Public Square

Caring for the Poor: The Difference in Doing vs. Feeling Good

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I had a fascinating conversation with radio talk show host Janet Parshall on her show “In the Market with Janet Parshall.” She had graciously invited me to come on to talk about IFWE’s book For the Least of These:  A Biblical Answer to Poverty.

In this particular conversation, Janet and I discussed how Christians are wrestling with the best ways to care for the poor.

This question is as old as human history. As we took calls from listeners, it was clear to me that the struggle to answer it is as real and important as it has ever been.

At the heart of our discussion was the haunting question of whether certain attempts to alleviate poverty amount to just feeling good—without doing good.

Short-Term and Long-Term Needs

The danger I see among Christians and non-Christians alike is a lack of long-term thinking when it comes to caring for the poor.

We all understand that we must care for the short term needs:

  • If someone is hungry today, we must feed them.
  • If someone needs medical attention, we must nurse them.
  • If someone is homeless, we must provide shelter.

These are the short term, excruciating needs that become tangible to us as we walk the streets of inner-cities or watch the local news.

What about the long term needs? How do we get these same people who may be living on the streets, in the cold, without food and without medical care, off the streets and living into who God has created them to be?

We cannot solely focus on the short term. Doing so is a necessary but not sufficient condition for poverty alleviation.

Feeling Good without Doing Good

Janet Parshall mentioned that this is where we often do not want to have the difficult discussions.

She recalled dinner conversations at her house where the family might disagree over what one should do when they see a person on the street asking for money. Do we give them money? Should we? This is a much more difficult question to answer.

My answer is: it depends.

When we see the homeless as we walk down the street on a cold winter night, our heart aches for them, as it should. As Lord Brian Griffiths writes in For the Least of These, “poverty is a scar on God’s creation and an affront to human dignity.”

I agree with Lord Griffiths. When we walk by, as Christians, what we see are image-bearers of God who for varied reasons are not able to fully live into the dignity bestowed upon them by their loving Creator.

This should break our hearts because each person we see living in poverty is unable to fully live into who God wants them to be. That is a tragedy.

So we walk by, wrestling with what we should do. The real question is not should we do something for them, but what we ought do for them. There is no universal answer to that question.

In my opinion, giving money and walking away is never appropriate. It may sound radical, and perhaps it is, but if we want to change the world we need to live out the radical truth of the gospel and follow the model of Jesus.

Giving money and walking away may make us feel good, but what if it does the person harm?

What if it fuels an addiction?

What if it gets stolen?

There is no end to the “what-ifs.”

The only way we can know what people need is to get to know them as the beautiful people they are.

At its core, poverty alleviation is about relationships. If we don’t know what caused the poverty, whether it’s material poverty, spiritual poverty, or both, then we will never be able to provide the long-term help that will enable that particular person to escape poverty.

Different People, Different Circumstances

Consider two scenarios:

  • There may be a person who is homeless and poor because of sinful choices, like addiction, that caused them to lose their job, their spouse, and their children. Now they find themselves living on the streets using that substance to try and cover the daily pain of life.
  • There may be another person who lost their job and went from living in a house, to living in a car, to now living on the street. They are spiraling downward because they don’t know how to re-enter the job market. It may all seem too overwhelming.

These are very different people with very different circumstances.

If we hand each person $100 and walk away, we never get to the core of their issues. We may be providing temporary help, but we might not be.

We will never know, but we get to feel better.

This is unacceptable. We are stewards, we are Christ-followers, and we are to share the love of the gospel with the world. Relationships are the only way we can accomplish the task Christ has given us.

I often get questions based on For the Least of These about how we even begin to think about how to care and love the poor.

Unfortunately, there is not one right way. There is not one prescription that is the cure. It would be so much easier if there was, but we are talking about unique, precious, image-bearers of Christ who require unique support.

I urge all of us, myself included, to embrace what is difficult rather than fearing the difficulty of the task. To follow the model of Jesus, which is to love each other, to know each other, and to then generously support those in need by giving them what they need for long-term thriving and flourishing.

Editor’s Note: Read more about effective poverty alleviation in For the Least of These: A Biblical Response to Poverty, currently on sale for 50% off the retail price! Use code: POVERTY50 at checkout in the IFWE bookstore (Offer ends 7/10/17). Also download the IFWE booklet, Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.

On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on May 22, 2015.

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  • Perhaps the greatest thing the hinders evangelical Christians from answering this question of how to help the poor is that we consistently frame the question in individualistic language. “How can one Christian help one homeless person in the inner city?” Christian engagement against poverty must deal with systemic economic evil in order to make any lasting impact. Of course we help those in immediate need. But we need to move up steam to attack unjustice economic impediments toward universal flourishing in our fallen culture!

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