The needs of the poor provide occasions for God to mold and shape our faith.
“When you have enemies like hunger, poverty, and disease,” a young man from Bangladesh declares, “You have no choice but to fight. You fight to be born and fight to stay alive!”
The battle against poverty goes on and on. Most of us, the world would say, are among the winners. But what should we as Christians do about the poverty of others?
By virtually every standard, ours is the most affluent country in the world. We spend billions of dollars on relief and welfare. Yet millions among us know the ache of poverty. In 1964, as part of his dream for the Great Society, President Lyndon Johnson declared unconditional war on poverty. But poverty did not disappear. In 1976, after spending hundreds of billions of dollars, the country was told by the Census Bureau that more than one in every ten Americans must be considered poor.
Take Mattie Schultz, for example—a white-haired widow in her nineties. Recently in her home city of San Antonio, Texas, she spent a night in jail after being charged with shoplifting. According to the Chicago Tribune, she was accused of taking $15.04 worth of ham, sausage, and butter to keep from starving. Within a few days after newspapers and TV stations had told her story, offers of help came pouring in. But the fact that such a thing could happen reminds us that in spite of all our relief and help programs, the poor are still among us.
Who are the poor? According to U.S. Labor Department standards, an urban family of four lives in poverty if its income is less than $6,700 per year. The latest census figures indicate that nearly 25 million still live below that minimum today.
Overseas the pinch of poverty is worse. Not long ago, Time magazine declared that nearly 30 out of every 100 persons barely keep from starving. Millions struggle for existence on a per capita income of less than $200 a year. The World Food Council tells us that a third of the world’s children die of malnutrition and disease before they have had five birthdays. Each year 100,000 children go blind because they lack vitamin A in their early diets.
Why do people still starve today? Why has society, in spite of all its resources, never solved the poverty problem? There are a number of reasons. One is simply that people are different: some are strong, aggressive, clever, even ruthless; some are less capable. In other cases, health may fail, accidents may strike, opportunities may be denied. Great numbers of people begin this life underprivileged, and never rise above the disadvantaged group.
More important, the Bible seems to say that God allows the poor among us to test our compassion for our fellow men and women. Do we really love the poor? Will we help in their need? Our response to poverty reveals our attitude. In this new day of awareness, godliness is inseparable from service to the poor.
Some have wrongly assumed that to be poor is a sign of God’s disfavor. But God loves the poor and cares for them. He hears their cry, and judges those who wrong them in their weakness. Speaking of the poor, the psalmist says, “The Lord is his refuge” (Ps. 14:6). God sees and cares and intervenes. God “setteth … the poor on high from affliction,” says Psalm 107:41, “and maketh him families like a flock.” Personally, I have learned my greatest lessons from the poor in the churches I pastored. And the most successful spiritual children in my ministry have come from the poor.
Likewise, the Word of God teaches that God will bless those who reach out to help the poor. “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble” (Ps. 41:1). On the other hand, we literally invite God’s judgment if we ignore the need of the poor. Proverbs 21:13 declares, “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.”
If God loves the poor and is concerned about their needs, then the church cannot ignore the poor. If he leaves the poor among us to prove our love and compassion, then we must help them. The question is not whether the church should help the poor, but how.
Some contend that the church should find some way to redistribute wealth and thus wipe out all poverty. I do not see this as Christ’s will or as an answer to the ultimate poverty problem. To be sure, Christ taught that Christians are not to hoard riches. He taught that we should share. But nothing in Scripture suggests that Christians can change the world itself or eliminate poverty.
On the contrary, Jesus clearly taught that poverty goes with this present evil world. “The poor have ye with you always,” he said in Mark 14:7. Christ’s principle of ministry to the poor is from a heart of compassion. In his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6), Jesus taught that helping the poor should be done privately, without fanfare; but it should be done. He said, “When ye do alms,” not “if.” The inference here is that Christ regarded giving to the poor as normal.
When Dwight L. Moody was asked why he had organized the school that later became Moody Bible Institute, he said that besides training students in the knowledge and the use of the Bible and in sacred music, he wanted to train them in everything that would give them access practically to the souls of people, especially the neglected poor.
Just what was Christ’s program for the poor? Justice, for sure, for the whole of Scripture sets this standard. But beyond that, he urged compassion and simple sharing. Such sharing demands awareness of need.
In the Old Testament economy of God, poverty was not wiped out, but the poor were given special protection. A poor worker was paid each day. If a poor man borrowed, giving his robe as security, the garment was to be returned before the owner needed it for warmth that night. Anyone willing to work was assured of food to feed his family: it could be obtained by gleaning in fields where produce was deliberately left for this purpose. The Old Testament Book of Ruth describes how Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, lived on such gleanings.
