Three Her.meneutics writers reflect on the difficulty of poverty and some misguided beliefs about the poor.
The Problem with Lists
For the longest time I wondered why God allowed me—and my family—to go broke. After so many cries for rescue, after so many laments, after so many opportunities where God could've "fixed" our financial crisis easily, but didn't, I wondered what he was up to. Wondered why he wasn't "blessing" us with financial abundance the way he had in the past.
At long last, I figured maybe God was actually blessing us with a time in relative poverty. That maybe, God allowed us to linger in financial desperation so that we might learn something life-changing through a time of total and utter dependence on him. That maybe learning what it is to lean on God and God's people, to fully understand the beauty of asking for and receiving daily bread would be a bigger blessing than some zeroes on a savings account.
But I was wrong. At least, according to a post on Christian financial guru Dave Ramsey's site. Based on that advice, we went broke—from rich to poor—because I wasn't forcing my children to read at least two non-fiction books a month… or following those 19 other things Rich People Do Every Day that Poor People Don't.
If this is true, it makes total sense why I'm no longer rich: I may have spent two hours last night in bed with Jane Eyre, but since I did not spend 30 minutes reading something career-related, I have no hope. It doesn't help that I choose NPR over audio books or that I usually speak what's on my mind. You know, like we broke people do.
But of course, I jest. This list's truthiness isn't its biggest problem. The problem is the prevalence with which so many Christians seem to think lists like this are helpful. After all, why should Christians be so concerned with what the rich do—how they become so or how they act? According to Jesus, they are not the blessed ones. They have the harder time finding the Kingdom.
While some of the items on the list make common sense (reading more of anything is always a good thing), if in my most desperate financial need someone handed me this list and told me to hop to it, I'd never seen Jesus poking through these words. Not like I saw him peek out when friends handed us stacks of grocery store gift cards or family members sent checks—with no repayment expectation. There, I saw love. There, I saw grace, There, I saw Jesus. In the gifts, not the lists.
Our Gifts, God's Grace
Rachel Marie Stone
From Proverbs, we might conclude that God rewards the hardworking with wealth, while poverty is the result of laziness. The book is full of aphorisms like, "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (10:4) and "Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread" (19:13).
This idea—that people who are poor are poor simply because they haven't cultivated the right habits—gets labeled as biblical, but tends to foster a contempt for the poor that's anything but.
Scripture reminds us many times poverty itself is by no means a cursed state (Prov. 15:16) and condemns contempt for the poor: "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him" (Prov. 14:31). Deuteronomy 15:7-8 warns Israelites not to be "hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be."
The Bible doesn't indicate that people must be worthy of such generosity, no provision made for excluding the person from charity because of laziness. We see that kindness and generosity are to be given without reservation, without restriction. Perhaps this is because all good things—including the ability to work hard—come from divine grace. The prosperity that can follow hard work is not exclusively our natural and inevitable reward, but in fact a gift from God.
I understand this idea much more clearly since I came to live in Malawi, Africa, which is one of the ten poorest countries in the world. It's common to see even very small children with babies tied to their backs, carrying buckets of water on their head, and women and girls cultivating the ground with short hoes or stooped over, gathering firewood: literally backbreaking work. I have never worked as hard as many women and even children do here, day in, day out, year after year. Yet my annual income exceeds theirs many, many times over. Not because of my hard work, but because I was born someplace else.
Ecclesiastes 9:11 reminds us that "under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all." Sometimes riches do indeed come from hard work, but when hard work can result in riches, it may be an accident of birth, or God's unknowable providence—in Manhattan, say, rather than in Malawi—that makes it so.
Whatever we have is because of God's generous grace, which we acknowledge when we, in turn, are generous and gracious.
What Poverty Really Looks Like
I'm familiar with poverty. I grew up poor and have worked with and among the poor. As the director of an after-school program in one of the poorest counties in Ohio, I remember watching a father tear up as he told me, "Thank you so much for teaching my son to read. I never learned to read, I've only got a sixth grade education." I could see how desperately he wanted a different life for his son. This father walked nearly four miles each day to work at a Burger King. He was a cook. With his educational level and the nearly non-existent jobs in rural Appalachia, he was doing the best he could for his family. That was in 2001, way before the economic downturn of 2008.
His story is not unusual for poor families. So I read Tom Corley's 20 Habits of the Rich (that the poor don't do) on Dave Ramsey's website, I wondered if either grew up poor or had spent considerable time among the poor. If they had, it's hard to believe they would've uncritically posted such suggestions out of context.
Most I know work long hard hours for very little pay, if they have a job. By the time they get home (assuming they work first shift), they're exhausted. It's all they can do to get supper together, help the kids with homework, and put them to bed. So they may grab whatever pre-packaged food is available (Habit #1).
And it's not that they don't want to read to their kids (Habit #10). They're tired and just trying to survive while providing the most basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. With little time for leisure, watching television is one of the only luxuries they have (Habit #s 13, 14). The next day, they wake up and do it all over again without breaks. Many will not wake up hours early; rest is a gift (Habit #15).
They don't have the support networks and safety nets we take for granted. If no friends or parents are available to watch the kids, a large portion of their income goes to childcare. And if the car breaks down and there's no public transportation, then their job is in jeopardy. God forbid someone gets sick and needs medical attention. Many don't have health insurance and live with chronic health problems.
With whom are many of the poor going to network (Habit #12)? In the world's eyes, they have nothing to offer. Networking is mostly about quid pro quo. If I didn't have the mind God gave me, I couldn't have gone to college. And if I didn't go to college, I wouldn't have met so many of the people who've made me the person I am now, so many people God used to open doors for me. I stand on the shoulders of others. Many have no shoulders on which to stand.
Growing up, I felt like an outsider looking into the normal, comparably chaos-less life many of my friends lived. Too many things were stacked against me to succeed. And so when I see lists like these, I remember list makers are taking too much privilege for granted and not telling the whole story.
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