Understanding Poverty

“The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” —Proverbs 14:20

There is no shortage of awareness and momentum regarding the dire state of world affairs. The disturbing ramifications of poverty are front and center in politics and culture. High-profile celebrities and business moguls are using their influence to communicate devastating stories of poverty, abuse, hunger and disease. Given the groundswell of activity and debate, it is critical to understand the accurate narrative related to poverty. Caring for the poor was not invented or initiated by any government or political movement. Rather, God prescribed His people to look after the needs of the broken, oppressed and hungry. God’s concern for those who are impoverished and unable to free themselves from the yoke of oppression is a theme that is woven throughout Scripture. It can be seen in more than 400 passages. The call to serve the poor was proclaimed clearly in the Old Testament and reiterated by Christ as a command to the church. It is critical to understand where the mandate comes from as it can change our approach and endurance.

If your compassion for the poor stems from your own ambition or guilt, it will eventually wane and burn out. Imagine if the statistics on poverty were drastically lower 10 years from now. The celebrities of the world might move onto a new issue, but God’s heart would still break for the remaining poor.

Not only is Scripture the source of our motivation, but it also helps us understand the origins and complexities of poverty. It will also show us how to avoid fatigue as we serve others. In this chapter we are going to probe myths, look at the source, and discuss the believer’s response to poverty.

Myths and Abilities

One of the first myths that Scripture helps us to combat is the notion that God is responsible for the existence of poverty. Many believe that if God does exist, He is to blame for the extreme poverty in the world. However, a quick investigation of Genesis reveals the true source of poverty. Chapters 1 and 2 provide us with a glorious picture of the good world God created. The name Eden itself means pleasure or delight. Scripture uses the language of plenty and richness to describe its landscape. Creation was God’s gift to mankind, and life was complete for Adam and Eve, with provisions for every need.

It was not until the disobedience of humankind that the situation changed. The curse upon the earth was a result of the sinful action of Adam and Eve. Humankind rebelled against God’s perfect and complete creation, and poverty was introduced into the world. God had provided everything for Adam and Eve, but they were deceived into thinking there was more. Poverty is not God’s will or design, but a byproduct of mankind’s disobedience.

Poverty’s Solution

This knowledge is important, because it reveals that the solution to poverty is not within the capabilities of humankind. Secularists suggest that the abolition of poverty rests primarily on the shoulders of America and other industrially advanced nations. While wealthy nations certainly have an opportunity to be generous toward the poor, they are still tainted with evil intentions.

Sin and death entered the world through the sin of Adam. We are unable to stop the culminating effects of societal deficiencies. This is a humbling realization as it goes against the ingenuity and arrogance of man. However, the only one who can completely address the destruction created by poverty is the one true Creator and Provider, God. Any attempt we make to help the poor must have God as the focal point, recognizing that He is the only one who can bring true change.

The Bible further validates its authority on this issue by detailing the complexities and nuances of poverty.  Hundreds of passages through the Old and New Testament provide a wholistic picture of the grim scene. This is in stark contrast to the many earthly attempts to boil down poverty to a few societal issues. While those issues might be a part of the problem, they do not deal with the full scope of turmoil. Rightly serving and restoring broken communities involves considering all the areas of poverty. Humankind has a limited perspective on how to deal with the scars of poverty, but God sees the complete picture.

Overview of Poverty

While there are many facets of poverty discussed in Scripture, we will only address a few central themes. The Bible recognizes that in many cases, an impoverished person has little control over their situation and did not directly choose their circumstances. In looking at Scripture, the poor are often described as being immigrants, fatherless, widows and orphans. The unifying theme surrounding these conditions is choice. One does not purposely choose to become an orphan or widow. The description of the immigrant is not one who is leisurely moving for pleasure, but out of desperation. For many, poverty is not something they directly chose, but a reality handed to them as a result of our broken world. Individual poverty frequently comes as a result of systemic problems in culture.

Lack of Power

Closely connected to the issue of poverty is the concept of power. These population groups are aware of their poverty but lack opportunity to improve their circumstances. Being excluded from voting and other political opportunities, children and immigrants relinquish formal power to impact the political culture. Without their parents to speak for them, the needs of orphans go unnoticed. Beyond the working or marrying age, widows hold little value in most cultures. The Bible reveals poverty to be more than having material, spiritual and social needs: it means being powerless to change anything in their lives.

Unprotected and Isolated   

Flowing from the issue of power, impoverished people experience oppression and isolation. Given the poor individual’s lowly status in society, they lack the ability to protect their assets. Proverbs 10:15 describe a rich man’s wealth as a strong city, but the poor live in a city without walls. The powerful and greedy take from and exploit the poor, as the poor are unable to fight back. The poor work hard to provide for their family, but injustice sweeps it away.

Those living in poverty are also isolated in society. Without valuables to offer, the majority of people distance themselves from the poor. As a result, the poor lack friendly neighbors and support in times of trouble. Despite pursuing them with words, even a poor man’s brother wants nothing to do with him. When the poor use their wisdom to deliver a city, they are still forgotten.

