Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause (Isaiah 1:16-17).
“Extreme poverty” is a moniker oft-used to describe a level of living for human beings that far exceeds the poverty experienced in most Western nations. In a slum, we see tin, corrugated roofs attached to mud and stick homes, occupied by the lame, diseased, addicted, abused, trafficked, and enslaved. There is violence, abandonment, young widows and little orphans without number. The elderly squat in a miserable existence, waiting for their inevitable doom. Was kann Mann tun? (German for, What can a man do?) We say this with our hands in the air, looking to the heavens. I’ve experienced this melancholy sadness, having been in a slum area in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia a number of times.
The overwhelming experience of being in a slum causes us to wonder: Are we fighting a losing battle when we “fight poverty”? Why are some nations poor, while others are wealthy? Who are the poor? How should poverty even be defined? Or, is it like pornography: it’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it? These are all crucial questions. This post is simple enough, as it will address the reason(s) why Christians are to help the poor.
The Christian view of helping the poor is more than just giving people medicine, or training them in engineering, or fostering relationships with government officials e.g. “spreading democracy.” The gospel renews people and gives them hope in a God who is sovereign, loving, and good, and has power over disease and evil. 1
But how does all of this eliminate poverty? Surely, someone would argue, a set of religious beliefs, while giving people hope for the “next life” are abstract ideas that have no real bearing on the here and now. But the Christian hope is not for the “hereafter” where we “fly away to heaven.” No, the Christian hope is rooted in Christ’s prayer he taught his disciples to pray: “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:9-10). The Christian view is that, given the goodness and blessings of the gospel, we can have hope for this life, as well as the next. To wit, the gospel teaches government officials to treat people with fairness and justice. The gospel teaches husbands to love their wives and be faithful to them, and to treat their children with tenderness. The gospel teaches us to say “No” to ungodly and destructive additions. The gospel changes lives to let people know they must give an account of their lives to the Lord, and it changes them by the healing presence of the Father, who fills the heart with love.
Christian hope for the next life gives us hope now. For Jesus died and rose and we too, after we die, will rise to be with him forever when he returns to us (Romans 6:7-9). We will be with him in a “new heavens and a new earth,” (Isaiah 65:17; Isaiah 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). The reason why Christians help the poor then, from a theological standpoint, is because we are to proclaim the kingdom of God (or, the reign of God), which is the good news that Jesus is Lord (Romans 1:1-4; Ephesians 3:7-13), and that Jesus has come to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Jesus is “Lord” as opposed to any other ruler, president, king, or dictator. Such news gives freedom to the oppressed, because the oppressed know that the oppressor will not always oppress.
We therefore do the aforementioned good works of compassion because we have the confidence that God is in the business of healing the nations. We are commanded to visit the widow and the orphan in their distress, and to remain unspotted from the world (James 1:27). We must also heed the warning of Jesus in Matthew 25 about not neglecting the poor. “I never knew you,” he says to those who neglected the poor. It is remarkable, then, how the atonement of Christ compels us to help the poor; for God entered our world and suffered, and so too, we are called to enter the world of the poor, suffer with them, and show them the compassion of Jesus. 2
- For a scholarly text listing numerous miraculous events from all over the world, see Craig Keener’s (Ph.D, Duke) two-volume set, “Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts” ↵
- For an excellent documentary on global poverty, see the film, Poverty Inc. ↵