Nuance seems to be a dirty word among some people. In the last few years I’ve heard people mocked for applying theological nuance to situations or doctrines. Any elder will tell you many situations and resolutions in the church require wisdom. Part of making wise decisions requires evaluating different factors and precise nuances to a situation. But I get it too, sometimes the Bible seems to be clear on an issue so the call to nuance sounds like philosophical jargon to “make the Bible say what it doesn’t say.” As a friend said to me once, “The biblical categories are clear, human situations are not.” This was in the context of a discussing wisdom.
To be clear and upfront, I want to show the reader that often similar situations are not similar. In order to help people, we must first accurately diagnose the problem in order to help a person appropriately.
Recently people across America have learned about the hoards of homeless people living in tents in Los Angeles and other cities. These “Tent cities” seem to be growing accompanied by growing infestation of diseases and other illnesses (typhoid!?!). This of course prompts the question, How should this be dealt with?
On the surface the issue is boiled down to, “These people are poor and deserve our sympathy.” The Las Vegas City Council continues to receive backlash with some recent ordinances preventing people from sleeping on the sidewalks and on business’s property. As a pastor my answer has shocked some too because I have not immediately sided with the homeless in what is deemed a sympathetic / compassionate approach. This indictment lacks understanding however.
The issue remains tough because not only does the city have to think about the homeless, but their job remains to protect businesses too. Those businesses reside in zoned areas for commercial activities. That relationship establishes a contract between the city and business requiring the city to uphold their end of this agreement too. It’s a two way street. Immediately to factor this into the equation requires evaluating the nuances and difficulties in the situation.
Move the discussion forward. Aren’t we called to protect and help the poor? Yes, of course. But how do we define “poor?” Again, some will baulk at this question, thinking it’s a simple answer. However, the simpleton needs to grow in knowledge and wisdom recognizing even Scripture teaches a nuanced answer. To the person who knee jerk reacts and baulks at us for asking this question, he or she indicts him or herself revealing a lack of knowledge or the desire to grow in knowledge.
Recently a few men in our church read through DA Carson’s “How Long O Lord?.” Carson seeks to reflect on and help us navigate suffering and evil in this world. At one point Carson addresses poverty. Carson notes, “What we mean by ‘poverty’ is immensely variable. To live just under a government-specified ‘poverty line’ is quite different from dying of starvation.” (51). Well certainly we can agree homeless people are the poor of poor because they don’t have a home? Not so fast. Carson notes six different “kinds of poor.” And the solution to all six are not the same.
First, Carson notes the “Unfortunate Poor.” “Some people are poor because of unfortunate circumstances. Perhaps the breadwinner has been inflicted with a debilitating and incurable disease. . . . drought . . . think Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi” (52-53). “A Rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin” (Prov 10:15). Tragedy can bring poverty. We need to recognize this. The godly response demands we engage and help. We do not merely say, “It happens” and move on because the poor will always be among us. We have an obligation to help them.
Second, some are poor due to oppression. “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Proverbs 13:23). “If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. 9 After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land” (Ecc 5:8-9). I’ve argued elsewhere, inflation oppresses the poor too because it inflates the dollar making what little earnings they receive be less effective. Carson observes, “Here poverty is the direct result of sin — someone else’s sin.” We can help the poor here with charity and love, but as Carson notes [in addition to financial help], “what the poor really need in these cases is justice; and where we can provide it, we ought to do so” (Carson 54).
Third, some are poor because they are dependent on the punished (Carson 55). This is different because they are not oppressed by the government. “Rather, someone else’s sin and consequent punishment have effected such a change in the circumstance of dependents that poverty is the result” (Carson 56). The bread winner goes to jail leaving the family without any income. This is the result of sin. This truth should help us “to understand the nature of evil a little better, and therefore to avoid being surprised when such things occur” (Carson 56). We can help families in this situation and should. But this situation reveals a completely different circumstance leading to poverty than the first two. Hopefully by this example, you see we need to learn and discern why a person lives in poverty. Not all situations are created equal nor are they similar. The child of an imprisoned father is poor for a different reason than a person oppressed by a government or other entity.
