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What the Poor Need Most

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Children-in-PovertyDuring the late 1970s and early 1980s I spent two extended periods living below the poverty line. The first experience came as I entered the first grade. My father was a chronically unhappy man who was skillful and ambitious, yet prone to wanderlust. Every few months we would move to a new city so that he could try his hand at a new occupation—a truck driver in Arkansas, a cop in West Texas, a bouncer at a honky-tonk near Louisiana. We were always on the move, always a few weeks away from the next paycheck. At the lowest point we had nothing to eat but a half-loaf of Wonder Bread, a five-gallon bucket of unshelled peanuts, and tap water. That lasted for a two-week period in August that stretched across my seventh birthday.

Eventually my father settled down, found steady work, and we inched our way slowly toward the lower rungs of the working class. This period of financial tranquility lasted until I was eleven, when my father walked out on my mother, my younger brother, and me. Brokenhearted and dead broke, we packed the car and moved again, my mother having acquired the nomadic tendency to run away from adversity. (By the time I graduated high school, I had changed schools thirteen times.) Single parenthood tipped the scales and we slipped, once again, beneath the poverty threshold. We survived with the aid of food stamps and government housing until my sophomore year, when my mother remarried and our lives returned to a level of economic normalcy.

I’m always hesitant to share this story because we in America tend to have a knee-jerk sympathy for the “down-and-out.” There are, however, many times, as in my family’s case, when pity is completely unwarranted. A lifetime of foolish decisions by my parents, rather than a dismal economy or lack of opportunity, led to our being poor. We reaped what they had sown.

But while being poor can be difficult, it isn’t the tragedy that many might be inclined to believe. From an early age I knew that while many people had more than I did, others had it much, much worse. That lesson was seared into my conscience while sitting in a pew watching Baptist missionaries present a slideshow detailing their latest mission trip. The images of true poverty gave our tiny congregation a glimpse into the everyday life in Ethiopia, a time of famine when a few slices of white bread and a bucket of unshelled peanuts would be considered a feast. I was struck by the realization that as little as we had, these people had less. I was Texas poor; these people were Africa poor.

Looking back, I realize that many would have looked on me as I looked on these African children—as objects of pity. Though they were much like me, I had put them in the category of the Other. It was almost as if these families, who didn’t even have a mobile home and a broken down Buick to call their own, were a different type of Christian. As the Dutch prime minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper wrote in The Problem of Poverty:

There cannot be two different faiths—one for you and one for the poor. The question on which the whole social problem really pivots is whether you recognize in the less fortunate, even in the poorest, not merely a creature, a person in wretched circumstances, but one of your own flesh and blood: for the sake of Christ, your brother. It is exactly this noble sentiment that, sad to say, has been weakened and dulled in such a provoking manner by the materialism of this century.

Kuyper wrote these words in 1891 for the material-obsessed middle-class of The Netherlands. Yet in our own country even the poor are dulled by materialism. Many of our poor have more possessions than the rich young ruler whom Jesus told to sell all he had in order to find salvation. How many of those in poverty in America would give up all they had? Even my family — Texas poor as we were — would have been hesitant to part with our bounty.

The problem of poverty, at least in America, is not just that it makes it difficult for people to fulfill their material needs, but rather that it blinds us all to what we really need. After all, what the truly destitute — those without food and shelter — need most isn’t a handout or a redistribution of wealth. What they need is for Christians to heed Jesus’ command. As Kuyper points out,

For deeds of love are indispensable. Obviously, the poor man cannot wait until the restoration of our social structure has been completed. Almost certainly he will not live long enough to see that happy day. Nevertheless, he still has to live, he must feed his hungry mouth, and the mouths of his hungry family. Therefore, vigorous help is necessary. However highly I am inclined to praise your willingness to make sacrifices—and this is possible through God’s grace to many of you—nevertheless, the holy art of “giving for Jesus’ sake” ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.

