A Big Mac
As I pulled into the McDonalds parking lot, I noticed a malnourished man rummaging through the trash. My first thought was to buy him food. Accepting my offer, he proceeded to order a large Big Mac meal. After a few minutes of small talk and fry twirling, I challenged his aversion to the greasy goodness which lay before him. “I’m not hungry when I’m on speed. You should try it sometime.”
My brain spun as I attempted to muster a coherent response, “I don’t need speed, I have Jesus!” I blurted. “Speed and Jesus go great together,” he retorted. By this point, I couldn’t help but feel a mix of laughter and sorrow. I had no relationship with this man and was ill-equipped to minister to his needs. A Big Mac was not what he needed. His problems went much deeper than lack of food.
Experiences like this bring frustration and eventually apathy towards those who live in poverty. Most of us feel this frustration from time to time. Every human being is made in the image of God and thus worthy of compassion. Yet, the massive amount of welfare dependency in our country is frustrating.
Consider the fact that the U.S. government spent over $1 trillion dollars on welfare programs providing food, housing, medical care, and targeted services to low income Americans.1 Furthermore, a 2012 Census Bureau report shows that 49.1% of the population lives in a household where at least one member received a government benefit.2
How are Christians to respond to this growing problem? I do not have all the answers, but it is clear that much of the “compassion” in our country is not aligned with biblical principles. Biblical compassion requires both justice and mercy. A society which doles out material goods and money devoid of relationship and moral obligation will inevitably fail. Therefore, Christians are obligated to practice and speak Biblical truth to an entitled culture.
Work is a Creation Mandate.
The problems contributing to this crisis are numerous and complex. This article will only touch one foundational issue. Let’s start the conversation by framing how the Bible portrays a Christian’s relationship to work. Contrary to popular opinion, work is not a product of the fall. From the beginning, God intended that man would work and care for the world he created.
Consider the conversation among the Trinity in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Two practical instructions were then given to mankind: 1. Be fruitful and multiply. 2. Subdue and have dominion over the earth and all that is in it. Rebellion against the first command is prevalent today. And although the article is not focused on that, there is an inextricable link between these two commands. If we reject the first command, it is also logical that we would reject the second.
Consider a recent report from the Brookings Institute which states that one in seven men in their prime employment years are not working: “This is bad for them, for their families (if they have any) and for the economy as a whole.”3 These numbers are startling, if not terrifying.
It’s easy to dismiss statistics if we do not think it affects our tightly woven communities where a solid work ethic is expected. However, these numbers should shake you for at least two reasons:
1. A predominant mindset in the culture affects people we know and minister to.
2. We should propagate a biblical work ethic to the world. When we work, we are obeying a creation mandate; when we are lazy, we are disobeying a creation mandate. When we work, we reflect the image of God; when we are lazy, we defame God (Prov. 6:9-11; 10:4,26; 13:4; 19:15).
God Cares for Those Unable to Work.
Through both the Old and New Testament, we see a recurring theme of God’s love for the poor and outcast. Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, says he came “to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim liberty to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18).”
It is no secret that the early church spread rapidly among women, the poor, and disabled. This growth was not without challenges (see Acts 6). A widow or orphan would have had difficulty providing for themselves in this time period. Remember when James instructs the church, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their affliction…”
Notice neither Jesus or James focus on distribution of material goods. The emphasis is on entering the world of the downcast and walking with them in their suffering. James does not say, “Undefiled religion is to provide modern housing, cars, and cable TV so they may enjoy the luxuries of the middle class.” Rather the focus is to “visit” them “in their affliction.”
Do we embrace an unbiblical worldview that says prosperity is the ultimate goal in life? This destructive thinking pattern will use fleeting, earthly treasure to assist the poor rather than entering their suffering and pointing them to an eternal, heavenly treasure.
Now, I want to make something clear. I am not saying there is no place for material relief ministry. If we invest in relationships and spiritual needs, a natural overflow of love should result in concern for material needs. What takes primacy is the issue! The worst possible earthly suffering cannot compare with eternal damnation!
What About Those Unwilling to Work?
The Social Gospel (which permeates American welfare policy) says we are obligated to provide material relief without moral considerations. This is not the motif of the New Testament. Read the forcefulness of Paul’s argument in 1 Thessalonians 3:6;10: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us…For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
It seems harsh doesn’t it? Yet it’s simple and clear. Someone who professes to follow Christ but refuses to work should be avoided. Concerning those in the church who refuse to work, our obligation is clear. What about those outside? There are not clear Scriptural instructions but the same principles can be applied. Enter the world of the unbeliever and minister to their spiritual needs first. Then, included in their discipleship, teach the importance of physical labor and providing for your own.
Living in a low income community, I have seen how well-intended compassion can be disastrous. A few weeks ago I was cleaning my cooler in the front yard after returning from a camping trip. I offered a drink to a few boys playing in the street. Two quickly multiplied to five with most returning for a second drink. One boy even returned on a bike with a large basket assuring me he could relieve me of any extra drinks. From the structure and appearance of his home, this boy is one of 15.5 million American children living in poverty.4
Does he need me to provide him with material goods so that he might achieve happiness and prosperity? I have come to see he needs me to take time talking, laughing, and playing with him. He needs me to show him the One who offers living water which he can drink and never thirst again (John 4:13-14; 7:37-38). Giving him money would cost me little; giving of myself takes a lot of sacrifice.
So how do we respond to an increasingly entitled culture? I would start by saying the nature of government renders it incapable of rightly judging and caring for individual needs. This is why it is such a poor instrument of compassion. As Charles Murray says, “The problems of America’s social policy are not defined by economics or inequality, but by needs of the human spirit. The error of contemporary policy is not that it spends too much or too little to help the poor, but that it is fundamentally out of touch with the meaning of those needs.”5
The entitlement problems which face our country are widespread and complex. I do not have all the answers to solving poverty, fixing our welfare system, or doing relief ministry. However, I hope there are three things you can take from this post:
1. Work is a gift from God and we reflect his image when we labor with joy.
2. Ministry to the poor and outcast must prioritize personal relationship and spiritual needs above material relief.
3. Material generosity given without any moral consideration is more destructive than helpful. If the church is going to effectively minister to a hurting world, this much is clear. The emphasis must be on small-scale personal involvement, not large-scale administered relief.
|Timothy Miller currently lives near Sarasota Florida with his wife Sarah. Notable interests include hunting, woodworking, reading, sports, and traveling. Timothy is passionate about the Bible, truth, and understanding history. His supreme desire is the glorification of Jesus Christ through sacrificial service.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2007. Print.
1. Rector, Robert, and Rachel Sheffield. “Five Myths About Welfare and Child Poverty.” The Heritage Foundation. N.p., 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 31 Dec. 2016..
2. Izzo, Phil. “Number of the Week: Half of U.S. Lives in Household Getting Benefits.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 02 Oct. 2012. Web. 31 Dec. 2016.
3. Wessel, David. “Men Not at Work.” Brookings. Brookings, 6 Oct. 2016. Web. 31 Dec. 2016.
4. “National Poverty Center | University of Michigan.” RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Dec. 2016.
5. Olasky, Marvin N. The Tragedy of American Compassion. 1st ed. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1992. Print.