I grew up poor by American standards. My family was on welfare and received food stamps. More than once my sisters and I stood in Minnesota state food lines with my mom to receive a box of powdered milk, a tin canister of creamy peanut butter, and government cheese. When I became an adult, the Lord redeemed my inner-city childhood; I began ministering to the poor and needy at a rescue mission in Indianapolis. I was there 8 years and, even today, I’m involved with the ministry to the poor and homeless in a limited capacity.
Proverbs 28 provides much wisdom concerning individuals with material needs. Seven times in the chapter the word “poor” occurs, and twice the word “poverty.” Four times we read the word “rich.” The chapter contrasts the rich from the poor. For this reason, I’ve entitled Proverbs 28 “Wisdom’s Poor.”
Deriving biblical principles for helping individuals in poverty is important to direct the compassion we often feel for the less fortunate. Americans are big hearted people. We want to help the poor, but because of panhandlers, who are sometimes deceivers, and because of drugs which are enslaving people, it’s hard to know who to help. The dilemma that 21st-century Christians face is that they want to help, but they also don’t want to enable or facilitate bad choices. Instead of feeding an empty belly, sometimes generous Americans end up feeding a drug habit. I have had experience with ministries navigating these sometimes difficult interactions. The things I suggest in this article are biblical, but they’re also experiential. Not only have I lived the life of poverty, I’ve also tried to help people who are living that life. Proverbs 28 provides principles that are supported by my and others' experience. It explains to us who to help.
Help the Upright
The first type of person to help is the needy man who is endeavoring to walk in uprightness. Verse 6 says, “Better is the poor that walketh in his uprightness, than he that is perverse in his ways, though he be rich.” Americans are impressed with the rich. Sometimes Christians too are enamored by wealth. We are tempted to think “rich” is always better. Instead, the text says “better is the poor.” The deciding factor is uprightness. In verse 6 it carries the idea of integrity.
This verse makes me think of the greater-than, less-than principle. Solomon is saying that to live in financial poverty and be a person of integrity, is greater than, or better than, being filthy rich, but perverse. Uprightness is that important.
Almost weekly our church has someone appeal to us for financial help. Figuring out who to help is difficult, so our church has adopted a policy based on Matthew 6:33. In this verse, Jesus teaches that it’s the people that are “seeking first the kingdom of God” who get “all these things added unto them” by the Lord. “These things” refers to food and clothing, basic necessities humans tend to worry over (Matthew 6:26-31).
Our church applies the principle of Matthew 6:33 by choosing to first help those with needs in our congregation. Our church has limited resources, so we choose to help those who are “seeking first” the things of God, who show us by gathering with our local church. Our faithful people are endeavoring to “walk in uprightness” and put God first in their lives. It is these people that the rest of the church is able to build a relationship with, and develop a burden for their needs. Our almsgiving is disbursed through what we call our “deacons fund.” Our deacons enjoy helping people in our congregation who are clearly pursuing uprightness and endeavoring to maintain their integrity even in spite of their financial hardship.
Help the Understanding
The second type of person to help is mentioned in verse 11: “the poor that hath understanding.” The verse says “The rich man is wise in his own conceit; but the poor that hath understanding searcheth him out.” Sometimes with poverty comes a measure of understanding that wealthy people do not have. Poverty is able to humble a man, especially if his poverty was avoidable. Often, a man humbled by life will have a teachable spirit and a heart to grow and learn, unlike the rich man who is often wise in his own conceits. Too many wealthy people have a spirit of arrogance and self-sufficiency. A poor man with understanding can see that proud spirit in a rich man as “he searcheth him out.”
However, not every poor person is humble or has this type of understanding. Unfortunately, there are poor people who are “wise in their own conceit,” just as there are rich people who have managed to stay humble and retain a measure of understanding. Sadly, because of drugs or other substance abuse issues, more and more poor people have a know-it-all, “wise in their own conceit” kind of spirit. So, when it comes to financial help, only help the ones that demonstrate understanding and humility.
Help the Unemployed
The third type of person to help is the man who is sincerely looking for work. Verse 19 says, “He that tilleth his land shall have plenty of bread; but he that followeth after vain persons shall have poverty enough.”
My definition of an unemployed man is one who has no job but is willing to work. A person may not have a job yet still understand the importance of hard work. A man who is willing to do the work of tilling land is able to earn some bread. The New Testament affirms that, “if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). In the United States of America, there are many job openings, in a variety of fields. People with a mind to work can find work. If you’re in a position to offer an upright man and a man of understanding some employment, you’re helping him in a tremendous way.
One of the best ways to help poor people is to team up with your local gospel-preaching rescue mission. A rescue mission’s staff can develop relationships with men and families in need; relationship and individual assessment are the keys to leading people out of poverty. Individual assessment helps believers discern which individuals are walking in uprightness, possessing understanding, and willing to work. Alternately, it’s unwise for you to give money to someone that you don’t know, because you could inadvertently enable his vice.
It is Christlike to care about individuals in poverty. Jesus’ earthly ministry includes example after example of Him ministering to the needs of the poor. May we be Christlike and minister to the poor generously, but with biblical discernment. The next time you have the opportunity or desire to help a needy person, consider the wisdom from Proverbs 28.
The above article was written by James C. Johnson. He is the pastor of NorthStone Baptist Church in Pensacola, FL. To offer him your feedback, comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every Tuesday, SFL publishes relevant Bible-based content. Check back next Tuesday to read the next SFL article.
More Strength for Life...
Discerning the times should lead us to more prayer, not less. In this sermon, Pastor Johnson explains what a widow's persistence teaches us about God's willingness to hear our prayers.