Ask Pastor Roger Barrier - Church Leadership

How Do We Cultivate Compassion for the Poor?

How Do We Cultivate Compassion for the Poor?

Dear Roger,

I’m concerned that the “haves” in our society are getting more, while the “have-nots” are falling farther behind. We are a middle-class family, and I’ve never really associated with anyone who was not in, or close, to my same socioeconomic level.
Recently, I volunteered to help with COVID-19 vaccinations. For the first time in my life, I noticed the many people who are obviously not as well off as me. I felt my heart leading me to a nearby thrift store where I’ve been volunteering to help the needy.
I know that the Bible has a lot to say about being generous to those in need. Could you please give me a biblical overview of compassion for the needy that I can share with my church and friends?
Thank you, Max

Dear Max,

Abraham Lincoln said, “God must love the poor. That is why He made so many of them.”

Along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps our most famous president.

Notice that Lincoln’s face is not on the silver dollar, or fifty-cent pieces, or quarters; Lincoln’s face is on the penny.

There is a reason for that.

David Brenner knew only poverty and hunger before he immigrated to the United States from Russia. He became a famous American sculptor. It was his idea to put Lincoln on the penny.

He reasoned that there would be more pennies minted than any other coin. Consequently, there would be more pennies in the pockets of the poor people than any other coin. Pennies remind us of people who are poor and in need.

Of course, in our day, only the poor people still worry about pennies. Everyone else handles their money electronically.

Personally, I must admit that I used to have a hard time being generous to the poor because I never saw any of them.

Photo Credit: GettyImages/Motortion

A Personal Lesson

My daughter, Bronwyn, spent one summer traveling with a singing group all across the United States. Her first Sunday back, she used on me an exercise that she learned on her trip.

“Dad, let’s take $20 and go down to the park where the homeless are and feed them some lunch!”

“No,” I said, “I’m tired. I’ve preached four services, and besides, it’s over 100°F. It’s too hot. Let’s do it another day.”

“No,” she said as she took my hand, “we’re going today.”

So, we went to the grocery store, and I bought $20 worth of bread, mayonnaise, ham, Gatorade, a few candy bars, and some paper lunch sacks. We set out to feed the poor.

I thought that we would just drop off a few bags, and we’d head home. What I discovered was that there was no quick drop-off. They all wanted to talk. I had not planned on taking time to talk. I had other things to do. It slowly dawned on me that they were not only hungry; they were lonely.

The next Sunday Bronwyn did it to me again. “Let’s go down to Fourth Avenue,” she said, “we will find some poor people there.” In a thrift shop, we saw a mother buying used toys for her boys. It was obvious that she didn’t have much to spend. I decided to buy the toys for her.

I made my offer at the cash register, and mom was indignant! “No thank you. I’m a schoolteacher. I can get along just fine without your help.”

As we left the thrift store, Bronwyn said to me, “You are not very good at this, are you?”

No, I wasn’t very good at it. I had a long way to go.

Worn shoe and an expensive new shoe side by side

The Severity of Poverty

It is not pleasant to be poor – the poor are always behind. An old Russian proverb states: “Poverty is not a sin. It is a great deal worse.”

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city, but poverty is the ruin of the poor. (Proverbs 10:15)

A poor man is shunned by all his relatives—how much more do his friends avoid him! Though he pursues them with pleading, they are nowhere to be found. (Proverbs 19:7)

The son of my long-time administrative assistant died of leukemia in his early 30s. It was so sad. He had lived quite a rough life. At the funeral his mother said to me, “being a single mom, I could not help a lot. He never could get ahead in life. He was always behind.”

I was fortunate. My parents were able to ensure that my brother, Ronnie, and I got a great start in life. They gave us used cars and the finances we needed for college. “Your college job is to make good grades and get prepared for a career,” they told us. Of course, we both got good summer jobs to help with the financing. When we graduated, we were off to a great start.

Unfortunately, in today’s economy, most parents can’t afford to send their kids to college. Most young people can’t find a summer job or any job at all.

At least one thing I’ve learned, wherever we are on the socioeconomic ladder, it’s hard to look back down.

All would agree that it is not good to be poor. They are always trying to catch up.

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/monstArrr_

The Causes of Poverty

1. Some simply won’t work.

Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. (Proverbs 10:4)

2. Time, energy, money, and opportunity are wasted when drugs, alcohol, leisure, and pleasure control a person’s life.

Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags. (Proverbs 23:20-21)

3. Some are too undisciplined to work.

He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored. (Proverbs 13:18)

4. Some talk too much and work too little.

All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty. (Proverb 14:23)

5. Get rich quick schemes lead some into poverty.

The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty. (Proverbs 21:5)

6. Gambling and the lottery trade money for impossible chances.

Jan and her sister were on the way home from shopping when her sister said that she forgot to buy her lottery tickets for the Saturday night drawing. Her sister suggested that they stop at the Circle K, and she could buy some tickets.

