The Bible commands giving, but we must also know when not to give. As true as it is that giving is part of being a good steward, it is equally true that giving at the wrong time makes us poor financial stewards.
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When I was growing up, I became friends with a boy my age who lived in a trailer park. As we got to know each other, I noticed his parents were always home. I thought dads woke up and, on most days, went to work. Then they came home in the evening. That’s what my dad did, as well as the other dads I knew. I projected that expectation on my friend’s father and was surprised when this wasn’t the case.
One time he invited me into his parents’ little trailer, and they were playing Nintendo. When we left, he told me, “That’s what my parents do.” Along with eating and sleeping, that seemed to be about all they did. I never even saw them go outside. Because this was before I knew what welfare was, I wondered how they had money for living expenses.
There has been much debate about our responsibility to the unemployed, uninsured, and uneducated in our society. Many of the people affected by economic downturns or other unfortunate circumstances desire to work but can’t find employment. On the other side of the spectrum are those who have become generational welfare recipients, preferring to remain on the government dole. How should we as Christians respond to these scenarios?
A Better Approach to Charity
Under the Mosaic law, the welfare system in Israel instructed farmers, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:22; see also Leviticus 19:9 and Deuteronomy 24:19.). Our government gives people handouts that require little more than standing in line or walking to a mailbox to collect a check. I believe God’s approach was better for two reasons:
- It provided for the poor by encouraging those who were capable of being productive to also be generous. This stands in contrast to the redistribution of wealth that our nation promotes by taking from those with more to give to those with less.
- It required effort from the poor. God did not tell farmers to harvest everything and then give to the poor. Instead, He told farmers to leave enough for the poor to gather it themselves. Work gives people a sense of purpose, productivity, and dignity, which is why involving the needy in the process was to their benefit.
Ruth showed the beauty of this approach. She asked Naomi, whom she was caring for, “Please let me go to the field, and glean heads of grain after him in whose sight I may find favor.” (Ruth 2:2). She could have said, “I’m with my mother-in-law, and we’re both childless widows. We’re weak and vulnerable, so everyone should give to us out of pity.” Instead, she went to the field and gathered an ephah of barley, which is about twenty-six quarts (Ruth 2:17). Her example is a strong rebuke to those who could contribute to meeting their needs instead of expecting handouts.
Because we aren’t in the Old Testament under God’s welfare system, knowing who to give to requires balance and wisdom.
Distinguishing Between Two Groups
What about when we face situations that can’t be given over to elders or church leaders? For example, while driving, we see someone standing on the street corner asking for money. We can’t roll down the window and say, “Go ask my pastor.” How do we know whether to give or not give?
The early church faced a situation that helps us determine what to do. Acts 2:45 says they “sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” The new believers were happy to care for those who couldn’t care for themselves, but some took advantage of the generosity, became freeloaders, and lived off others’ sacrifices. Paul attempted to combat this: “Even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). This command was so important he also communicated it in person (“when we were with you”).
The words “will not work” allow us to distinguish between two completely different groups: those unable to work and those unwilling to work. Let’s examine how we should respond to both groups so we can be good stewards.
Good Stewards Give to Those Unable to Work
Some people experience physical handicaps or family responsibilities that prevent them from working. Others need financial help because of unfortunate circumstances: “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Proverbs 13:23 ESV). They worked hard enough that their fields would produce abundant food, but they lost it because of conditions outside of their control.
God’s Word gives us insight into His heart for the less fortunate and expectation that we will help them. In the New Testament we see these passages:
- Jesus said, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11).
- “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15-16).
- “Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
The Old Testament contains similar instruction:
- “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7; see also 24:12 and Proverbs 31:9).
- “He who despises his neighbor sins; but he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he” (Proverbs 14:21).
- “The righteous considers the cause of the poor, but the wicked does not understand such knowledge” (Proverbs 29:7).
So important was it to care for those in need that God said He would bless those who did so:
- “You shall surely give to [the poor] freely, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand” (Deuteronomy 15:10).
- “He who has a generous eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
- “He who gives to the poor will not lack, but he who hides his eyes will have many curses” (Proverbs 28:27).
Josiah was arguably the greatest king of the southern kingdom of Judah. God attributed the nation’s prosperity to his care for the poor: “[Josiah] judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well” (Jeremiah 22:16).
We talked about the principle of sowing and reaping, and it is in effect when we give to the poor: “He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, and he will pay back what he has given” (Proverbs 19:17; see also Proverbs 11:24). We give to serve God, versus giving to receive, but at the same time, God says He will provide a return on our investment.
When helping the less fortunate, if you have children, you can come together as a family and say, “These people are struggling, and we are privileged to be able to help them. God has blessed us, and we get to bless them. Let’s pray for them and give thanks for this wonderful opportunity, because, as the Lord said in Acts 20:35, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
When NOT Giving Makes Us Poor Stewards
What about neglecting those in need? God says they:
- insult Him: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:31 ESV; see also 17:5).
- will be ignored by Him: “Whoever shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13).
- will become poor themselves: “He who oppresses the poor to increase his riches, and he who gives to the rich, will surely come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16).
- will lose their lives: “Do not rob the poor…for the LORD will plead their cause, and plunder the soul of those who plunder them” (Proverbs 22:22-23).
- will be punished: “I will not turn away its punishment, because [the Israelites] sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals. They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor, and pervert the way of the humble” (Amos 2:6-7; see also 4:1, 5:11-12, 8:4-10, Isaiah 3:13-15, 10:1-4).
Although homosexuality is the sin most associated with Sodom, the city was also condemned for ignoring the less fortunate: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 ESV).
These passages reveal just how important it is to care for those in need. God offers blessings to those who do so and discipline to those who don’t. But what about people who are poor not because of unfortunate circumstances, but because of their own choices? Giving to lazy people makes us poor stewards, because of the problems it causes them.