The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God’s work. The government cannot take the place of Christian charity. A loving embrace isn’t given with food stamps. The care of a community isn’t provided with government housing. The face of our Creator can’t be seen on a welfare voucher. What the poor need is not another government program; what they need is for Christians like me to honor our savior.

I can attest to that truth from my own experience. What my family needed, what I needed, was not just a handout — either from the state or the church. We needed true, godly charity.

So why do I still find it so difficult to give of my money, of my time, of my self? Why are the “deeds of love” that Kuyper called indispensable so easy for me to withhold?

I can’t blame it on poverty. Today, I’m comfortably ensconced in the middle-class with free time and disposable income that I waste with embarrassing regularity. Yet even when I was poor I was wealthier than 95 percent of the rest of the planet. I still had a duty to provide aid to those who were even less fortunate; Jesus didn’t excuse me from my obligations because I seemed to lack wealth.

In Christ’s day, the Jews were instructed to give to the Temple and to the poor as part of their service to God. Jesus praised the poor widow who gave two mites, having “put more into the treasury than all the others.” The others gave out of their wealth, but she gave out of her poverty.

Jesus never said that the widow shouldn’t have given because she had little to spare. Instead, he praised her obedience. If the widow and the poor can give then how much more can those of us in temporary financial straights — the starving artist, the penniless college student, the struggling young parents — give of our abundance?

Some day I will stand before my Creator and he’ll ask why I didn’t feed my brother when he was hungry or clothe my sister when she was cold. Shall I tell him, “I couldn’t give, Lord, I lived in poverty”?

Unlike the poor widow, I’m rich in possessions and could give out of my wealth. But she gave out of abundance — an obedient heart and love for her neighbor — of which I remain truly impoverished.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Jimmy2

    WWJD –> So-called “middle class Christian progressives/Democrats” –> We Want Free Stuff — WWFS???

  • Bill Hickman

    Thanks for this post, Joe. One small quibble:

    “The fact that the government needs a safety net to catch those who would slip between the cracks of our economic system is evidence that I have failed to do God’s work.”

    I understand, and agree with, the essence of what you mean here. But I also think it’s ok for Christians to acknowledge that there are certain basic macro-level guards against poverty that 1) only the state can provide or 2) the state is better equipped than private entities to provide.

    For example, it’s very difficult for private entities to increase their charitable activities to meet the challenges of increased poverty and joblessness during troughs in the business cycle. Their revenues track the business cycle – they go down when incomes go down. But the federal government can enact counter-cyclical policy because it can print/borrow and fill in the gaps.

    • Eric Freeman

      Christians can and should run the government safety net. People running these programs are in the ideal place to help the poor.

  • guest

    Are you saying the poor need to give all they have to the “church”? Like the widow who gave her last mite that you claim Jesus was lauding? Who takes care of those who have given their all and have nothing left like the widow you are praising? (I do not think I can depend on the Christians you say are lacking in giving…even you say an obedient heart and love for one’s neighbor is something of which you remain impoverished.)
    So- who will take care of those who give their all to the poor and them become impoverished?

    • Reinz

      This sounds like a social justice/tithe article?

      “Jesus never said that the widow shouldn’t have given because she had little to spare. Instead, he praised her obedience. If the widow and the poor can give then how much more can those of us in temporary financial straights — the starving artist, the penniless college student, the struggling young parents — give of our abundance?”

      Jesus didn’t praise the widow. I’m not sure how that conclusion is being made.

      I feel like the widow giving all she had has been taken out of context. I doubt it is purposeful, but it’s still being taken out of context and thoughts are being added that make absolutely no sense.

