What is the worst state in which a man can be found? Is it a state of material destitution? Or is there something more devastating, more horrible – a state that affects him not only now, but forever? As we know from Scripture, the “light affliction” of this life “is but for a moment” (II Corinthians 4:17). For this reason, we “look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (ibid 4:18). With this sort of worldview, it is not surprising that the Biblical answer to material destitution – poverty – is far different from all others. While modern humanism elevates poverty and defines it as inequality, the Bible recognizes it as a result of sin – a fundamental brokenness often expressing itself in material need – a view which leads to help that is radically different and truly helpful.
What is poverty? The Biblical explanation is far from purely material. Man was created to be in a harmonious relationship with God, himself, others, and creation as a whole (Corbett and Fikkert 57). However, the fall shattered man’s relationship with God and as a result also destroyed the other three relationships. As sin corrupts our worldview, we put our priorities in the wrong order, and our relationships with others and with creation are damaged. However, these relationships are the basics for a life that fulfils God’s purpose for mankind. Destroying them destroys peace and creates poverty (ibid 62). Even when this poverty is not manifested materially, the brokenness is still there; we are all poor in some sense or another (ibid 70).
If the basic reason for poverty is sin, then it is unsurprising that the remedy for sin is the cure for poverty as well – not of course a magical and immediate cure, but ultimately the only permanently effective cure, even in this life. The prophet Isaiah brought the following word of the Lord to the people of Israel, a word that would ultimately be fulfilled in the person of Jesus the Messiah:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified (Isaiah 61:1–3).
To those whose lives have been destroyed by sin and who have been rendered poor by their rebellion against God, Christ comes bringing salvation, a salvation that includes a restoration of our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others, and with creation. The curse that sin brought with it was cosmic in scope – but, thank God, so is the redemption that He has orchestrated (Genesis 3:14-19, II Peter 3:13). The cure to all the world’s problems lies in Christ! Our task is to make disciples, a task that includes reforming all of our life, not just the spiritual aspect – and not just the physical aspect, either (Matthew 28:19). The gospel is about far more than just external worship (Luke 11:42). However, it also goes much deeper than the shallow materialistic solutions to poverty in vogue in our day – solutions that are inefficient and often harmful (Corbett and Fikkert 54). The cure for both spiritual and material poverty can be found only in Christ. We do not have the power to effect this transformation on our own – but instead of the stale, “try, try, again,” we are redirected to the one who has all power, and who has said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Luke 11:9).
Although Scripture clearly teaches that we are all poor in respect to our relationship to God, it is also clear that these are not the poor in view in such passages as, “oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor” (Zechariah 7:10; see also, Leviticus 19:10, Proverbs 28:27, Ezekiel 22:29, Luke 14:13, Galatians 2:10). There is undeniably a “uniquely devastating” aspect to material poverty (Corbett and Fikkert 70). In Scripture, the word poor is used mainly with reference to this type of poverty (Lifeviews, Sproul 149). In this sense, poverty can be caused by sloth, calamity, oppression, or personal sacrifice (Ethics, Sproul 54-56). Although the symptoms in each of these cases may look the same, it is important not to help a person suffering from one type of poverty by offering a remedy that would be appropriate for another type. For example, if a person has been rendered poor by a natural disaster, giving him a supply of food to get him over the rough spots could well be quite effective. However, giving a person suffering from a chronic case of poverty due to sloth the same sort of handout is likely to do more harm than good. Thus, it is imperative that we “discriminate among the poor” (Schlossberg 314). Why are poor people poor? In the case of those who are not obviously suffering from a disastrous setback (which usually has only temporary effects), there is often a distinguishable culture of poverty – a culture that is “more than, and more powerful than, material circumstances” (ibid 65). This culture may put leisure higher on the priority list than work, or it may put immediate consumption higher than saving and investment. In either case, masking the symptoms is at best only going to create a temporary solution – the real need is for a changed culture and worldview. On the other hand, those who are poor because of calamity “are to be a priority concern of the church” (Ethics, Sproul 55). These are people with serious and pressing needs. Unlike the first group, their situation cannot be compared to a chronic disease but rather to a sudden heart attack. A third reason for poverty is oppression. There are problems with many of today’s systems, problems that foster poverty or even directly create it. While we need to recognize that we are all sinners (including the poor), at the same time it is certainly not true that poverty is a direct indication of greater sinfulness – it may be caused primarily by an unjust system. These types of material poverty stem from different causes and thus require different cures.
The Christian response to poverty must always be one of love. But love is not merely a sympathetic feeling; it must be “action and movement” (Schlossberg 54). What sort of action should those that truly seek to help the poor contemplate? First of all, “all charity is to be governed by the moral lifestyle of the recipient” (Robbins 287). Those who refuse to work are not to be given handouts – “if any would not work, neither should he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). Moreover, helping the poor is not the job of the government – for one thing, the government simply cannot evaluate the moral lifestyle of each prospective welfare recipient. As he vetoed a welfare-oriented bill, President Grover Cleveland stated, “I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering” (Cleveland). With this point established, it is worth taking a look at what our aim in poverty alleviation should be. Corbett and Fikkert conclude that “the goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be, people who glorify God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation” (78). Schlossberg agrees; “Christians should seek to remove them [the poor] from that status [dependency] and return them to productive capacity” (315). On a practical level, this means that we need to recognize that the most important thing is not building so many houses or finding so many jobs – the key is spiritual transformation. Rather than bringing our own resources and trying to do everything for the poor person, we should endeavor to “let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good” so that then “he may have to give to him that needeth” (Ephesians 4:28). Part of this is not doing for other people what they can do for themselves, but instead recognizing the talents and skills God has given them and encouraging them to develop these gifts (Corbett and Fikkert 115). Moreover, knowing that the root of the problem is spiritual ought to lead us to dependence on God as we recognize that we do not have all the answers. Any attempts at poverty alleviation that ignore these basic Biblical principles merely endeavor to build a materially beautiful house on a spiritually decrepit foundation. But this is like “a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:26-27). If eternally significant results are the goal, then let us be sure to build on the solid rock!
Two radically different philosophies give us two radically different solutions to the problem of poverty. Humanism has defined poverty as inequality and offered us brute redistributionary force as a solution. On the other hand, the Bible goes far deeper, tracing poverty back to sin and freely offering Jesus Christ as our Savior. This salvation that God has provided is not a purely other-worldly phenomenon; it offers us hope and guidance for all of life’s problems, including material poverty. Dependent upon God, we are redeemed from dependence upon man. As we endeavor to follow His all-wise guidance for our lives, we rest assured in the promise, “Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption” (Psalm 130:7). Amen!
Cleveland, Grover. “Veto of Texas Seed Bill (February 16, 1887).” Transcript. University of Virginia, Miller Center. n. d. Web. <http://millercenter.org/president/cleveland/speeches/veto-of-texas-seed-bill>.
Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009.
Holy Bible. King James Version. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, n. d.
Robbins, John W. Freedom and Capitalism. Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2006.
Schlossberg, Herbert. Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990. Crossway ed., 1993.
Sproul, R. C. Ethics and the Christian. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1983. Third Printing, 1986.
Sproul, R. C. Lifeviews. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1986.