The United States is experiencing an unusual time of turmoil. Our young people will be influenced to think emotionally like the world or to think more Scripturally.
This is my attempt to think biblically about poverty. Let me be clear that this is NOT an area of expertise. But it is an area where voices are influencing our children. We want to think as clearly as we can. Christians may disagree with applications but the following biblical principles are meant to guide our thinking.
As with everything, I do my best to think through things from a biblical framework. I also attempt to be so Bible-saturated that the biblical balance is articulated. Finally, I want to think in terms of principles and let the application flow from the principles.
I have not included Scriptural references for all statements. I hope to update it in the future. I welcome your comments and addiitons.
I will define poverty simply as the lack of financial resources.
- Poverty is a result of the fall. There was no want before sin entered the world.
- Poverty will not be completely erased until Jesus returns with the full kingdom. “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11).
- The physical promises of heaven are of abundance and no want.
- Poverty, not wealth, is the norm. The widespread wealth of nations is a recent phenomenon. To see this, just pray around the world using Operation World.
- Poverty is relative geographically. The poor in the United States live far differently than the poor of India.
- Poverty is relative historically. Some have pointed out that the average person in the US lives better than a king of the middle ages.
- Identifies with and defends the poor (Prov 14:31, 17:5, 19:17, 21:13).
- God says the poor are rich in faith (James 2:5).
- The church will always attract more poor than rich and educated (1 Cor 1:26-27). You could say that Christianity is a religion of the poor, giving hope to millions.
- Favoritism is a sin and is preached against. Unfortunately, it will be with us until Jesus returns (James 2:1-4).
- Injustice is hated by the Just One. The Judge of all the earth will do right (Gen 18:25).
- Since governments derive their authority from God, they are to act justly. To the degree that they reflect biblical justice they will flourish. To the degree that they ignore it, they will be judged.
- Jesus so identifies with poor believers that to visit them was to visit him, and to feed them was to feed him (Matt 25:31-46).
- Jesus, in his teaching, did not assume equal giftings or equal outcomes (Matt 25:14-30).
- After the final judgment there will be perfect justice. Those who were given much, much will be required. Injustice will be corrected.
- Jesus is called the Righteous Judge (2 Timothy 4:8). Final justice will come at the end of time.
- Hell is the ultimate justice of sinning against a holy God. In the cross, justice and mercy meet. The just one becomes the justifier of the unrighteous.
- Those who observe or experience injustice are recorded as questioning “Why God do you allow injustice?” (Habakkuk 1, Job, many of the Psalms).
- Scripture and experience shows that poverty can have multiple complex causes:
- injustice and oppression, Prov 13:23, 14:31, 22:7
- calamity and illness, Prov 17:5, 27:10
- lack of wisdom Prov 21:20, 24:27, 27:23. Matt 25:14ff
- sinful unwise action including indulgence, Prov 21:17, 23:21
- and/or laziness. Prov 10:4, 13:4, 21:25, 24:30
- The poor have rights that are to be defended (Prov 29:7, 29:14, 31:9).
- The poor are vulnerable to oppression (Prov 13:23. 18:23, 22:16., 22:22). The rich are often the oppressors.
- The poor often experience relational poverty (Prov 14:20, 19:4, 19:7, 28:3).
- Wealth usually makes life easier. Therefore, poverty makes life harder (Prov 10:15, 14:20, 22:7).
- Justice builds a nation. Injustice tears it down (Prov 21:15, 29:4).
- It is the responsibility of those in power to faithfully judge the poor and to defend the rights of the poor and needy (Prov 29:14, 31:9).
- The poor in the OT were to rely on family and to work during gleaning. The rich were to leave leftovers for the poor to glean (Lev 19:9-10). Work is dignifying. Charity must be careful not to create dependence.
- This emphasis on family is repeated in the NT people of God (1 Tim 5:8,16).
- For those who could work, Paul issues consequences for not working – not eating. In other words – poverty (2 Thes 3:6-11).
- The NT church was known for helping the poor – focusing on itself but also society at large (Gal 2:10, Acts 6:1, 1 Tim 5) including the adoption of babies left out for exposure, etc.
- There was help between churches to aid with the poor (Rom 15:26).
- The OT people of God took up a tithe every three years to help the poor in the covenant nation (Deut 14:28).
- Giving and generosity is expected of everyone, rich and poor. For example, Jesus commends the poor widow (Luke 21:1-4, 2 Cor 8, Prov 31:20).
- Though it is more blessed to give than to receive, limits were put on help given (2 Thes 3:6ff, 1 Tim 5:9-13).
- Christian ethics of hope, hard work, self-discipline, and prudence tend to produce wealth over time unless swept away by injustice or calamity.
- Both the promise of reward and fear of loss are good motivators for men and women. A man’s hunger drives him (Prov 16:26).
- Free enterprise, work, and private property honor an image bearer’s dignity. Wealth is created. It is not a stagnant amount. Therefore productive work can create real wealth.
The Poor and Government
- The government is primarily to praise those who do good and punish those who do evil (1 Peter 2:14). This principle plays out subtly in all aspects of society.
- As salt and light, Christians are to be a preserving influence in society being faithful and realistic until Jesus returns.
- The overwhelming majority of references to justice and poverty in the OT and NT are aimed at God’s people for the covenant community (I John 3:17, 1 Tim 5, Gal 6:10).
- However, these are not exclusive references. In the OT prophets, God pronounces judgment on other nations because of their ruthlessness toward their citizens.
Toward Some Applications
- Should government help the poor or help others who are helping the poor?
- We only ask this question about poverty because of the Christian ethics of our country. Other world religions see poverty as a result of sins in another life. As a result there is little expectation to help the poor.
- It seems that given government’s purpose in 1 Peter 2:14, it should do all it can to incentivize and equip image bearers to serve one another in productive work with the hope of creating wealth. This would speak to effective education, private property, and safe neighborhoods. It would also include just punishment of evildoers.
- Government intervention always has real, unintended consequences. What government subsidizes will grow. What government taxes will decrease.
- Government monopolies rarely deliver efficient and effective services.
- It is much easier to allow the government to do something for me and rescue me than deal with the turbulence of life. It is much easier to see government as the savior to eliminate suffering.
- Government provides for the general welfare of its citizens. And there is real suffering – eg. stroke victims that the government should help. This type of poverty is different than self-inflicted poor choices. These helps for urgent needs. In addition, government should do all it can so that people can gain skills and education to earn a living.
- Government authorities can harm the rights of the poor. There need to be real checks on that power.
- We need to take seriously the OT help for a safety net for the truly disabled AND an expectation of family help and workfare. This gives the greatest dignity as an image bearer.
- Scripture does not promise equal giftings, circumstances, or outcomes.
John Piper has said, “The Bible teaches us to relieve as much suffering as we can both in this world, and especially the next.”
Galatians 6:10 “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially the household of faith.”
“You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world” – Jesus (Matt 5:13-14).
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:7