      I don’t recall Jesus praising the widow for giving to the corrupt temple system. He just made a statement. He didn’t tell us what the frame of mind and heart of the widow was. Just that she gave more because she had less. Infact, right afterwards, he talks about how the temple will be destroyed.. That verse seems like a rebuke to the pharisees for the way they abused the poor…not a praise to the poor for supporting the corrupt temple system. He had just gotten done overturning tables and even brought out his whip! Beware of the scribes and pharisees and false religious leaders. The Lord requires mercy, not sacrifice. Are we doing the same thing today in our church institutions? Seems to me that the widow was giving everything she had and was in bondage. Isn’t that what religious systems do to people? Put them in bondage? I don’t know about anyone else, but I would very upset if I saw the same situation happening in front of me. I would not think that the person was spiritual and trusting God. I would think the person has been guilted into giving by a corrupt religious system for whatever reason. False religions are built on the backs of the poor.

      In another place, God rebukes the pharisees again because they put aside their money and say it’s for God, yet they won’t take care of their own parents.

      • Christopher Zehnder

        Apropos of what Reinz says, just before the account of the widow, Jesus has this to say of the scribes and pharisees: “Beware of the scribes, who desire to walk in long robes, and love salutations in the marketplace, and the first chairs in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts: “Who devour the houses of widows, feigning long prayer. These shall receive greater damnation.” This is from Luke. Mark says something similar: “Who devour the houses of widows under the pretence of long prayer: these shall receive greater judgment.”

        It appears the story of the widow is, in part, an object lesson of the oppression of the temple authorities, to which Our Lord makes very pointed reference.

      • Jessica

        RE: Reinz
        Religion aside, try giving an amount you can afford to someone in need, and then another time, try giving an amount that makes you sacrifice something you really, really want. The second brings such peace and happiness it astounded me the one time I did it (recently ,.. I now want to do it more.)

        I think this teaching helps us uncover one source of true happiness, which is what i think Christianity does. Reveals our true nature to us.

        RE: guest
        I wonder (I honestly don’t know and wonder this daily) if we were truly generous to people who truly needed it, if God would then provide for us financially or if we would go broke just like everyone else. I mean he gave us a brain to make good judgements too … Until I find out by experimentation and study, I would guess that like most things, the answer lies in a balance, not in extremeness on either side. But I do know that that one time I gave “from my need/want” that it was unlike any contentment I’ve ever experienced.

  • Jano

    So, will you do it, then? I mean give your wealth, time, love, your abundance, your life, basically…will you?
    Do not misunderstand me, I regard this article as a very interesting one, but unless we really do something about it, it will just be “another good article about poverty”. As D. Livingstone said: “Simpathy is no substitute for action”. Saludos desde Latinoamérica,

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  • NoNameontheBullet

    While I was not poor or without when I was young. That wasn’t true later when I was trying to raise a family in a clueless fashion. There were times when I didn’t have enough money to buy a potato for dinner. Or when I was living in a camping trailer with my wife and two kids and then being encouraged to wear better clothing by my employer while at work although I was wear the best that I had. I could have done better, much better. Yet the Lord was wildly kind to me and preserved me and my family. The great deal of stress I caused due to my own needing a kick in the pants was inexcusable. I and my family was, no doubt, looked down upon. However, danger lies in thinking that since we no longer live under those circumstances, that somehow, we are better than those who dress up to go to Walmart. Christ has placed in me and my wife a want to give what we can whenever we can to those who are need. But foolish pride and a faulty love for Christ hobbles even the most gracious attempts. This is my point. We must love Christ wholeheartedly! We must love with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength. Then, loving others and meeting their needs is much easier. Anything short of that invites pride and self promotion.

  • a.

    “of which I remain truly impoverished.”

    ditto, may the Lord be helping us each more in this.. no longer committing robbery..naked we came from our mother’s womb and naked we return; what do we have that we did not receive

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  • What I have learned about the poor is that is that they are not a monolith. I have talked to people who were poor who worked their way out of it without help, some of worked their way out of it with help, and some have not worked their way out of it. Some were poor despite being responsible and some weren’t. Some had a place because of assistance and some are homeless. But what I don’t understand is this “knee-jerk sympathy” for the poor attitude. And what I further don’t understand is this “Christian” attitude that says only Christians should help the poor. Is the good Samaritan parable a summation of the second table of the law or not? For if it is, it is commanded of everybody, not just Christians.

