I’ll never forget my first time walking the streets of Chennai, India, at the start of a three-month mission trip. For the first time I was witnessing abject poverty first hand through the sights, smells, and sounds of an unimaginably crowded city. Children with filthy faces, mangy hair, and tattered clothes gathered around me begging for help.
If you’ve never traveled to a developing country, you might feel that you have no connection to poverty. After all, America’s poor often wear nice clothes, own smart-phones, and live in weatherproof homes. To be considered poverty-stricken in America, a person can earn almost $12,000 annually, roughly seventeen times the income earned by the world’s poorest people. And yet Jesus says, “You have the poor with you always” (Mark 14:7).
Is Jesus right?
And if so, how are we to understand poverty? And what are believers’ obligations toward the poor?
The Problem of Poverty
When considering poverty, we should look at two important sides of the equation.
1. The Plight of the Poor
Poverty is a complex problem. We need to understand this since we might favor simple solutions, as in, “Poor people just need to work harder or spend less,” etc. Poverty experts explain that “the materially poor are trapped by multiple, interconnected factors—insufficient assets, vulnerability, powerlessness, isolation, and physical weakness—that ensnare them like bugs caught in a spider’s web.”
Financial inadequacy can easily destroy one’s sense of possessing meaningful options and impose a general dearth of freedom. Compounding their sense of bondage, poor people sometimes lack a track record of success. Many of the world’s rich people have been generally prosperous for as long as they can remember; this is a huge help toward a positive outlook. Conversely, lack of successful experiences in the past can stunt one’s worldview. Whereas affluent people tend to build on early educational achievements, people who are undereducated tend to lack information and experience necessary to succeed in the same way. Eventually, feelings of entrapment and failure can be stifling. Low-income people often face fear and hopelessness not known by higher earners. Some poor people’s impulses for immediate gratification can catalyze additional poor choices. Most significantly, many poor people do not know the Christ who can bring hope even in deplorable poverty.
But poverty is not just about the poor.
2. The Posture of the Rich
The world’s wealthy, with many notable exceptions, tend to be ignorant of and indifferent, unhelpful, and unjust toward the poor (James 2:6). Frequently, our good intentions simply never materialize (James 2:15-16). Many of us fight a natural tendency to favor those who are more likely to reward us (James 2:1-4). The rich often exploit the poor, perhaps unknowingly. God’s stern discipline of the Old Testament church indicates how seriously he cares about poverty alleviation (Is. 1:10-17; 58:1-10).
Most people reading these words—judging by the mere factors of literacy and internet access—are the rich people of this world. It is no shame to be wealthy, but with privilege comes responsibility. The fact that the average American only has to work eleven minutes per day to out-earn 40% of the world’s population should arrest our attention.
So, how are Christians to respond to the reality of insufficiency so prevalent around us?
The Place of the Church
Despite the complexity of poverty, three simple realities of Scripture can help us learn to better share with those in need.
1. Caring for the Poor Is a Non-Negotiable Precept
“For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and to your needy, in your land’” (Deut. 15:11). Keep in mind that the “brother” in this verse is not necessarily a believer but a fellow citizen within Israel’s social community. The problem of poverty is our problem. To drive this point home, Jesus alludes to this text at his anointing just prior to his crucifixion (Mark 14:7). On that occasion it was right for the woman to “waste” expensive perfume to anoint her Lord, but ordinarily the poor have a rightful claim on our resources. Paul gives this command as a pillar of apostolic ministry: “Remember the poor” (Gal. 2:10; Cf. Gal. 6:10, 1 Johns 3:17, James 2:16). The church must reflect Jesus, who went about doing good to the poor and oppressed.
2. Believers Have the Power to Love the Poor
The gospel teaches us how to respond to poverty. Christ became poor so that we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9, Phil. 2:2). He entered into our poverty to draw us out of it. Before grace we were squandering our assets, drowning in ignorance, hopelessly dreading the onset of an ever-darkening future. Christ came to cancel the curse of poverty, to reverse the multifaceted brokenness brought on by the fall. Christ has made us rich by ungrudgingly giving us an undeserved inheritance. When we believe in Jesus, he takes our rags and replaces them with his riches.
The gospel also equips us to respond to poverty. Believers have the power to care for the poor because they have been delivered from pervasive self-love. Living faith is never merely an attitude; it always manifests itself through grace-empowered actions, like caring for the poor (James 2:17).
3. Caring for the Poor Requires a Plan of Action
Here are two important parts of a plan to care for the poor. First, pray for the poor. Pray that God would deliver vulnerable people from the tricks of manipulators. Pray that God would save the poor from despair. Pray that poor people in your area would be drawn to hear the gospel and be welcomed into a loving family of believers.
Second, obey Jesus’ command to get to know poor people. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor” (Luke 14:13). This is what God has done in his invitation to the great supper (v. 21). Through personal relationships with those in poverty, you will not only learn from others, but your heart will also go out to them (Job 30:25). Their lives will remind you that if you are not poor, the reasons why have more to do with God’s providence than with your hard work.
The poor are still with us. And so is God’s expectation that we reflect him in helping them. And so is God’s pledge to care for those who care for the poor (Is. 58:10; cf. Deut. 15:10). There are few more obvious ways of reflecting the grace of God than sharing with those in need. Unsure where to start? Consider sharing these thoughts with a friend and asking that question together.