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"The Poor Shall Be With You Always"

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"The Poor Shall Be With You Always"

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Is financial need within the Church an uncomfortable subject? Perhaps discomfort levels depend on which side of the balance sheet we stand.

If we are frequently in financial straits, do we feel we need to hide it from others? Is there some external factor causing our financial distress or is it a result of our own choices? Do we feel helpless? Are we tempted to just give up trying because our debts are so much bigger than we can possibly repay?

Likewise, when presented with knowledge of financial needs among our brethren, how do we respond? If poor financial choices are a known factor, how does our response change? Are we irritated by these weaknesses in others? Do we cast a suspicious eye on those who ask for help? Do we feel indignant that someone might take advantage of us? Or if we do try to help, will we do so openly, or in secret? Why?

I’ve experienced many sides of the issue: feeling shame for not being able to afford things that my peers could (in this context, this emotion does not come from God—there is no shame in living within our means); using credit cards irresponsibly (i.e. not paying the full balance off every month and accruing debt); finally taking some painful but necessary personal austerity measures to get out of credit card debt; feeling incredibly thankful to God and relieved; occasionally having the audacity to feel a little smug about it or even judging others for their financial choices; and getting a swiftkick reminder that I’m an ungrateful wretch and am missing an opportunity to learn something deeper: mercy.

So I invite you to join me. Let us embark on a journey of self-examination, where the destination is the Kingdom of God. Each day of the journey is an opportunity to point the keel in the direction of that goal.

“Black, Red, or Marooned”

For some, understanding how to manage money seems to come so naturally! I’ve even heard of some who actually enjoy budgeting! Happily, they do exist! After all, they write the books that may eventually help the rest of us. What they have is not so mysterious, though. They have knowledge and they have good habits. Both of these are attainable, even if we missed the finance boat early in our education.

Perhaps we never even knew there was a boat to miss, and our efforts at trial and error have not served us, or anyone, well. Being financially strapped now may be a result of making poor investments of time and money from even years or decades ago. If we don’t learn to manage what money we have, however large or small, the short and long-term consequence is that we will likely experience one financial crisis after another. If we use credit cards in the short term, it will eventually cost us much more than if we didn’t use them to begin with. Why would we do this to ourselves? It doesn’t make sense!

And sometimes, even when we work hard to make sure our family is covered by insurance, we can still struggle at times to provide our families with the basics of healthy food, shelter, and clothing. A family’s finances can be crippled with one lengthy hospital stay, from expensive car repairs, from the water heater flooding the house, by anything involving a lawyer, or hefty insurance deductibles. Our financial stability, even in the Church of God, can hover on the brink.

Wanted: Master Financial Planner

Those of us with weakness in this area must strive against our carnal nature, learning to overcome the financial irresponsibility, which could be sin to us! Self-indulgence via spending can even become an idol, putting our desire for other things before God’s instructions for us. It can be habitual, destructive, but by no means impossible to overcome! It may take a very long time to master—maybe even a lifetime (see Proverbs 4:25-27). We learn to overcome by making better choices in hundreds of tiny increments, until better habits replace the bad. It’s a long-term lesson in short-term self-control, learning to be content no matter our physical circumstances.

If we’re overwhelmed by the magnitude of our failures in this area, and are tempted to just give up because there’s no way we can possibly get out of debt, remember where that kind of thinking comes from. Not from God. God wants us to keep working toward our fullest potential, well-equipped for the work of His Kingdom. God can help us overcome, and use our experiences for good.

The past is gone. Today is a new day, and each day after it. If we keep working at it, not giving in even when we stumble, He will guide us to become good stewards of the blessings that we are given from here on out. Sometimes hitting our financial rock bottom actually teaches us to look to God, who just so happens to be a Master Financial Planner with excellent references.

Accounting 101

We hear the phrase “poor people have poor ways” used to explain why some people struggle financially because of their own decisions. That may be true, but does God really see that as a reason for not trying to give tangible aid anyway? Are we allowed to pick who we help individually based on how much we think they might “deserve” it? It makes sense in a very practical way, when we consider that resources are limited and we are not going to be able to help everyone. But thankfully for all of us, God’s resources are not limited, nor His ability to help (Romans 5:8). “While we were still sinners,” before repentance was even a possibility, Christ died for our sins. God turns our human reasoning upside down. His way is to offer us a lifeline when we don’t (and in fact cannot) deserve it.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which says “[...] If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat,” the context is that of persons in the Church who would not work to benefit their own household, but instead spent their time meddling in other people’s business. This is sad, indeed, and no doubt happens today in the Church as well, but that doesn’t mean we should withhold our hands from doing good anyway, especially when children are affected.

