Very little wealth is just lying on the ground or growing wild, free for the taking. Prosperity comes from the intelligent, productive, and generous stewards of creation because almost all wealth is created. That is to say, it is the fruit of creative human work. For this reason, we call God's command to cultivate the-world-as-given "the creation mandate." This is partly because it was given at the creation, but also because it is a command to create. Just as God unfolded the creation in the six days following his initial ex nihilo fiat, so too He called his image-bearers to continue unfolding the wealth of the world. 26

The natural state of this world, therefore, is not wealth, such that equitable prosperity is simply a matter of proper distribution. But nor is our natural state one of poverty, in which case justice would again be a matter of suitable distribution as it is with rations among castaways on a lifeboat.

Rather, our natural condition is one of latent wealth in poverty. Thus, overcoming the evil of poverty is not a matter of justly distributing fixed wealth, but of justly protecting people's God-given abilities to fulfill the creation mandate by creating wealth of every sort and enjoying the fruit of their labors in godliness. In that understanding, justice pertains to preserving and expanding opportunity, not redistributing booty.

Any proposed remedy for poverty is only as good as the theory of wealth that underlies it.27 What defines the poor as poor is that they're short on wealth. There are always other problems that contribute to the poverty problem, such as political oppression or degenerate culture, but those are particular circumstances that prevent poor people from doing what they are divinely and naturally fitted to do: create wealth for themselves and their neighbors, whether it takes the form of soy beans, shoes, literature, care for one's children or parents, public administration, or pastoral leadership. The trouble with leftist Christian advocates of the poor is that, like their non-Christian counterparts, they do not understand the nature of wealth, so they cannot helpfully address the poverty problem.

Biblically, there are two ways to alleviate poverty: giving and growing.

Psalm 41 declares, "Blessed is the one who considers the poor!" But to give, one must first have. Job was able to give generously to the poor because he was a man of means. Boaz could let Ruth glean in his field because he owned a thriving, productive estate. Joseph of Arimathea could donate a tomb for the Lord's burial because he had been making good use of his economic opportunities prior to that time.28 Margaret Thatcher once noted that, "...even the Good Samaritan had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side."29

I hasten to add that God expects not only the moneyed, but also the poor themselves, to be givers. The Apostle Paul praises the churches in Macedonia for giving generously to the relief of suffering Christians in Jerusalem despite their own "extreme poverty" (2 Cor. 8:2). It is often reported that while America is a nation of generous givers, the working classes give far more freely than the wealthy.30

Simple almsgiving can be problematic, however. In the prosperous West, we are largely confused about who is poor and who is not. The biblical poor are those in terrible need. They are essentially helpless, often the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner—people without defenders and without the means to defend themselves and to provide for their most basic needs. When Job speaks of defending the poor, he mentions the widow, the fatherless, and those in danger of perishing from hunger and exposure. (Job 31:16-23) They are exposed to the wolves of society, powerful and unscrupulous people of means who would devour them for selfish gain. They are not people on the verge of canceling their cable TV.31 Paul counseled deacons to help only the genuine poor. "Honor widows who are truly widows" (I Tim. 5:3-14).