A Christian’s Response to Poverty

A Christian’s Response to Poverty June 4, 2018

A Christian's Response to Poverty

A Christian’s Response to Poverty

Today, we have a wide contrast between the rich and the poor. There is a high concentration of wealth that is centered on a very few people. At the same time, there are a wide variety of people who are poor. By poor, I mean people who are eking out a living so that they can put food on the table. What is a Christian’s response to poverty? What are we to do about it? Today, I will begin a series of sermons that address the “hot topics” in our world today. The themes come from a book entitled Counter Culture Christianity by David Platt, who was the former head of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Let’s look at what the Bible says about these topics and address ways we can respond the challenges they pose to our world.

In this series, we will address poverty, culture, marriage, family, abortion, religious liberty, sexuality, race, human trafficking, orphans and widows, and those who need to hear the Gospel. Using these ten topics, I want to address ways that as Christians we can engage our world. Today, we start with poverty. Let’s first talk about the poor and then we can address how to help the poor around us.

Who are the poor?

A study that was conducted last year in the United States by a United Nations agency just released their report this week. They surveyed a variety of places all over the United States. Here is what they found about the poor here in this country. There are many things the report shares about the state of poverty in the United States. Let me share with you just various insights from the report.1

“About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.4 It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations in among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world.”

“The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries.”

“But in 2018 the United States had over 25 per cent of the world’s 2,208 billionaires.”

“In imagining the poor, racist stereotypes are usually not far beneath the surface. The poor are overwhelmingly assumed to be people of color, whether African Americans or Hispanic “immigrants”. The reality is that there are 8 million more poor Whites than there are poor Blacks. The face of poverty in America is not only Black or Hispanic, but also White, Asian and many other backgrounds.”

“According to the official poverty measures, in 2016, 12.7 per cent of Americans were living in poverty; according to the supplemental poverty measure, the figure was 14 per cent.”

“The share of households that, while having earnings, also receive nutrition assistance rose from 19.6 per cent in 1989 to 31.8 per cent in 2015.”

How does a Christian respond to poverty?

In the Old Testament, God commanded two practices that helped the poor from becoming destitute for life.

The first was the idea of canceling debts (Deuteronomy 15:1-3). After seven years, a lender who has given money to a brother or someone else who is native to the Land of Israel (a Jew) was supposed to cancel the debts. This is unheard of today because people expect to be paid back what they are owed. The reason this was instituted was to prevent greed – which is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10-11). If Israel kept this command, then God would bless His people (Deuteronomy 15:4-6).2

That command was strictly for the nation of Israel. But the second idea has practical implications for today. The second command was to love your neighbor by the way you lent money. This section shows us how one can love one another by how we lend money. In other words, this section shows us how to deal with those who are in poverty around us. This is one section of Scripture that helps the Christian address the problem of poverty in our local world. Here, we see seven different ways we can help those who are poor around me.


1. God has given me everything (Deuteronomy 15:7)

““within any of your city gates in the land the Lord your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 15:7, CSB)

See here that God asserts that He is giving the land to the people of Israel. God is giving the people the resources they need to be self-sufficient, to work a job, to take care of their families. The people may work the land, but it is God who provides the land in the first place.

A fundamental principle is that God is the source of everything I have and everything I need. God has given me everything I need in this life. That means that he has also given me the ability to help someone else in need.

2. There is always someone who is going through a difficult time and needs help (Deuteronomy 15:7)

““If there is a poor person among you…do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. (Deuteronomy 15:7, CSB)

God is showing here that our hearts and hands must be open to other people. It tells us how to act toward a “poor brother.” That means that there is always going to be someone who is going through a hard time.

Maybe that is you. You are thinking: “Man, it is really hard right now.” I am having a hard time paying the bills. But I can assure you that if you are having a hard time now, there is always someone else who has it harder than you.

You need to see that when I am lending to the poor, there is a restriction. I can help everyone. I am only expected to help those who are my “brothers,” who are “among me.”

Now, as a church, we have two mechanisms to help those in need. First, we have what we call a benevolence. This is a set of money that is designed to help anyone who asks, who has a need. The money can go to gas, electricity, water, or some other basic need. Anyone can ask within a six-month period and it can get answered. That’s an option for the church as a whole.

But on a personal level, the Bible here expects you and me to be concerned about the poor person among us. The poor people around me may be different than the poor people around you. The people who are in my circle of influence who have it harder than me are different than the people who are in your circle of influence.

The Bible does not command us to give to the poor as a strategy for the Gospel. Nowhere in the Bible is the command to share the Gospel tied to giving to the poor. This means that you don’t grow a church by giving to the poor. Giving to the poor is just an extended work of the church.

When you give to the poor, you are sharing the love of Jesus. Now, you can ask and share the Gospel with the poor. But you shouldn’t expect someone to simply join your church when you help them out. It would be nice if they would. But many times, that is not going to be the result. Sharing with the poor is more about me and how God wants to work through me than about getting someone out of poverty.

3. Open your hand to help someone up (Deuteronomy 15:8)

Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. (Deuteronomy 15:8, CSB)

Here, it says that you can open your hand and loan him “enough for whatever need” he has. The key here is that we help those when they have a need.

Notice that in context, one Israelite could loan to another. That means that the one who is poorer would be indebted to the giver. That is not a free ride. The one who is poor is financially obligated to pay it back.

As a Christian, we know that “the borrower is a slave to the lender.” The Bible teaches that loaning has a consequence. But it is best when the person who is in need comes to a Christian for help first.

