Two weeks ago, I attempted to lay out from the book of James his Christlike and counter-cultural principles about poverty. In this post, I hope to explore some applications of those principles.
But before we dive into that, a word on definitions: What, Biblically speaking, is poverty? Although the Bible is not a dictionary with clear and simple definitions, we can see from Scripture that "poverty" is used to describe two situations: those who have nothing and those who have little. Poverty is destitution – the situation of being regularly reliant on the mercy of others for the basics of life. And poverty is economic hardship – having enough, but only barely, to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Poverty as destitution can be seen in the beggars throughout the Gospels. And poverty as economic hardship can be seen in James' exhortations in 5:4 about withholding wages as a type of murder. Most readers of Gentle Reformation will have much more contact with the second type of poverty than with the first. The following ideas apply to both types of poverty, even though the specific applications may differ.
- Strive to see poverty and wealth by the light of heaven. It is no overstatement to say that most of us live in the most prosperous time and most prosperous nation in the world. We have imbibed, from our first day, ideas and assumptions and practices about wealth and poverty which need to be regularly submitted to the truths of eternity. I was reminded this week of a great quote by Dorothy Sayers: "Do the vigilance committees who complain of suggestive books and plays make any attempt to suppress the literature that suggests that getting on in the world is the chief objective in life?"
- In the same vein, look sideways at your own money and success. Scripturally speaking, wealth is not always a net positive. While we often enjoy the comfort wealth can bring, we forget the clear teaching of Jesus, that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt. 19:24) Our money and success are more than comfort, they are a source of testing, temptation and responsibility. God is going to hold you accountable for every dollar you have, and the more dollars you have the more responsibility you have. Ironically and tragically, when our personal wealth increases, we often blind ourselves to the increased responsibility and instead celebrate ourselves, falling away from faith into self-confidence.
- Renounce all superiority to the poor. Simple but not so easy. While wealth and success puff us up, God's Word regularly reminds us that wealth comes from the Lord and is no indicator of personal worth in heaven's economy. Every time you're heading into a conversation with someone God may want you to help, remind yourself that you are no better. One of the hallmarks of Christian mercy ministry must be humility, or it won't be Christian at all.
- Recognize the poor as honored by God. Not only should we be humble when interacting with the poor, we should recognize, in our attitudes and actions, that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. (Jas. 2:5) While we want to alleviate destitution and provide true help in times of financial hardship, we want to couple our pity with respect. Christian compassion should not be prideful or insulting; it shouldn't be done with the pity of one looking down their nose at another. Rather, it should be done with undertones of genuine respect for the place of the poor in the kingdom of God.
- Recognize that the poor are the church's paradigmatic believers. Our respect for the poor will increase the more we realize that their hardships and their position in the kingdom make them the paradigms of true Christian faith. Those who have to trust God for the next meal, those who genuinely don't know where the money will come and have nothing left to do but pray...these are the believers who are able to teach the rest of us what true faith is really like. I have traveled to Asia on several occasions to give help and instruction to pastors there. And while I certainly have things to teach which they need to learn, I always leave with the firm belief that the church in Asia stands head and shoulders above the church in America. They know how to pray with commitment and passion I've never seen in this country. They know how to trust God in the face of persecution we can barely dream of. In similar ways, the poor among us know more about God's goodness, power and trustworthiness than the rest of us. And so we should give ourselves to mercy ministries, because with the poor we will find faith rarely seen elsewhere.
- Finally, prayerfully decide how you're going to share the humiliation of the poor. "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." (2 Cor. 8:9) Jesus is our pattern and our power. For the sake of the Father and His bride, Jesus entered our poverty to bring us His wealth. What will you and your church do to follow Him?