Did you grow up looking down on the poor? I did. Directly or indirectly, I was taught that anyone who is poor or homeless brought it on themselves, and if they would only make an effort, they could end their poverty. I just knew that laziness and poverty go hand in hand.
According to a Washington Post poll, 53% of white evangelical Protestants blame poverty on lack of individual effort, vs. only about 33% of atheists, agnostics, and the non-affiliated. Why do so many of us equate poverty with laziness?
Because “the Bible tells me so”:
- A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 24: 33-34)
- Laziness leads to poverty; hard work makes you rich. (Proverbs 10:4)
- Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity, but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty. (Proverbs 21:5)
- The soul of a lazy man desires, and has nothing; But the soul of the diligent shall be made rich. (Proverbs 13:4)
- The poor you will always have with you. (John 12:8)
No wonder many Christians believe that the poor brought their poverty on themselves. No wonder many of us are in no hurry to give money to panhandlers. We believe the Bible. Whatever it says, it has to be true.
Are you sure?
- The Bible says, Those who conceal their sins do not prosper, but those who confess and renounce them find mercy. (Proverbs 28:13) – How many billionaires conceal illegal and dirty business dealings?
- The Bible says, A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1) – Have you ever answered gently in an argument, and it didn’t go well?
- The Bible says, Evildoers are trapped by their sinful talk, and so the innocent escape trouble. (Proverbs 12:13) – Do some evildoers get away with their evil doing? Do the innocent sometimes get wrongly punished?
Examples like these abound. Is the Bible lying to us?
Words vs Meaning
Obviously, each of these is a simple, pithy proverb that makes a point. If you’ve been up to no good, it’s better to come clean; in an argument, it’s best not to escalate; etc.
These are not guarantees. They are not promises from God. They need to be understood in the spirit in which they were written. This is common sense.
The same goes for our laziness verses: it’s a good idea to be diligent in your work. Don’t be a slacker. That’s what these verses mean.
Similarly, the passages may seem to suggest that if you are not prospering, it’s because you’re lazy – but that’s not what they mean.
(Commercial: if you question “business as usual” in Christianity – or want to question it – subscribe to my newsletter, and we can journey together!)
When we take the laziness verses as “Gospel truth,” the next obvious step is judgmentalism. Have you ever caught yourself thinking, “They don’t want to be contributing members of society. They are happy to live off of my hard work. I could never live like that.”
If you think the poor enjoy living on the dole, begging for change, or sleeping on park benches, think again. Why would they be happy to live like that if you would not? Because you are more noble than they are? Because they are a bit less than human?
If you would hate to live “like that,” you can assume that anyone else would too (unless perhaps they have a mental illness, and that’s a whole other conversation).
Maybe the system that enables some of us to prosper also blocks some others from prospering.
My brief bout of poverty
For two years, I qualified for welfare, but I didn’t know it.
I worked hard as a Christian schoolteacher in Queens, NY with a salary that was way below the poverty line. I supplemented my meager income by also working as music director at my church. I worked two jobs and barely made ends meet. (Working for the church and being paid so poorly is another whole conversation.)
When billionaire Michael Bloomberg said at a 2020 presidential debate (paraphrase) “yes I’m filthy rich, but I worked very hard to get all that money,” it infuriated me. He never worked harder than I did those years in New York.
Since those lean years in New York, I have always stayed above the poverty line – but not because I worked hard. Because I married an engineer who has always been paid a decent salary.
(Note 1: I’m not saying “marry money” here. I’m saying wealth doesn’t always come from hard work, and poverty doesn’t always come from sloth. Note 2: some of the world’s wealthiest people are a burden on society. They don’t pay their share of taxes, they underpay their workers, and they have no shame in doing so. That’s way worse than being poor, isn’t it?)
Bottom line: read the Bible and use your brain.
Next time, we’ll look at what Jesus had to say (and didn’t have to say) about poverty.
(If you are energized by challenges to the evangelical status quo like this, please subscribe to my newsletter! If you would like to comment on this post, please pop over to my Facebook page. All of my posts are there and open to constructive comment! I welcome your thoughts.)
RELATED POSTS YOU MIGHT ENJOY:
Examining the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy
Epic evangelical self-assurance around abortion
My will be done: an annotated Lord’s Prayer
FEATURED IMAGE: “Occupy Boston – tent city” by Tim Pierce is licensed under CC BY 2.0.