Apathy to Giftings

The Bible acknowledges that poverty can be the result of apathy. Laziness, love of sleep, empty talk, hastiness and disregard for reproof are all attributes that could lead to poverty. In these cases, the person is blessed with opportunities and resources, but squanders them through their own sinful behavior.

Scripture implores believers to avoid this wasteful behavior and to use their gifts. However, it is important to note this situation describes only a minority of the world’s population that lives in poverty. Luis Sena, former country director for FH/ Dominican Republic, states: “There are few lazy people in the developing world. If you are lazy in these conditions, you do not live to tell about it.” Apathy is not really an option in the developing world, where survival is a daily process.

Poverty and Relationships

While most definitions of poverty focus on the lack of physical resources, which is a true statement—it’s a viewpoint that barely scratches the surface. Bryant Myers, professor of transformational development at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Walking with the Poor, sums up poverty as “relationships that don’t work.”

If Myers’ theory is correct, then we should look at what makes a relationship work. Let’s explore the characteristics of perfect relationships to see what destroys them. This journey brings us to the story of creation in Genesis 1, when everything was created good. Let’s examine the relationships that existed for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Relationship with God

The book of Genesis tells us that God talked with Adam and Eve to the extent that they recognized His voice. He had a relationship with them in the Garden of Eden.

Social Relationships

Next, we see that a social relationship existed. This relationship is evidenced in the husband-and-wife relationship between Adam and Eve. Social relationships existed in the Garden of Eden, and they were good because God created them.

Physical Relationships

A third category of relationship is man’s relationship with creation, or what can also be referred to as the physical relationship. Genesis 1:28 – 30 says, “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.’”  We see here that God positioned Adam and Eve to be stewards of the earth, establishing a relationship between mankind and His physical creation.

Image of God

The fourth category of relationships is man’s relationship with himself. The book of Genesis states that man was created in God’s image. As image-bearers of God, we all were created with inherent dignity and worth. This image of our Creator allowed man to live with a healthy self-image and sense of purpose.

We see how four types of relationships existed in the Garden—spiritual, social, physical, and mental. All these relationships were good and perfect—until the Fall.

The Fall

Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They listened to the serpent, ate the fruit and experienced shame. All of the relationships that were just identified were broken by the Fall. Our spiritual relationship, the relationship we have with God, was broken first when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. We see the stark outcome of our broken relationship with God in Genesis 3:23-24, when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden, representing our separation from God because of sin. In Genesis 3:11-12, Adam and Eve start pointing fingers at each other. God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

Adam replies, “The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”  He casts blame on Eve, betraying their oneness and perfect unity. Our social relationships were broken in the Fall.

Our relationship with creation is broken, too. Part of the curse God spoke over man is that work would be difficult (Genesis 3:17 – 19). It’s not surprising then that so many people find work tiresome and aggravating. It’s a result of our broken relationship with the physical environment.

Our relationship with self was broken in our view of ourselves. We feel insecure or sense that we lack purpose. This keeps us from fully experiencing who we were created to be – as image-bearers of God. In Genesis 3:24, mankind was locked out of the Garden of Eden. Since then, we have been wandering and searching for purpose.

Enter God Incarnate

The beautiful picture of hope is how God sought to redeem humankind and rid the world of poverty. God did not establish a “stop poverty now” program and command the angels to hand out survival packs at designated stations throughout the earth. Out of His great love for us, God became intimately involved in restoring humankind through the sending of His Son, Jesus Christ.

In starting His ministry on earth, Jesus declared that He was going to proclaim good news to the poor, set free the captives, recover the sight of the blind, and set free those who are oppressed. The life, death and resurrection of Christ restored the broken relationship between humankind and God. Jesus left behind His spiritual richness to enter our poverty. It was the only way for Him to restore riches to our lives.

This should now be the pattern of our life. During His time on earth, Christ demonstrated care and concern for each aspect of life where poverty had wreaked havoc. Jesus fed the multitude, acknowledged and restored the adulterous woman, healed the sick, and gave new purpose to the life of a greedy tax collector. He tore through social barriers that poverty had created throughout the centuries. He valued women and ate with sinners. He asked the “righteous” Pharisees to look inside their hearts and examine the poverty of their motives.

Food for the Hungry’s Understanding of Poverty

Our understanding of poverty is wholistic.

  • FH seeks to understand poverty from God’s reality.
  • Poverty is the result of sin.
  • Every area of life was affected by the fall.
  • FH approaches poverty and its causes wholistically (all layers – physical, social, spiritual and personal / mental).
  • We must look at our own sin and how it contributes to the poverty of others.
  • Christ is God’s answer for sin, brokenness and poverty.

Our Response to Poverty

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus expands the meaning of being a neighbor. He provides an example for us to follow as we love and serve the poor. This story pushes us to see everyone we come in contact with as our neighbor and to not be afraid to enter into his or her life story. This can be more awkward than bringing cans of food to a shelter or writing a charitable check, but Christ calls us to this place. In the Good Samaritan story, the wounded man needed tangible resources. However, money could not buy the demonstration of a person noticing and caring for his pain. As ministry leaders, we are not to serve God’s people as non-committal hired hands, but modeling the Good Samaritan.

