Editor’s Note: Read our other articles in Sow Bountifully: Biblical Principles for a Life of Christ-Centered Giving below!
Sow Bountifully – A New Series on Giving
Live all Your Life in Light of God’s Mercy
Remember Your Provider
Give of Your Firstfruits
The question of wisdom and generosity inevitably leads us to ask about how we should help the homeless person we encounter on the street. We may find that it is relatively easy to discern what churches and institutions are worthy of our money. We can access their websites, consider their doctrinal convictions and ministry philosophy, and give with the confidence that our money is being put to a good and godly use. But what about when individuals in obvious financial difficulty ask us for money while we are out and about in the community?
Give to Everyone?
I don’t believe the answer to this question is simple. Jesus gives us serious words about how radical our generosity should be. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back” (Luke 6:30; emphasis added). But the apostle Paul says—in a biblical text that is no less authoritative than Jesus’ words—that a person who refuses to work should not eat (2 Thess 3:6-12). You can feel the dilemma: If I don’t give to the person who is asking me for money, I seem to be violating Jesus’ instruction. If I give to a person who is homeless due to their own unwillingness to work, I am working contrary to Paul’s Spirit-breathed command.
Given Paul’s instruction in his second letter to the Thessalonians, I don’t take Jesus’ words to be an absolute rule. That is, I take Jesus’ words in Luke 6:30 to function as a rhetorical way to strike at the heart of our inherent greediness. We typically recoil at Jesus’ words in this text because we have a natural bent to love money. Jesus often speaks in these kinds of radical—even hyperbolic—ways to dislodge our sin. When it comes to lust, we must gouge out eyes and cut off hands (Matt 5:27-30). When it comes to our possessions, be ready to part with all of it for the sake of Christ (Luke 14:33). Jesus is going directly for our hearts when he tells us to give to everyone who asks from us. But our giving can’t be done in a way that undermines Paul’s instruction in Thessalonians, so what do we do?
Differing Opinions Among Christians
Some people suggest that you should never give to someone on the street because doing so will likely support their irresponsible behavior. Others argue that we should give freely to those who ask us for money. Others recommend that you only give money as a last resort. While I appreciate aspects of each of these opinions and the heart behind them (these opinions come from Christian men who are presently or have been actively engaged in poverty relief), I am persuaded that the question of whether to give to someone on the street is best left to the Christian’s biblically-informed conscience.
Assume for a moment that you know a panhandler is giving you a dishonest story about how he fell into poverty. Someone might suggest that his dishonesty disqualifies him from receiving any financial help. Perhaps it does. But even so, a Christian may decide that giving this poor person some money at that particular moment could help facilitate a gospel conversation. Sure, you suspect that you’re not getting the full story, but no matter: you will show them a little generosity to open the door to talk to them about Christ.
Ron Sider argues that we shouldn’t give to people on the street because it will not only encourage more foolish behavior, it is also an easy way to relieve ourselves of our responsibility to holistically help a fellow image-bearer.
A small, quick handout lets us off the hook from a more thoughtful response to the person’s need. Even the lazy or addicted person is made in God’s image and needs comprehensive assistance from a loving Christian community. That demands time and financial resources.Ron Sider, quoted in Gary Hoag’s article, “Give to Street People?” at Christianity Today
I agree with Sider that merely giving someone money can be a superficial way of alleviating our conscience and may feed behaviors that led to this person’s current dismal situation. But that does not mean that a Christian can’t give some money to a poor person to temporally bless them while using that monetary gift as an opportunity to talk about the gospel. Sider is right that gospel-centered, comprehensive poverty relief takes “time and financial resources.” Churches that engage in such work need to be well-equipped, well-informed, and focused on providing for people’s temporal and eternal needs (not one at the expense of the other).
But our question in this article concerns the individual Christian who encounters someone who begs them for money. In such cases, we may choose to give for gospel reasons, even when we know that we aren’t getting the whole story. Some Christians, however, may think it is always wrong to give to someone we know is lying or whose self-destructive lifestyle will be enabled by our giving. Still other Christians may discern that the person with whom we are interacting is telling us the truth and feel moved out of love to help them in that moment with some money, clothing, or other items. There are Christians who think that only people who are impoverished due to circumstances out of their control but who are otherwise ready to work and live responsibly are worthy of our financial help, while others may conclude we—because we were saved while wholly unworthy (Eph 2:8-9)—can’t create a distinction between those who are worthy of financial help and those who aren’t.
Holistic Poverty Relief
Nevertheless, Christians who have a heart to help the poor (something all Christians should have, see Prov 31:9; 31:20; Gal 2:10) need to recognize that genuine, life-changing poverty relief doesn’t typically occur through quick, one-time exchanges on the street. In his landmark book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky argues that helping the poor must involve a holistic approach that is spiritual, personal, and challenging. People need to know God and what he requires of them if they are going to climb out of poverty, and they need relationships that move beyond the one-time, superficial engagement that characterizes much of people’s interaction with people on the street. But a well-rounded approach to poverty relief also challenges the person stuck in poverty by placing biblical demands upon them to work and to cultivate a life of personal responsibility and generosity of their own.
There are also macro-economic factors to consider. For example, in their book, Poverty of the Nations, Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus argue that establishing and maintaining a free market is an essential ingredient to national poverty relief. Such considerations relate not only to how we think about our personal engagement with poor people, but to local, state, and federal laws. Who we elect and how we vote has an impact on how effectively the poor will be helped.
The question of whether we should give to someone on the street does not yield a simple answer. Due to the complexity of the issue and variety of situations in which we may find ourselves, I believe it is best to leave it to the Christian’s individual conscience and wisdom. We are instructed in God’s word to love our neighbor, to show compassion, and to exercise discernment. May the Lord bless you in your efforts to love your fellow image-bearer when you find them in financial trouble.