Some encouragement comes in verse 13: “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good.” Sometimes it is wearying to feel we aren’t making a difference, or to feel that whatever good we can offer is just a drop in the gaping chasm of need in the world. It’s true, we can’t “fix” it all. But God has given us something to learn through our doing, and doesn’t require that we judge the hearts of others before we serve them. God will judge us both, but we are only responsible for what we do.

As we stand before God daily and give account, are we faulted for being too generous? Or for being too uncharitable? I’ve learned through bitter experience that there’s more than one way to be poor. Though we may have our family’s fiscal policy well in-hand, we may still be deeply in debt spiritually. Which of those spiritual debts don’t we want advertised at church? If we are rich in self-righteousness rather than mercy, we may find ourselves in the spiritual poorhouse (Luke 18:9-14, James 2:13).  If we haven’t asked God lately to help us to see ourselves clearly, let us do so!

As in Christ’s teaching of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, we must examine ourselves accordingly. Have we stepped aside from the messy business of helping others when we are able to help? Christ does not specify whether or not the man who fell among thieves was righteous or was at fault in some way. That wasn’t the point. His emphasis was our responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves. We don’t get to choose our neighbors. If we’ve failed in this area, remember that if we aren’t willing to help, God will find someone who is, and will bless them accordingly (Luke 10:25-37). But if we accept this work, then we must further ask God to show us how to help.

Gifts of Personal Investment

As Christ said: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). This doesn’t just mean one-time heroism to shield someone from death. It’s a lifetime of personal sacrifice to serve others, not self. As Christ gave glory to the Father as a living sacrifice for us, we must do also. How? By investing ourselves and our increase in people, especially among the household of faith (Galatians 6:10; Luke 8:21).

Emotional Investment

Giving social energy beyond superficiality to build relationships with our brethren is investment. Social giving may seem easy to extroverts, who recharge from social contact. But introverts have very limited social energy and must be more thoughtful about giving “as they are able.” But all of us may ask God to inspire connections with those who have need. The friendships resulting can mature over time to be mutually edifying! It’s a beautiful thing, when God is the foundation of a friendship.

Physical Investment

Can we freely offer the gift of our labor to those who are trying to get out of debt or struggling financially? How much could that benefit their household, and how much love for them does that express? The possibilities for how we can serve are endless, but we’ll probably only see them if we are asking God to open our eyes to them and are growing in our relationships with brethren.

Financial Investment

We may only be privy to the financial needs of our brethren if we have first invested in a relationship. Financial help might be given through clothing (especially for families with children), healthy food not available at area food banks, cash, gift cards, or paying someone’s bill. We must discern whether or not assistance would be received as a blessing or as a kind of insult or embarrassment. Though hopefully the former, some do not want to receive outside help because they feel strongly that they should be content with what they have, so anonymity is crucial if we really feel strongly that God is leading us to provide some kind of monetary support and has blessed our income to be able to do so.

The Best Kept Secrets

If and when we do find opportunities, we are further challenged to keep it as much a secret as possible (Matthew 6:3). One reason is to cover over sins or faults. James exhorts us to resist showing partiality among our brethren (James 2; see also Proverbs 14:20-21; 16:19). Consider that when we open brethrens’ financial sins to censure or judge it more harshly than our own sins, we do exercise partiality. Someone may decide to share their struggles openly, but let it be their decision. We want others to mercifully cover our faults and sins, so let us also keep watch on our own lips. As Proverbs 11:13 says, “A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter” (See also Proverbs 11:22).

The second reason for giving secretly is that glory goes to God rather than to the mere vehicle by which God has given a blessing (Luke 18:14). However we help, we are only a means of transportation. If God had not blessed us, we couldn’t share it with others. God provides in so many ways. In abilities (making gainful employment more likely), in mentors, in learning marketable skills. Accept these blessings, knowing that the gifts we receive from God grow and multiply as we invest them in other people (see Proverbs 11:24-25).

And, if we receive blessings through other people, whether anonymously or not, be thankful and content that God has provided by inspiring them, and that it is blessed to receive and to give. And as we are able, we can also choose to be a vehicle of God’s blessing to others (Hebrews 6:9; 13:16).

I pray that we as a people will be found in the Book of Life, perhaps under the broad category of “those who overcame.” Today is a new day. What will you do?