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Are there deserving and undeserving poor?

When faced with the decision to help the poor, a common question that comes to mind is “Does this person deserve help.” Are we to make a distinction between people who deserve our financial help? The better question is “Does scripture make a distinction between people who deserve our help and people who do not?”

It is easy to fall into one of two extremes. On one hand we could always help everyone who asks us without seeking to discover what they plan on using the money for. On the other hand we could never offer financial help to the poor, assuming that they would use the money for sinful purposes.  Scripture seems to find a balance between these two, so we too must seek to both be good stewards of our money and be willing to help those in genuine need.

Willing to Give

Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you…you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”(Matt. 5:42-44). These words of Jesus should challenge us to lay down our pride and seek to help those who ask us for help. If your tendency is to automatically write someone off from being in genuine need, then take to heart this attitude of humility that Jesus presents us. Scripture is clear that a Christian’s attitude should be full of grace. Remember the grace that God gave you when you didn’t deserve it and you will be more inclined to offer grace to the poor around you.

Being a Good Steward

Having a heart to give to the poor does not mean that it is OK to enable someone to pursue sin and laziness.  In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, Paul strongly objects to advocating an unproductive lifestyle where someone does not work for their food. Scripture teaches that we must be wise with our charity. Aid done improperly can cripple and destroy the incentive for the poor to improve their financial situation. For example, take the practice of gleaning in the Old Testament. Those reaping the harvest were commanded not to reap the very edges of the field, and they were commanded not to go over the field a second time(Lev. 19:9-10). This allowed to poor to come and work for their food.

Finding the Balance

So how can you determine if you should give money to someone? There are a few things that have worked for me in the past that may be helpful for you in determining whether to give someone aid.

  1. Ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. Seek to find out their story. If they feel threatened by this, then explain to them the importance of you maintaining your integrity by being a good steward of money God has given and not by wanting to aid someone in sin.  This can lead to a great evangelistic conversation.
  2. Check their story. Last time I encountered someone who asked me for money, they told me they got laid off from their job and needed money until they could find more work. I asked where he had worked and called to confirm his story only to find out that he had been fired from his job because of his addiction to alcohol. The manager said they tried reaching out to him, but he had been out of work for 2 years, preying on the kindness of others to feed his addiction. I shared the gospel with him and offered to help him find a rehab facility where he could get help, but I would not give him money. I feel bad for him, but feel no guilt in not giving him money because I know that giving him money would not help him with is core problem of sin.
  3. Offer them work. At Wellington, we offered someone in need groceries if he would work for us. He was willing to pull weeds and wash windows for hours, so we went down to Kroger with him and bought him the food he needed. He was a guy who was genuine need of food and was willing to labor for that food. Not everyone you encounter will be so willing to work, and that is very revealing as to whether they deserve your help. Even if you do not have work for them to do, seeing their response to that question can often tell you what you need to know.
  4. Trust in the Holy Spirit to direct you. As a Christian you have the Holy Spirit inside of you to guide and direct you(John 14:26) Say a prayer to God to give you wisdom. Trust him – and be reminded of his Word. We are not left in the dark on this issue.

As you seek to minister to the poor, remember to always be full of grace.  Remember that your primary focus is always to demonstrate the love of Christ whether you decide to give money or not. The person you talk to is an image bearer of God who is potentially dead in sin and enslaved to a sinful lifestyle. Don’t act like the world and ignore them. You are a Christian, so respond to them as one who follows Christ. Do not miss an opportunity to share truth in love because you are scared or annoyed. 

How do evangelism and relief of the poor relate?

When you consider demonstrating love to someone in need, is your first inclination sharing the Gospel with them or meeting their material needs? Should we attempt to evangelize the poor without helping them financially? Should evangelism take precedence over acts of mercy? What is the relationship between evangelism and giving relief to the poor?

To answer these questions we must, as always, look to the Bible as our example and authority. Jesus summed up the law by telling us to love God and to love our neighbor. He then told us who we should consider our neighbor by telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus is clear that we must take care of our neighbor. But to what end?

When Jesus met people’s physical needs, he was doing so to point them to himself and the Gospel. He fed 5,000 people so he could continue to preach to them. Jesus healed a blind man in John 9 so that he would believe and so he could identify himself as the Messiah. He healed others so that their faith would be confirmed and strengthened. Jesus always used acts of mercy to proclaim gospel truths.

No matter how much assistance we give to the poor, it will never substitute for the saving power and grace of gospel. Evangelism must be our priority when ministering to people. Paul makes sure we know what our priority should be, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures." (1 Cor. 15:3).

However, the priority given to evangelism does not necessarily mean it should be done first. It is often difficult to practice acts of mercy and evangelism at the same time. Practically, we must assess each situation and relationship first before unwisely blurting out the gospel message. For example, if a fire destroys a neighbor’s home, it would not be wise to speak the gospel to them first. We must first help them find shelter and care for their immediate needs. This is not to say that you should avoid opportunities to share the gospel with strangers. It simply means that acts of mercy and evangelism go hand-and-hand. They complement each other in ministry. We must use wisdom in deciding how to use both of them for God’s glory. Evangelism needs to be primary, but caring for the poor is an evident outpouring of the gospel message.

The next blog post will deal with giving wisely to the poor. We will answer the fundamental question of “Are there deserving poor and undeserving poor?”