The Big Picture on Genuinely Helping the Poor
- Thursday, January 21, 2010
"There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." Deuteronomy 15:11 (NIV)
Who cares about the poor? God, for one. And he's pretty serious about it.
The passage from Deuteronomy is just one of many bold declarations of God's concern for the poor found throughout both the Old and New Testaments. John Stapleford, in his book Bulls, Bear and Golden Calves (2009, Intervarsity Press), goes so far as to say, "Other than warnings about idolatry, no other theme receives as much clear attention in Scripture as the obligation of believers to address issues of poverty."
And when God is that serious about something, then those of us who claim to follow him need to take it pretty seriously too. So, for Christians, helping the poor isn't optional, it's who we are.
"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" 1 John 3:17 (NIV)
But it turns out wanting to help the poor is the easy part. The bigger challenge is actually helping the poor. Helping.
Helping isn't the same thing as doing "compassionate" stuff that feels good to us. Helping isn't putting in phony fixes that trap people in hopeless situations. And helping certainly isn't hurting the very people we're trying to serve.
So how do we make sure the "help" we give doesn't end up amounting to nothing more than an empty gesture?
History is full of horrific examples of help for the poor gone bad. Chairman Mao's "Great Leap Forward" was supposed to help the Chinese poor attain prosperity, but instead triggered the starvation and deaths of tens of millions. President Johnson's "Great Society" was supposed to help the American poor attain the American Dream, but instead condemned them to generational dependency and despondency. Decades of generous international aid was supposed to help the global poor attain decent living conditions, but instead left many of them helpless and vulnerable, like the people of Haiti and so many Third World neighbors.
When it comes to helping the poor, good intentions are not enough. The poor have paid a hideous price for the misguided efforts of the wealthy and powerful to help them. Too many plans to help the poor have proven to be no better than snake-oil remedies or straight-up poison. It's time for Christians to step back from shallow feel-good responses and ask the honest question about helping the poor, "What works and what doesn't?"
Let's look at three key ways Christians can genuinely live out God's command to help the poor:
Sometimes the only way to help the poor is to give them something. A starving child needs food, now. Without it she will die. All around the world, Christians are confronted with people in absolute poverty, helpless people on the edge of life and death. And charity is the obvious response, the proper response. To withhold charity from a person in desperate need is a sin.
But charity has its limits. When charity continues after the crisis has passed, it makes the recipient helpless. Getting too much charity for too long robs a person of motivation and the will to provide for herself and others. An excess of charity rapidly becomes a curse.
So charity, to be truly helpful to the poor, should be temporary. Whether given individually or collectively through ministries and organizations, there should be a clearly defined exit strategy, a sense of urgency to end the charity at the earliest possible opportunity, for the good of the recipient. It might feel nice to keep giving, but that's not the right test. The noblest goal of charity isn't to give, but to restore the dependent person to independence.
I'm not talking about discipline as in punish, but as in disciple. Empowering people to become disciples of economic independence through education and training in essential matters of health, agriculture, business, and faith. If we don't teach the poor how to care for themselves, make their own resources productive, plan for their own future needs and opportunities, and embrace in their own hearts ethical Christian principles of diligence, thrift, and stewardship, then we've given them nothing of lasting value.
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