"So… what can I do to help the poor?"
Let's be honest: no one with a firm grip on reality looks at the world and says, “Yep, everything is running exactly as it should.” When we millions of people go to sleep each night unsure if they’re going to eat the next day while others have an abundance beyond what they could need for a thousand lifetimes, we know something’s not right.
And therein lies the problem: we know things are wrong, but we don’t know what we can do about them. The problem seems too big to really make a difference! And you know something? We’re right to think so, at least in one sense. When we look at the suffering and injustice that exists in this world as a whole, it’s overwhelming. The problem is just too big!
And yet, we see throughout Scripture an overwhelming concern for the needs of the poor. James 1:27 describes pure religion as both the pursuit of godliness (keeping “oneself unstained from the world”) and caring for those in need (visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction”). 1 John 3:17 reminds us that if we see a brother in need and close our heart against him, God’s love may not actually abide in us. Jesus himself even identifies with the poor, describing our care for the poor among us as care for him (Matthew 25:40)!
So we can’t simply turn a blind eye, or give into the despair that comes with the overwhelming nature of poverty. Instead, we need to engage as God has called us to—caring for the needs of others, both in the church and in the world (Galatians 6:10).
So where does it start? I believe it starts with a change of mind and a change of heart. In order for that to happen, we need to understand four things:
1. What poverty is according to Scripture. The vast majority of people and pundits look at poverty as something that can be eradicated with the right combination of will power, political pressure and money. But God’s Word offers a much more comprehensive view of poverty. Fundamentally, the Bible depicts it as a spiritual issue, the result of the curse (Genesis 3:16-19).
This doesn’t mean that those who are poor are so because of personal sin. It simply means we live in a fallen world, one brought about by the sin of Adam and Eve, and that fact alone is more than enough to account for the world’s poverty. (I’ve written on this topic in greater detail in my book Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation and the End of Poverty.)
2. How poverty is at work in your own life. If poverty is, essentially, the default setting of the world, it means we are affected by it. Everything about our existence has been impoverished as a result of sin. We may not all be materially poor, but poverty is at work in your life and mine. We all struggle in our relationships. We all experience fruitless toil instead of fruitful labor. We all experience separation from God. And so we must all recognize our own poverty, be it primarily spiritual or material.
3. That God has promised an end to poverty. One of the most amazing things about the Christian faith is we know the end of the story, for God has shown it to us. God has promised that one day, this creation will end and a new one will come in its place, one free from sin and its effects. Death will be no more. Sadness and sickness will be gone. Poverty in every sense will end—and it will be Jesus who ends it (Rev. 21:4). We do not need to save the world, for the world is not ours to save.
4. That serving the poor is an opportunity for worship. “For the poor you always have with you,” Jesus said (John 12:8). These words are often seen as license for complacency, but that misses their point. Earlier in the passage, we see Mary anoint Jesus with expensive perfume and worship him. His point here is that, while we do not have Jesus standing right before us, we have unlimited opportunities to serve him as though he were—because to serve the poor is to serve him! All we have to do is look around and see.
These four truths totally transform how we see—and care for—the poor. They remind us that the poor are not targets or percentages or projects. They are real people, made in the image of God—people who, like us, need to experience the grace of God. For the grace he poured out on us is what we have to offer. And this is what we share when we invest in the lives of the poor.
Aaron Armstrong is the author of Awaiting a Savior: the Gospel, the New Creation and the End of Poverty, and Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World. He is a writer for an international Christian ministry, serves as an itinerant preacher throughout southern Ontario, and blogs daily at Blogging Theologically.