    We have a democratically elected government and the question is whether that government is to represent all the people, including the poor, or just a privileged group. For if it is the former, then we should not create this false dichotomy between government helping the poor or the Church helping the poor. And if it is the latter, realize that many will be made poor by the actions and control of gov’t by the privileged.

    Finally, we should realize that poverty isn’t there so us Christians can prove our faith and it isn’t there so we can manipulate people into believing. Rather, it is there for a variety of reasons and those with much are to share with those who have little. And we should do that knowing that some day the shoe will be on the other foot. You know, if my house is on fire, I am not going to ask each fireman if he or she is a Christian before they try to put out the fire. When I had cancer surgery, I didn’t ask the people participating in the surgery or helping me afterwards if they were giving Christian help. So why would I do the same with poverty? And here we should note that some nonChristians often act more Christian than many Christians do. Romans 2 talks about that.

    • SamHamilton

      I didn’t read Joe’s comment as saying “only” Christians should help the poor. I read him as saying that Christians, in particular, should be dedicated to helping the poor. And he wasn’t ruling out government assistance, he was just saying that it doesn’t reflect the love of Jesus. No one learns about Jesus from a government assistance program, was, I believe, his point, just as you probably didn’t learn about Jesus from your surgeon.

      And it certainly sounds like Joe would admit that some Christians act more like Christians than some Christians do. The ending of his post is a critique of himself, a Christian, not nonChristians.

      • SamHamilton,
        If God is the one who provides for us, then government provision can reveal God’s love to us.

        Though I agree with what you write that says that Christians should be dedicated to helping the poor, what Joe said about the existence of poverty giving evidence to the failure of Christians is well-intentioned but wrong. I do appreciate the sentiment expressed which Joe expresses there and it is one we should all share, but I see a greater problem. What if it is the economic system in which we live that is causing people to live in poverty, does blaming ourselves help address the problem?

  • Rob Schwarzwalder

    Wonderful piece, Joe, humbling and real. Thank you. H. Schlossberg writes of the Left’s understanding of “ontological poverty” – being poor not as an economic condition but a state of being. Conservatives understand the nature, dignity, and promise of man very differently.

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  • RaymondSwenson

    I appreciate that you point out that, for your own family and many other people, poverty is a direct result of their own poor choices, while for others it is due to circumstances beyond their control, such as illness, war, or natural disaster. For those in the first category, part of aiding them is persuading them and showing them how to change their own lives and behaviors.
    In my denomination, extended families are asked to provide assistance to each other. Every member is asked to fast one day a month and donate at least the amount of food money saved to help the poor. Every member is asked to assist with specific ongoing aid to the needy, including working on church-owned farms and in church-owned food processing facilities to provide the food needed to stock warehouses of food that are provided to the needy in our congregations, who contribute their own labor to maintaining the system as they are able. Those warehouses are also tapped to provide essentials for disaster relief. An employment placement program is operated that serves anyone in the community who applies. Additionally, individual congregations help in their communities at soup kitchens and food banks. Each year, our congregation is one of about forty of our denomination in our metropolitan area that contributes family food kits to the local Salvation Army. Each family stocks one to three standard cardboard cartons with a standard list of basic, storable foods.
    We also contribute to an education loan fund for members of our denomination in third world countries. A small investment can make a large difference in their earning ability and capability to help others. We contribute to humanitarian relief in response to earthquakes and tsunamis around the world.
    We also aid widows and the aged and ill with home repairs, and help families load or unload their household goods when they move to a new location. When My daughter’s family moved from Colorado to Idaho, I called ahead to the congregation they would be moving into, and a dozen people met us at the home they were renting and helped unload their U-Haul truck.
    These are things that any church can do if it wants to. Performing charitable acts as a congregation makes us much more effective, and it involves those who need help in helping themselves.

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