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There are people in this world who are poorer than you. You should feel bad about having more than them and give your excess away. Oh, and do it out of love for God because that’s what He commands. If you don’t do it, He’ll be mad at you for being a greedy miser. This is often how Christians are taught to view giving to the poor. It’s guilt, guilt, and more guilt. By the time we’re done preaching about how Jesus said we ought to help the poor, we’ve made the poor out to be some big mistake on the planet that we’re all trying to help God fix. But is that really what they are?
Here’s a useful insight that we rarely hear anyone admit from the pulpit: God wants economic inequality in this world. Don’t think so? Try to make it go away. Down through the ages, countless men and women who told themselves they were more moral than the average fellow have fought, cried, and died for the cause of economic equality. The rich get endlessly lectured for hoarding. The poor get endlessly exonerated as helpless victims. Yet no matter what kind of plan is enacted, that beast of economic inequality remains. Some countries have even tried radical shifts in government—bring on that communism—and still the promise of everyone getting a fair share never works out. America has become famous for being the land of free handouts. Now she’s drowning in debt with a bunch of lazy, entitled slackers living off the dole. Now let’s be fair: is every American who is getting a free ride off of others being a leech? Certainly not. But too many of them are because the system is so badly handled. Guys who shouldn’t be getting anything are rolling in gluttony and stockpiling charitable donations, while guys who are legitimately suffering are being strung out on nothing no matter how much red tape they wade through. Every time free money is being offered, corruption is quick to follow. The guys controlling the money either pocket it for themselves or they get lazy about monitoring where it goes. American parents tire of hearing about how impoverished the schools are no matter how much money is thrown at them. Somehow the money never reaches the teachers and the kids. While everyone’s frustrated and no one learns how to read and write properly, all that money is disappearing into some hole that never gets identified and taxes keep being raised. In this world, the problem has never been that there isn’t enough to go around. The problem is that we humans hate to share.
So why do we hate to share? Who designed us to be such selfish little misers in the first place? That would be God. You can preach all day long about how much God hates sin, but at some point you have to ask yourself how so many things that God supposedly hates are managing to thrive in His own Creation? God is sovereign. He creates and controls all things, not just some things. Poverty, pain, and sickness aren’t signs that God’s grip on the universe is slipping, nor does it mean that Satan has pulled off some clever coup. Before you can get the right answers to questions about how you should respond to the poor, you need to stop viewing God as some incompetent who is counting on creatures like us to keep this place tacked together.
God is in control. We don’t make His plans rise and fall. We aren’t His indispensable assistants. A lot of really righteous sounding preaching is based on some really bad theology, and preaching about the poor rarely steps back and looks at the bigger picture. The reality is that this world will always be plagued with inequalities of all kinds. This is how God wants it. He has no intention of abolishing all poverty, war, sickness, and sorrow. So before we Christians set out to save the poor, we need to remember that we are supposed to be operating like servants, not generals. God is our Master. We can’t know what He would want in a given moment unless we ask Him.
Let’s use an analogy to understand how God wants us to respond to the poor. Suppose there is a particular king who rules over a kingdom. The king is a very good man and his servants all admire him. The king’s favorite dish is blueberry pie. He absolutely loves his blueberries, however they are in limited supply in the kingdom. Knowing their monarch’s sweet tooth, two of the king’s servants set out to please him in two different ways. The first servant says to the king, “Your Majesty, I know how much you love blueberry pie and I so want to do something to show my admiration of you. Whenever you get a hankering for blueberries, just say the word and I will rush to make you your favorite dessert.” Naturally the king is quite pleased with this servant’s attitude because he knows the servant is quite sincere. The next time the king wants a pie, he tells the servant, and the servant instantly makes him the best pie that he can.
Now a second servant takes a different approach to pleasing his king. Since the king loves blueberries so much, this second servant decides pie should always be available to the king. So every day he makes the king a pie. This is before the days of refrigeration, and most of the pies end up spoiling because the king is either too busy or not in the mood to have dessert. This second servant looks like he is doing a better job of pleasing the king than the first servant, but in reality he’s just mowing through the kingdom’s very limited supply of the king’s favorite treat. When he finds out what is happening, the king thanks the second servant for his efforts, but then says, “Rather than waste all of these blueberries, I want you to wait for me to tell you when I am in the mood for the pie. Then your efforts won’t be in vain.” But the second servant says, “Oh, Sire, it’s no problem! I know you love blueberries and I never want you to be without.” But the king says, “Look, I don’t want you to keep wasting time, energy, and resources by doing things for me that I haven’t asked you to do. I’ll let you know when I want pie, and then you can make it for me. I’d rather have you respect my wishes than insist on giving me gifts that I don’t want.”
Now in the Church, you’re taught to act like the second servant in our metaphor. You’re taught that God finds poverty a bummer and that He wants you to share the wealth that He has given you. But instead of waiting for God to tell you when and how much to share, the Church says that you should tithe regularly to charities, give to every homeless person you come across, and feel bad about ever buying a luxury item for yourself. The Church regularly scoffs at the notion of waiting on God and respecting His preferences. She is a huge fan of rushing into action and deciding for God what He would like when. If you hesitate to open up your wallet, she waves the Bible in your face and starts pointing out all the times that God ordered people to help the poor. Is the Church pleasing God in the way she’s teaching you to serve Him? No, she isn’t.