The church should be made of up people who can help lend to others who are in need. But the goal is not for them to stay poor. The goal is not for them to abuse the loan. The goal is for them to get temporary help while they need it. You don’t worry about their lifestyle. Instead, your concern is their need.

4. Don’t take advantage of the poor (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty. (Deuteronomy 15:9, CSB)

Here, the context shows that in Israel, debts were erased every seven years. It was called the “Year of canceling debts.” This prevented one Israelite from cheating another Israelite. It prevented one fellow brother from financially enslaving another.

So here comes the poor guy who owes me money, but the year of debt freedom has not happened. I could go to him and demand that he pay everything back before the seventh year. I could say: “Pay up brother, you owe me.”

That’s what the wicked slave did in Jesus’ parable. Jesus spoke about this very problem. Remember that Jesus talked about the wicked slave in Matthew 18.

Then the master of that servant had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan. “That servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’ (Matthew 18:27–28, CSB)

Even though I am better off, I could say, “I am not going to help you at all.” We should not do that to the poor around us.

5. Give with the right attitude (Deuteronomy 15:10)

Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. (Deuteronomy 15:10, CSB)

Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7, CSB)

God loves a cheerful giver, not a cranky one. God helps people who give with the right attitude.

Don’t think: This guy doesn’t deserve it.

Don’t think: I don’t know if I can do this.

Don’t think: How can I make this guy pay me back

Don’t think: How am I going to get my money back

Don’t think: Why do I have to keep giving to this guy again and again?

If God gives you the opportunity to give to another person in need, God will pay you back.

The emphasis here in these verses is on the giver. The poor asks, the Christian gives, and the poor goes on. There are verses that show the importance of getting out of debt. God does expect His people to get better at financial money management. However, God also wants us to learn how to treat each other in a loving manner, no matter their financial condition.

Ultimately, God wants all of His people to be at the point where they can help someone else. He doesn’t want any of His children to continue to stay on the receiving end of help. That means if as a Christian, the church has helped you, then you need to make the effort to get yourself in a better financial position to help others. If you are asking help from the church, it should be on a rare occasion. You should go from being a borrower to a lender. You can only do that if you work on getting yourself financially stable enough to give back. The reason this is important is that God wants you to be in a position to help other people. God will give you plenty of opportunities to show His love to other poor people.

6. God will give you plenty of opportunities to show His love to the poor and helpless around you (Deuteronomy 15:11)

For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘Open your hand willingly to your poor and needy brother in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:11, CSB)

Jesus said this too:

You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. (Matthew 26:11, CSB)

It is not our place to criticize how a person became poor. Instead, we are to be loving to the poor. Loving the poor means more than giving a hand-out or a hand-up. It means doing a spiritual check-up on my own thoughts and feelings. Helping the poor is more about a “love one another” spiritual examination of my heart.

God tests our ability to love one another by teaching us to love the poor. How I love the poor reveals much about my heart and its desire to love God. How do you love the poor? Are you stingy or are you willing to lend a hand to someone who is more down and out than you?3

7. Always have a willing attitude to help those who are in need around you (Deuteronomy 15:11)

For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘Open your hand willingly to your poor and needy brother in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:11, CSB)

The fact is that we have to be willing to help those who are in need around us today. David Platt shares a story about how he had to develop a willing attitude to help those around him.

“When I traveled through a series of snow-covered Asian villages, I saw what happens when severe poverty turns simple illness into almost certain death. We met people and heard stories of men, women, and children who had died or were dying of preventable diseases. One village we passed had recently experienced a cholera outbreak. Up to sixty people had died in a matter of weeks because of a simple stomach infection due to impure water and poor hygiene. In case you read quickly over that last sentence, that’s a huge portion of an entire community who died of diarrhea.

On the same day I was walking through these villages, I read in Luke 10 Jesus’ summary of all God’s commandments to his people: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (verse 27). That last phrase jumped off the page in light of the picture I was seeing. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As myself?

I wondered what I would want someone to do for me if I lived in one of these villages. Wouldn’t I want somebody to help me? Or what if it were my kids or the children in my church dying of preventable diseases? What if half your children or my children were dying before they turned eight? If this were us, or if this were our kids, or if this were the children in our churches, we would do something. Ignoring such urgent needs simply would not be an option.

Yet this is exactly what so many of us in the Western church have done. We have insulated and isolated ourselves from the massive material poverty that surrounds us in the world. We have filled our lives and our churches with more comforts for us, all while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to abject poverty in others. We need our eyes opened to the implications of the gospel for how we live”.4

1 Philip Alston, Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to the United States of America, United Nations, General Assembly, Human Rights Council, 4 May 2018, http://undocs.org/A/HRC/38/33/ADD.1, accessed on 2 June 2018. Originally from “Talk Poverty,” https://talkpoverty.org/2018/06/01/un-just-published-scathing-indictment-us-poverty/, 1 June 2018, accessed on 2 June 2018.

2 Jim Erwin, “Loving One Another Means Loving the Poor,” Deuteronomy 15:1-11, 6 November 2015, Internet, Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jimerwin/2015/11/06/loving-one-another-also-means-loving-the-poor/, accessed on 1 June 2018.

3 Jim Erwin, “Loving One Another Means Loving the Poor,” Deuteronomy 15:1-11, 6 November 2015, Internet, Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jimerwin/2015/11/06/loving-one-another-also-means-loving-the-poor/, accessed on 1 June 2018.

4 David Platt, Because We Are Called to Counter Culture: How We Are to Respond to Poverty, Same-Sex Marriage, Racism, Sex Slavery, Immigration, Persecution. Abortion, Orphans, and Pornography (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2015).

Photo by Mika on Unsplash

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