It started with a Facebook post and a picture of Jimmy Carter.
It turns out that the quote is actually attributed to someone else. But the comments that followed had me wrestling with my own perspective and how and why I’ve come to those conclusions. To be honest with you, I initially balked at the quote because it felt simplistic and politically charged and because on the whole, I am often frustrated by the way our government uses resources to help those in poverty.
My initial response was:
“I want our $$$ to support the poor in the most effective way, which I don’t believe often happens through large government programs that often lack both accountability and motivation for increased effectiveness (a discussion too big for a quick FB comment wink emoticon ) … But, I do absolutely agree that having a heart for the poor and deep compassion that promotes generosity should characterize all Christ-followers and His Church in general.”
And then several comments from others were contributed that pushed me to really consider the question–
What should a Christian’s response to the poor be?
It nudged me to go back and sift through Tim Keller’s– Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. It is definitely one of the books that has influenced my thinking in this area and it was good to go back to it and remember what I’m so quick to forget.
I fully believe what I wrote above, that Christians should have a heart for the poor and deep compassion that promotes generosity should be an easy-to-spot characteristic of all Christ-followers.
The question is–why?
All throughout God’s Word, all throughout His actions, all throughout the life of His Son Jesus, we see God’s deep care and concern for the poor and struggling. He commands us to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Prov. 31:8) and to rescue the poor who cry for help (Job 29:12). As we emulate God, we are to defend the cause of the fatherless, the widow, the immigrant, giving both food and clothing (Ezek. 18:5, Deut. 10:18-19). In the Old Testament we see God’s provision for the poor in the Sabbath year (Deut. 15:1-8) and in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:8-55). God enacted a system of “gleaning” that both provided for the poor and protected the land owners as sections of fields were set aside for the poor to gather food. In the New Testament, we see Jesus lived a life of poverty in communion with the poor. He was not impressed by wealth and the widow’s given mite is remembered not because of the amount she gave, but because of what she did not keep. She held nothing back. Jesus himself commands us to sell our possessions and give to the poor as we store up treasures in Heaven that will not wear out (Luke 12:33).
I am currently reading through Acts and it is impossible to miss the abandonment with which early Christians honored Jesus, acted on their faith and cared for the needs of those around them:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” ~Acts 2:42-47
And James, Peter and John’s words to Paul?
“…Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” ~ Gal. 2:10
We care for the poor because God has a deep-seated love for those who are disadvantaged, because He commands us to, because our actions of kindness reflect who He is, and because He is both honored and glorified as onlookers “see (our) good works and give glory to (our) Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16). And as we grow in our understanding of grace and salvation, it should make our desire to help the poor only increase.
“The logic is clear. If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God.” (Keller, Generous Justice 93-94).
As a Christ-follower, when I look to God’s Word and at Jesus’ life example, with a heart open to correction and conviction, there should be no question that I should (and do) have a compassionate response to poverty.
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
The sticky question then becomes the– how?
And this is why I think that “Carter quote” sparked such a response in online discussions. As Tim Keller explains:
“While we have seen that the Bible demands we share our resources with the needy, and that to fail to do so is unjust, taken as a whole the Bible does not say precisely how that redistribution should be carried out. Should it be the way political conservatives prescribe, almost exclusively through voluntary, private giving? Or should it be the way that political liberals desire, through progressive taxation and redistribution by the state? Thoughtful people have and will argue about which is the most effective way to help the poor. Both sides looking for support in the Bible can find some, and yet in the end what the Bible says about social justice cannot be tied to any one political system or economic policy. If it is possible, we need to take politics out of this equation as we look deeper into the Bible’s call for justice” (Generous Justice 31-32).
While we can and should (and I do) agree that God clearly wants us to help the poor and to have compassion for those who are in need, as Kevin DeYoung explains, “while the general principle– help the poor, don’t harm them–is abundantly and repeatedly clear in Scripture, the application of this principle is less so.” And every individual’s perspective about the application is shaped by their life experiences.