In New Testament times, the Jewish poor were less protected by laws. The duty of giving alms, however, was acknowledged and encouraged. Jesus often spoke of giving to the poor. The record of the early church is filled with references to Christian compassion for the poor, especially to fellow believers. Widows without support were cared for by the church (Acts 6:1; 1 Tim. 5:9, 16). The poor were a subject of special concern at the first church council in Jerusalem. Paul mentions this in Galatians 2:10 when he writes that church leaders desired that they should “remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do” (NASB).
The church has always been God’s special channel of mercy to the poor. God blesses the church as it carries out this ministry. Giving to the poor is good for the church in at least three ways:
1. The presence of the poor prompts the church to exercise compassion. The poor challenge us to be concerned about the needs of others. The church has been called out to demonstrate God’s love to a needy world—love that is to be shown in tangible, practical ways. In 1 John 3:17–18, the apostle writes: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (NASB). John is speaking here of love for fellow Christians. But Christian love is to reach beyond the confines of church membership.
Paul wrote the church in Thessalonica, “The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men …” (1 Thess. 3:12). As the church ministers to the poor, inside or outside its membership, it demonstrates God’s love. Jesus taught that the will of God can be summed up in two great commandments—love God, and love your neighbor. If we do the will of God, we must have compassion on the poor.
2. The presence of the poor gives us opportunity to prove that Christ has touched our hearts and made them new. Helping the poor, especially when it costs us time and money, is not a natural instinct. Our old sin natures prompt us to look the other way instead. Compassion, on the other hand, is an evidence of an inner work of grace.
The apostle James speaks in his epistle of faith and works. Real faith produces works. Our acts are proof of faith. The church that helps the poor proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that it shares the life and love of Christ.
3. The poor give Christians opportunity to lay up heavenly treasure. “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord,” says Proverbs 19:17, “and that which he hath given will he pay him again.”
To give to the poor for Jesus’ sake is to lay up treasure in heaven. Not only are such treasures safe from moth and rust, but they cause us to fix our hearts on heaven. “For where your treasure is,” Christ said, “there will your heart be also.”
It is not just a duty for the church to help the poor. In the wisdom of God, it is a blessing and a privilege.
How should a local church reach out to the poor? The first concern should be for the poor among its members. Some may be struggling with inadequate housing. For others, sickness may have brought financial crisis. Someone else may be out of work. Many churches have special funds for providing material help, and these often can be used to relieve a needy situation.
But individual Christians also have an obligation. If we see a need that is within our power to meet, we have no right to turn away. God will help us if we share in love, and trust that God will meet our needs as we give generously to others. The apostle James warns, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled’; and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body; what use is that?” (James 2:15–16, NASB).
The same principles hold for those we encounter outside the circle of church membership. If we see a need and it lies within our power to help, we are responsible to help. Neither the church as a body nor the individual can close its eyes to need, wherever it may be.
And then there is the yawning chasm of worldwide need. The church as a whole, and every member of the church, can have a part in helping somewhere in our world. We cannot respond to every need, but we can help generously with some. Jesus told his disciples, “Freely ye have received, freely give.” Our first and great obligation, of course, is to share the Bread of Life. But we cannot withhold the bread of material aid when it lies within our power to give it.
Jesus told two parables to help us see our obligation. The first, in Luke 16, is about a rich man and a beggar. The rich man, Jesus said, lived out his life in luxury. In time he died and went to hell—not because he had been rich, of course, but because he had been satisfied with riches and had looked no further. The poor man lived out his life unnoticed at the rich man’s very doorstep. The parable teaches the folly of trusting riches, but it also should remind us that the poor are all around us. Like the rich man we can shut them out, or we can help them in compassion. We in the United States are the rich in a world that knows unbelievable poverty. We cannot banish human need, but we can help to relieve it if we will.
The other parable is the story of the Good Samaritan. Three travelers in succession saw a man in a desperate plight. He had been robbed, and beaten, and left beside the road to die. Two of these men, who professed to be religious, passed by the victim; they did not want to get involved. The third, a Samaritan, took the time and trouble to help. He bound up the wounds of the injured man and brought him to a place of safety. He even arranged to pay his bills until the victim was back on his feet. Jesus ended the parable by saying to the crowd, “Each one of you do the same.”
The church collectively and Christians as individuals have been called to be good neighbors. We cannot prevent the tragedies of life that leave poor people by the wayside. Nor can we help them all. But we can help some of the needy: the poor within our reach.
What kind of attitude shall we have—that of the rich man who lived a lifetime indifferent to the beggar on his doorstep, or that of the Samaritan who, in a moment of opportunity, chose to show compassion? God’s call to the church is to be like the Good Samaritan: recognizing the needs around us, and going out of our way to meet those needs, even to the point of sacrifice. May we never forget, “that though (Jesus) was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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