Building a Relationship

Understanding that one aspect of poverty is isolation from society, building relationships is a part of the solution.  You may not always feel that a basic conversation with those in need is helpful, but the truth is it can help dispel the myth in their minds that they are worthless. The world tells the poor that inequality is normal and necessary, and the poor believe these lies.

By spending time with the poor, we are able to share with them a biblical worldview. This relational approach also opens up an important door of prayer in our lives. Generally, most people pray for people involved in a relationship with them. When you befriend the poor, they become real people to you. No longer just a statistic; they have a face, name and personality. Rather than trying to help only with our human actions and meager resources, we begin to plead for them before a gracious and merciful God. When we truly love people, we desire for them far more than what is within our power to give. This moves us to pray. This action not only changes the poor, but it changes us in the process.

Scope of Ministry

Even as we focus on relationships, we must continue to provide for strangers. Again, Christ does not limit the definition of our neighbor to proximity, but He pushes us to look toward the ends of the earth. God has called some believers to serve remote and marginalized populations. We should be eager and honored to support these individuals and ministries. However, this does not mean we simply write a check, and our job is done. We should seek to have relationships with individuals and the ministries we support in prayer and look for other ways to serve the ministry effort.

Giving out of Love    

Thus far, we know the Bible commands us to give to the poor and that we should assist the broken through relationship. However, it is simply religion if these actions are done to gain God’s favor rather than as an expression of gratitude toward the grace bestowed upon us. God wants us to share our material possessions and lives not in response to a command, but rather out of love to reflect a true appreciation for His gift of salvation.  The Gospel brings us to a place where we begin to see our possessions in a different light, and giving to the poor becomes something we want to do. This paradigm shift is an essential characteristic of Gospel-centered giving.  Our compassion and ministry to the poor is nothing unless it is demonstrated in grace.

The grace displayed by the Gospel changes how we see the act of giving. From a secular perspective, giving is something done to feel good inside, appear socially responsible, handle guilt from an excessive lifestyle and receive a tax deduction. There is always a motive behind the giving—a hidden agenda, something to prove.

In full light of the Gospel, we are not giving to prove anything. Jesus paid the complete price on the cross; the debt of sin is fully paid. Our giving to the poor is in response to a verdict of acceptance, rather than to obtain the verdict of acceptance. Our giving to the poor cannot make God love us more or less. In 2 Corinthians 9:7, the verse communicates to believers that God desires us to give with a cheerful heart. We are to decide the gift amount in our heart—not under compulsion or obligation. Grace moves us toward giving to the poor without ulterior motives, but as a confident and secure child of God.

Grace Defines Us

The Gospel reshapes us as people defined by grace rather than our accomplishments or possessions. As we see the magnitude of our brokenness and learn how to comprehend God’s love for us, everything else begins to pale in comparison. We do not stop working or buying items, but we no longer cling to money or possessions.

The words “follow me,” communicated by Jesus to His disciples, no longer seem burdensome, but freeing. Our identity is not found in our bank account or possessions, but in Jesus Christ. Jesus, who willingly left heaven and became poor, so that we might become rich. God has provided for us in such an extravagant manner that we naturally want to share with the poor the blessings showered upon us. We no longer see ourselves as the provider, but it is by God’s grace that we are sustained. Our heart, no longer stingy, is open to opportunities to serve the oppressed. God loves a cheerful giver as it reveals a complete satisfaction in His grace and trust in His continual provision. Jesus’ directive, “Do not be anxious,” in Luke 12:22, is a necessary command to understand and maintain a sustainable lifestyle of generosity.

For Further Thought…

1. List various forms of poverty that can be seen in our world today – broken families, addiction, abuse. Which of the four categories can they be placed into?

2. Think about the life of Christ. In what ways does His life show that He came to reach out to the poor and brokenhearted? How did He identify with them?

3. In thinking about poverty, beyond the absence of physical wealth, identify an area of poverty in your own life. How is God working to restore that area?

4.  What has been and is being reconciled in your life?

  • Your relationship with God?
  • Your relationship with others? Who?
  • Your relationship with creation? In what way?
  • Your understanding of your true identity, value and purpose?

5. Think of a specific way you can be God’s ambassador.

6. Read and think about the quotes from FH field staff on understanding poverty.

Going Deeper

1.  Read Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers. In it Myers explores Christian views of poverty, its causes, and how it is experienced differently in different cultures.

2.  Download the Poverty Unlocked four-week curriculum.

3.  Listen online to the Theology of Poverty series from the Poverty Unlocked podcast.

4.  Listen to the Tim Keller sermon, “Blessed are the Poor.”

5. Read and consider Brett’s Story.

Chapter 4: Embracing Relationships and Tapping Ideas & Resources >>