I am less inclined to believe that large government programs can effectively meet the needs of and/or help the poor in a long-term way. When I taught in a public school setting, I saw the waste that occurred with funding and how difficult it was for tax dollars to actually reach the classroom and to help teachers or students. As a person with many family members and friends in the medical arena, I have heard story after story about the way large scale government health care is impacting their ability to care for their patients effectively and compassionately. As a twice-adoptive-parent, I remember well the bureaucracy we encountered along the way. But there have also been times when I was and am thankful for government programs in each one of those areas. WAY more-than-a-handful-of-people-I-love-deeply are currently utilizing government assistance and they desperately need it. Many of them are making every effort possible to not need help from the government and I am thankful God has allowed our lives to intertwine.
There should be aspects of the “how” that we can agree upon:
1. We can agree to help the poor with an understanding that our money really belongs to God; it isn’t really ours. As we grow in our understanding of God’s grace, our humility and thanksgiving should also grow. As we view ourselves as stewards of His resources, we can hold our money with a looser grip and a greater willingness to respond generously as the Holy Spirit prompts.
2. We can agree that as Keller explains, there are layers of help needed: relief, development and social reform.
“Relief is direct aid to meet immediate physical, material, and economic needs…(development) means giving an individual, family, or an entire community what they need to move beyond dependency on relief into a condition of economic self-sufficiency…Social reform moves beyond the relief on immediate needs and seeks to change the conditions and social structures that aggravate or cause that dependency” (Generous Justice 113, 114 and 126). We can listen to the Holy Spirit as to how we can be used in every layer.
3. We can agree that God sometimes (actually often) calls us to give in ways that don’t equate “common sense” or the best financial move. All throughout His Word, God calls us to a generosity that is self-less and self-sacrificial and Jesus shows us what that looks like in everyday life. God calls us to an eternal perspective where the true commodity and outcome will only be known in Heaven.
4. We can agree that our giving should be done in secret and not for show, but for Him. That when blessing occurs, all fingers should be pointing Heavenward because “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). That is the goal anyway– glorifying God.
5. We can agree that it’s easy to talk about this in theory and less easy to put this into practice. Because living-life-intertwined is messy. People let each other down. I let people down. God’s example of gift-giving-generosity is not something based on merit and it is long-suffering and patient.
6. We can agree that if God blessed us according to our merit we’d all be in trouble. These past five years have been a learning experience for me– of giving sometimes and feeling “let down” by the results. But here’s the thing– I’m thankful for it. Because in the midst of it all…God has reminded me over and over that if He responded to me according to my change and results, I would be in serious trouble. And I spoke to a woman at an Iraqi refugee dinner in December. She has been a Christian for 7 years. 17 years ago in Iraq a taxi driver gave her a Bible. He probably still has no idea that his seed-planted-in-love has reaped salvific (hat tip Jeremy for that term) results 17 years later.
7. We can agree that “We need two types of messages concerning help to the poor. Type one is basic: Be generous. After we comprehend type one we need type two: Be generous in a way that helps and doesn’t hurt those you hope to help.” ~Marvin Olasky (Righteous Justice– a review of Generous Justice worth reading).
8. We can agree that Jesus met perceived needs. And he still does. In his book, Generous Justice, Keller tells the story of a woman that his church helped financially. She used the money to buy her children bikes and take them out to dinner. His church was ready to cut funds to the woman until they sat down with her and she explained that as a parent, living in poverty was heartbreaking and while it wasn’t maybe the best decision, she wanted her children to feel “normal”. The response was– compassion. How often is Jesus gracious to me?…the woman at the well who thinks my deepest need is a cup of water? Sometimes meeting a need doesn’t equate “the most logical” solution. Sometimes a first-step-love-gift is very impractical.
9. We can agree that the church should be involved in a major way. Every church in every community should receive this command to have a heart for the poor (spiritually, physically, racially, emotionally, financially). How better can we show God’s love center stage for all to see His redemptive work?
10. We can agree that all of this discussion should be convicting. Because that’s why I’m here anyway–isn’t it? Because that little Facebook discussion kept me awake last night and I thought of it again this morning. Because I could easily be on the other end of this discussion. I want to be a doer, not merely a hearer (James 1:22,23). I want to listen to the Holy Spirit as He nudges. I want to obey (and give) with abandonment.
So that takes me back to the President Carter-quote-not-quote…
But more– I’d rather rest on one from our Father, who loves sacrificially beyond all that I can even imagine–
“…what is good, and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
He’s still working on me.