If you shouldn't discuss politics and religion in polite company, no wonder it's often hard to talk about poverty and social justice, even with other believers. But this isn't a subject Christians can avoid. The Bible is explicit about our responsibilities to care for those in need. So what do those commands mean in practice, and how do we obey them to the glory of God?
I believe there are things we can do to serve the poor, that God will give us grace to do them, and that he will take pleasure in our efforts---where we succeed and where we fail. It begins with understanding the true nature of poverty.
Subject to Futility
We tend to view poverty as external---a lack of resources, education, or opportunity. But Scripture reveals that these are just symptoms, for poverty is fundamentally a spiritual issue. Indeed, the root cause of poverty is sin---but don't conclude too quickly what I mean by this; it's a complicated conversation.
God created the world free from material, relational, or spiritual need. It was a world in which poverty could not exist. Then man rebelled and sin entered the world, destroying our relationships with God, one another, and the world around us.
As a result, all that was intended for our good and God's glory became subject to futility. Poverty became the world's default setting---and poverty will persist as long as the heart of man is ruled by sin. We must never lose sight of this truth if we are to effectively serve the poor to the glory of God and understand our motivations for doing so.
Motivations matter. We have a deep desire for significance, to do something important. But just as as at the Tower of Babel, our desire---twisted by sin---is to make a name for ourselves. We pursue our glory, not God's. We detect this motivation in the words of politicians and movie stars. But is it not also present in the call to "end poverty within this generation"?
From the United Nations and the Millennium Development Goals to more subtle approaches, this call is being used to spur men and women to act on behalf of the world's poor. Now, just to be clear, the issue is not whether to help the poor; it is the heart's motivation for pursuing poverty's eradication. The motivations behind this push are not entirely bad. But unless you believe in the pervasive nature of sin, embracing this goal can introduce serious problems and real danger. God will share his glory with no one.
Check Your Motivations
What then should be our motivation and our goal for caring for those in need?
Scripture commands a radical concern for the poor, whether they live within or outside the covenant community (cf. Deut. 10:8; 15:1-6). This concern stems directly from the heart of God, who "loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:17-19).
Caring for the poor is therefore a response to the unmerited favor God has shown to us. The Israelites were to care for the sojourners among them because they had sojourned in Egypt. We care for the poor because we too have been on the receiving end of grace. We were the poor in spirit, lost and without hope, separated from God and enslaved to sin. Had God not given us his Son, we would be in bondage still.
The same grace that frees us from guilt and shame, that sustains us in difficulty, and that enables us to consider others as more important than ourselves---this is the grace that motivates and empowers us to care for the poor.
When grace is our motivator, caring for the poor is transformed from an obligation to an act of worship. The rebukes of Isaiah and Amos (Isa. 58:1-12; Amos 4:1-5), and Jesus' warning of the final judgment (Matt. 25:31-46) all testify that caring for the poor is central to the true worship of God.
This grace also allows us to witness the horrors produced by natural disaster or human dysfunction without despairing or becoming discouraged. We can read "the poor you will always have with you" (John 12:8) and understand, without disillusionment, why this must be true. Grace reminds us that our hope for a better world in this lifetime lies in Christ. There is a definite role for social action, but our hope is not in social action. "The poor always with us" means we have virtually endless opportunities to practically worship Christ, expressing our love for God through caring for others.
Vision of Hope
Hope in Christ is what drives us in all we do as the church. Our desire to see Christ's kingdom come in all its glory allows us to persevere in caring for the poor, not expecting that we will end poverty, but that we will be able to minister practically to those who suffer in it. This vision has motivated the church from its earliest days, with believers adopting the abandoned, building hospitals, spreading education and literacy, and fighting for the rights of the oppressed. This is the vision we need to regain as the church today.
A goal like "ending poverty within our generation" cannot create a lasting commitment to serve the needy. It is an empty hope. We need to be captivated once again by the promise that one day Jesus will end all suffering and wipe away every tear from every eye. Without the hope of the coming new creation, we have nothing to offer the poor. It is this hope we must share, whether we're working for relief, development, or social reform.
So how do we care for the poor in a way that glorifies God? Be captivated by Christ. Long for the new creation. Set aside empty promises and earthly ideas of success, and trust that Christ will do what he has promised as we, with thankful hearts for the mercy that God has shown us, extend mercy in word and deed to those who so desperately need it, whether they're down the street or across the globe.
Aaron Armstrong is the author of Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty (Cruciform Press, 2011). He is a writer for an international Christian ministry focused on caring for the needs of the poor, serves as an itinerate preacher throughout southern Ontario, Canada, and blogs daily at Blogging Theologically.