Let’s talk about those biblical commands for a moment. Open up the Word and you’ll find both Yahweh and Jesus getting on people’s cases for hoarding money. But take a closer look at who it is that receives these lectures. It isn’t the obedient, it’s the rebellious. It’s the guys who are defying God in their hearts that end up getting reamed out for their abuse of the poor, their corruption of justice, and a whole host of other things. When Jesus said it was hard for the rich to get saved, He was talking about a lack of soul submission. He wasn’t saying that it’s wrong to be rich (see Understanding Jesus: For God All Things Are Possible). Abraham, Job, Joseph, David and Daniel were all rolling in wealth, yet we don’t find God getting on their cases for not sharing. Sure, Joseph executed a clever plan to help feed poor people through a severe drought by storing up grain ahead of time. But where did that plan come from? Yahweh downloaded it into Joseph’s brain at the same time that He gave him a prophetic interpretation for Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph’s “feed the poor” program wasn’t driven by some vague sense of guilt or moral duty. He was carrying out specific orders from God.
Job is described as being a generous fellow with his stuff, but his generosity obviously had limits, because he was personally rolling in wealth. At what point have you given enough? Is it a sin to be rich? Is it always wrong to buy something that you don’t absolutely need? Is God against the finer things in life? Does He want you to feel bad for eating that expensive ice cream and walking around in name brand shoes while others in your community are hungry and cold? It depends. Are you listening to God in your life or are you just being self-absorbed? Are you looking for His leading when you go shopping for that new television, or are you just trying to impress your friends?
God isn’t anti-rich. He made us and He knows us inside and out. He understands that the material objects in our lives are not just objects. They represent things to us—things that are very important. When a father buys his daughter an expensive diamond ring because he wants the girl to feel really special in his eyes, is he just pouring his money down a drain? Not hardly. Motivations are what counts to God. Money doesn’t just exist so we can provide for our basic physical needs. Money is also meant to be used to address matters of the heart. You can’t possibly argue that a bouquet of flowers is a necessary item in life, yet how many women have had their hearts truly blessed by their men coming home with such a gift? Do children need store bought toys? No, they could make do with rocks, sticks and dirt. But when your son has his heart set on some cool little rocket toy, does God want you to lecture the lad on the woes of materialism and show him pictures of other little boys his age who are starving and sad? Probably not. It’s when we aren’t talking to God that we start finding sin and miserliness where none exists.
God is the One who designed us to attach great psychological and emotional significance to our stuff. It isn’t just the poor who need a boost in this world—the rich do as well. Money can be used to help the heart as well as the body. When you take your friend out for coffee when she’s down in the dumps, God isn’t going to jump down your throat for buying luxury drinks. When you treat your woman to fine dining, you’re communicating her value to you and showcasing your willingness to provide and please. Is God going to say you’re wrong to try and make her feel valued? Not hardly. When you save up to buy your man tickets to see his favorite sports team play or you spring that expensive watch on him, is God going to frown on your efforts to make him feel special?
We need to stop with the guilt trips and remember that it’s always motivation that counts with God. Why are you spending your money the way that you are? And more importantly, are you inviting Him to lead your finances? One man feels prompted to give to the local charity, another feels God telling him that his teenage daughter could really use the esteem boost of an expensive prom dress. It’s listening for and obeying God’s convictions that get us in a good place with Him, not demonizing every financial transaction that falls into the category of “non-essential.” A lot of things are non-essential physically, but very essential emotionally and psychologically. A child in distress doesn’t technically need a teddy bear to hold, but it can sure help. When we run amuck with the poverty issue, we can’t possibly justify anyone living with more than the bare essentials. But even if we were to all move into dirt huts tomorrow and give every dime we have to charity, the world would still be filled with those who are less fortunate. No matter how bad you are off, there are ton of people in this world who are a lot worse. Is it your job to save them all? No, it’s your job to listen to God.
Sometimes God is going to tell you to give generously to those in need. Sometimes He’ll even tell you to give beyond what you think you can afford. But before you go signing over your mortgage to Pastor Prosperity, ask God to show you if your heart is really in the right place. These days a ton of money is being poured into church coffers by those who are greedily hoping to make God feel indebted to bless them. “Give a dollar, get five back,” is a popular mindset in prosperity circles. God certainly doesn’t smile on us trying to use our money to manipulate Him. He wants servants who are willing to wait for direction. He already has a ton of servants who are telling Him what He ought to be glad to receive. It’s very easy to use giving to the poor as a means of trying to assuage your guilt over past sins or to try and purchase Divine favor. But such strategies are merely avoiding the real issue at hand, which is one of soul alignment.
We please God by embracing certain soul attitudes, and without those attitudes, all of our charitable donations are utterly meaningless. Ask Him to show you if there are some motivational issues He wants to address with you in the area of finances. It isn’t a sin to be rich. It isn’t always carnal to accumulate savings. Rather than insist that God has to want us all to operate on the same financial level, we need to leave room for Him to lead us all in different ways. Some feel strongly prompted to give. Others do not. Every soul needs to focus on following God’s leading in their own lives instead of looking around at what everyone else is doing. Everything we have is God’s property, and He is the One who will be judging us in eternity. Ask Him to help you honor Him with how you use His stuff and He will.
Answers About Money: Guidelines for Serious Christians
Asking God for Money
Sacrificial Giving: A Favorite Teaching of False Shepherds
The Right Focus in Life According to Christ