Fourth, the poor in spirit. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This person could be financially rich, middle class, or poor. The poor in spirit exists in poverty, not financial poverty but spiritual poverty. This is the believer. The poor in spirit recognizes he or she has nothing to offer God for salvation, destitute, broken, and in need of salvation. This is why he or she is blessed, because this disposition exits among those who have faith in Christ and repented from his or her sins. The way to serve the poor in spirit differs from the oppressed. The poor in spirit knows justice demands “my death” and thanks God because the Gospel provides hope. Giving this person money would not solve this poverty for money does not spend to gain Christ. Faith in Christ unites us to Him.
SCENARIO 5 & 6
This brings us to the fifth and sixth kinds of poverty. In my experience with homeless people, most the one’s I’ve met are homeless for one of these two reasons. Now, what do I mean by experience? First, I ministered to countless homeless men in rehab ministry who would talk about their thinking and living on the streets. Second, I live less than a mile from one of Las Vegas’s tent city. There are days I visit my coffee shop 3-4 days in a row, often encountering the same homeless person every day. I have story upon story upon story to validate and support what will be said next. I’ve personally seen a person as presented “looking for help” and behind the scenes with her boyfriend rejoicing over “the score.” Those I’ve communicated with who have more experience have also validated the following two cases. Go ask a police officer who patrols areas with many homeless people, they will tell you the same thing.
The final two categories: the lazy poor and the voluntary poor. We’ll address them in reverse order. As shocking as it may be, some are homeless because they want to be. Yup, it’s true. You can dump 50-ka-jillion dollars into housing, give them an island, and offer filet mignon every day and he or she will turn it down. Often they actually think they are more free than we are who have a house. Some people choose to live on 10% of their income. They are voluntarily poor too. Finding out why a person lives this way takes patience, wisdom, and time to explore how specifically to help them (and you may discover they don’t need help). Being rich isn’t the goal of life, godly worship is. (see Carson, 57).
The lazy poor can be divided into two camps. Those who are too lazy to work and therefore do not make enough money and the swindler / drug addict. 99% of the homeless people I’ve encountered fit into this camp. “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Prov 13:4). “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger” (Prov 19:15). There are some people on the streets or in section 8 housing (or your mom’s basement) because he or she is simply lazy and refuses to work. We need to be careful that we don’t assume this automatically of everyone (I will hear people indict all in section 8 housing as lazy). That may not be true, but it may be true too. To know, you have to know the person.
Along these lines are the drunk, drug addict, scandalous person who wants your money for his or her addiction. “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Prov 23:20-21). If ever a Bible verse diagnosed 99% of American homelessness, I would guess this one covers it. Most of them panhandle for money and use lies to play off emotions for your money. I’ve had my food offers accepted three or four times, turned down too many to count. They want money. They don’t want help. When offered to take them to the government programs to help get them back on their feet, those are rejected, they want money. I have story upon story where I’ve caught the same person giving me the same “life-threatening / need money now scenario three days in a row.” Once I used his name (which shocked him that I knew it) and asked why the same story as yesterday, he turned and walked off, busted.
Now, do we have compassion for those in this camp? Yes. Is giving them money what they need? No. When a person lies to get money out of you, it is a form of thievery and swindling. The solution when handling thieves requires helping them work honestly for money. When is a thief no longer a thief? When he starts working. Same thing here. If we won’t give money, then are we compassionate? Yes, if you understand the reason a person lives in this situation stems from a sinful rebellious heart, often manifest in a debilitating drug addiction. Then help comes from the Gospel, detox, and rehab. The help this person needs requires rewiring the heart and mental thought process.
So, you want to help the poor? Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about this issue with a silver bullet mentality. Do this one thing and solve all the problems. Step one requires analyzing why a person is in his or her position. Step two requires time, love, long-suffering, and wisdom to help the person biblically. Step three requires more time and patience realizing for some, changing thinking patterns takes a lot of time, but never is the Holy Spirit working up hill, for He has the power to change people. Step four, pray the Lord would lead His people to serve and those in this position to grow in Him.