might use money. Does that mean we should deny them? That’s where I think we’re called to being more generous. It kind of comes back to Objection # 2, where we don’t know if they’re actually poor OR how they might use our resources. And again to that objection, that didn’t keep Christ from giving all for us.

    If we’re honest, a lot of times it can also be that we value our stuff so much that we wouldn’t don’t want to see it ‘wasted’ on someone who doesn’t ‘deserve’ it, rather than actually caring about the person’s well-being. I mean, do I care enough about the poor to do more than just give them food? I don’t know if I do or not, and what that says about my love for the poor.

    • Vickie permalink
      June 7, 2011 3:28 am

      I think you are spot on in your last paragraph, but I still think we should not just randomly give out money to drunks and drug addicts, if that is what we know they are.

      My hubby used to be an elder years ago and spent a couple of hours on the phone about a guy who called the church while we were all still there for a party. Ken tried to get him a job, as he said he didn’t have one, contacted some people for him to have a place to stay. The guy didn’t want to work at that company, b/c he said it was too hot. He apparently had already been kicked out of the place where Ken was getting him a place to stay. These are not just out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. We’ve seen it time and again. The truly poor will want what you give them. The rest want a free ride, it seems. They want money. That’s it.

      I agree w/ you that we should not be holding on to our resources so tightly that we are not WILLING to help, but I think we need to be careful about who we give our resources to as well. Churches get phone calls all of the time asking for help, but usually people want money. And unfortunately, when churches do offer help, many times it’s not what the people want. They want the money.

      I personally do not do enough, so shame on me. But, we’ve just seen many situations where the “poor” don’t want what you give them or offer to give them. They want the money. 🙂

  3. jim miller permalink
    October 25, 2011 10:01 am

    John Calvin also wrote alot about giving, especially to undeserving people. Its in book 3 of the Institutes, but more easily accessible in the (now out of print?) Golden Booklet of the True Christian LIfe. Calvin even deals with the question, “What if the person has treated me unjustly, and despitefully used me?” Check it out.

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