By Carl B. Bridges
Here we are, living in one of the richest countries of the world, where hardly anyone lives in absolute poverty. We follow a Savior who told us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (Matthew 25:31-46), and we also read the writings of his apostles who told us that people who won’t work should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Unlike the people we meet in Scripture, we get to vote. Around us we see both government and private agencies designed to help the needy. Electronic communications enable us to know the needs of the world, and sometimes meet those needs, in ways unknown before our time. The question emerges: what exactly am I, as a Christian, supposed to do to help those in need?
If you’re looking for a final answer to the question, please turn to a different article. What follows is a set of observations from someone who lived for years in a truly poor country, who now sees a couple of helping agencies from the inside as a volunteer, and who keeps up with both public policy debates and Scripture. Add a pound of salt and hear these observations if you will.
Observation 1: The needy rarely spend their money the way I want them to. The poor suffer not only from low income but from poor choices. Not all of them know how to shop frugally, how to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Part of the reason the poor are poor and the prosperous are prosperous comes from wise or unwise handling of resources. Not that prosperous people always handle their money well. Many of them make poor choices too, but their larger income provides a cushion, a margin for error that the poor do not have.
Habitat for Humanity, one of the wisest agencies around, requires the recipients of its houses to study personal financial skills like budgeting and saving for emergencies. Once they get the house, they know how to keep it. The more our Christian benevolence can teach people how to use their resources, the more punch it will have in a needy world.
Observation 2: Voting and volunteering work together. OK, I admit it. I usually vote for the Daddy Party, the one that encourages private benevolence and tries to reduce people’s dependence on government. Other Christians vote for the Mommy Party, believing that government can best feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Can we at least admit that the other side cares about the poor too? We hear too much rhetoric about how only we—whichever side of the aisle “we” refers to—really care, and the other side wants the poor to starve. In reality, it’s not a question of who cares more, but of which policies carry more hope of success. On this question reasonable people, even Christians, can differ.
We Americans live in a country full of helping agencies, private and publically funded. Neither government agencies nor private charities will go away any time soon. We need to vote our consciences, give where we think will do the most good, help as our strength allows, and give the other side a little credit.
Observation 3: We don’t give to feel good, but to obey God and help people. When I help someone, I never know if I’m a helper or a sucker. A few years ago a man at a gas station approached me and said he had no gas and no money. After I took a chance and filled his tank, he told me he and his companions hadn’t eaten that day and could use some food money also. Looking past the man, I saw a plate of food covered with plastic wrap on the back shelf of his car, something he obviously forgot to hide before making his pitch. A bolder man would have told them to eat the food they had, but I simply turned him down without telling him why. I came away feeling used, not an uncommon feeling when we help strangers. The poor will always be with us, and some of the poor are crooks. What to do?
Again I have no great wisdom, but I decided a long time ago to give help as I thought best and not worry about whether it made me feel good or not. Sometimes we give and feel good, and the feeling is justified. Other times we give and feel good, and we’re being taken without knowing it. Sometimes we give and think we’ve been taken and we truly have. Do we ever give and think we’ve been taken, but we haven’t? I certainly hope so, but it doesn’t matter. If we do what we do in order to feel good, it rarely works.
Observation 4: Tough minds and tender hearts can go together. My hometown has several homeless agencies. The one I know best combines compassion with realism in an impressive way. They serve supper twice daily, once to their residents, people in their program who are moving toward a better life, and again to people from the street who are too crazy or addicted to profit from a program. The people who run the agency practice a grim form of triage, making decisions every day about who can be helped and who can only be kept alive. Firm discipline prevails, and any resident who breaks the rules leaves the program fast. I hope someday to become as compassionate as they are, and also as tough-minded.
Observation 5: People on the spot know best how to distribute aid. One of the best agencies I know is International Disaster Emergency Services. When IDES sends money abroad, local missionaries arrange the distribution. This approach avoids a great deal of waste and fraud, and I wish more agencies could adopt it.
There’s a lot more to say on this subject, but the saying matters less than the doing. May God give us tender hearts, ample resources, and the good sense to use them.
Carl B. Bridges teaches New Testament at Johnson Bible College, Knoxville, Tennessee.