Jan responded, “Why don’t we save some time? I’ll drive by and you can just throw your money out the window.”

A stingy man is eager to get rich and is unaware that poverty awaits him. (Proverbs 28:22)

7. Many are poor because of people and events over which they have little or no control.

A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away. (Proverbs 13:23)

A poor man pleads for mercy, but a rich man answers harshly. (Proverbs 18:23)

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7)

Woman holding open an empty wallet

Oppressing the Poor Is Condemned by God

He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (Proverbs 14:31)

MasterCard sent my daughter Bronwyn a credit card application when she was 14 years old. I thought, “She’s not even of legal age!” But instead of throwing it in the trash, she and I sat down and filled it out. To our surprise, her card came in the mail!

She had some income. We gave her a weekly allowance. She babysat the neighbors’ kids. She did odd jobs around the neighborhood. She used her credit card. We taught her that the first month that she couldn’t completely pay off the bill, she was on the road to financial bondage. She’s almost 40 years old and has never missed a full payment.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story that we hear much these days. Most Americans are thousands of dollars in debt to MasterCard.

Not paying the balance back can mean as much as 19% interest. That is called “usury” and is a great affront to God. This is called “oppressing the poor.” Calculating the Old Testament laws, usury was charging anything over about three-fourths of a percent.

Henry Miller said, “Everybody wants to right the world. Nobody wants to help their neighbor.”

Peter de Vries declared, “We are not put on earth to see through one another but to see one another through.”

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done. (Proverbs 19:17)

A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor. (Proverbs 22:9)

Here are 4 things we can do ourselves to help the poor:

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Stas_V 

1. Manage your personal finances in order to share with the poor and needy.

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. (Ephesians 4:28)

Good biblical economics centers around the following six principles:

1. Tithe to God.

2. Pay taxes to the government.

3. Stay out of debt on depreciating items.

4. Pay bills and have a positive cash flow.

5. Save some for future needs.

6. Have a surplus to give away.

2. Get in touch with the poor and needy.

If we are going to have compassion, we must get close to the poor and needy.

In 1968, Bobby Kennedy was fighting for the Democratic nomination for president. His guide for the day was former boxing champion Jose Torres. They were crisscrossing the streets of some of the poorest neighborhoods in Spanish Harlem. After five hours, he was caked with dirt and soaked in perspiration.

At the conclusion of their 18-hour day, Torres wondered why the rich man’s son came to the ghettos and worked so hard and for so long. He asked, “Why are you doing this? Why are you running?”

Bobby replied in a very low voice: “Because I found out that my world isn’t the real world.”

Unfortunately, most of us tend to spend too much time looking up the ladder.

3. Develop a culture within your family of helping those less fortunate.

1. Let your child support a poverty-stricken child through a ministry like World Vision or Samaritan’s Purse. It’s personal. Your child will receive periodic pictures and updates.

2. Help them see the other side of life. A mission trip to a poverty-stricken area will do wonders.

3. Arrange for them to volunteer or earn money to give to ministries like a local food bank, homeless shelter, or after-school program.

4. Arrange for them to volunteer at a nursing home by taking the patients on walks outside or by reading stories to those who can’t read or see well.

4. Let your heart break with compassion.

4. Let your heart break with compassion.

Follow Christ’s model of preaching good news to the poor and setting free those bound up in misery and poverty.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19).

Compassion is the key.

A rich young man asked Jesus if he could follow him. Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The young man decided that price was too high. He turned and walked away (Mark 10:23).

As he departed, Mark tells us that Jesus looked on him with compassion. The Greek word means that Jesus was deeply heartbroken.

Jesus was filled with compassion as he healed blind people, deaf people, crippled people, and cast out all kinds of demons. And Jesus healed a woman with the issue of blood who couldn’t get married in a time when a husband was the only means of support.

For over 35 years, I’ve known a wonderful man who struggles just above the poverty level. Our church has kept him financially afloat for years.

He told me that one of the things that hurts him the most are the people who accuse him of being the cause for his poverty:

“Some even get angry at me for not being a better person – for being stuck in poverty. They don’t seem to care that I have an emotional disorder that dominates my life and that keeps me from even getting a job. Even if I do get a job after working two or three days the boss tells me that things just aren’t working out and lets me go.”

My friend tells me that the four things he struggles with the most are anger, frustration, embarrassment, and being angry with God for not showing him a way out.

What to Do if You Are the One in Need of Help

First, personally, I’ve noticed that many people who are down and out are too proud to receive the help they need. Swallow your pride and be grateful for what’s offered.

Second, trust God’s promise in Psalm 37:25; “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children breaking bread.”

Third, earnestly pray for God to give you the grace you need to be victorious in the midst of your struggles.

Fourth, pray for a godly way out of your poverty.

Well, Max, I hope that my thoughts will be helpful to you.

Love, Roger

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Remi Walle 

Ask RogerDr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his 35-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.

Editor's Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger's daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian. 

Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at