STUDY TEN: THE CHRISTIAN AND GLOBAL POVERTY
© Rosemary Bardsley 2006, 2016
Because of the sin factor all is not right in our world. One of the commonly asked questions is ‘Why?’ And in particular ‘Why is there suffering?’ As Christians we are confronted not only with this question of ‘why’ but with the ethical challenges: ‘How am I, as a follower of Jesus Christ, supposed to personally respond to suffering?’ and ‘What am I, as a follower of Jesus Christ, supposed to do about all of the suffering?’
We are surrounded by, and sometimes personally involved in, areas of social concern, whether the big ones like global poverty or small ones like the lonely old widow next door. As Christians we are also aware of the confrontational parable of Jesus in which he stated clearly: ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ [Matthew 25:40]
The choices that challenge us in areas of social concern are not easy choices. Sometimes they can be very demanding choices. Sometimes the problem seems so great that it inhibits doing anything. And it is here, where the problems are massive, that we need to take our cue from Jesus Christ.
He, the eternal and omniscient God, knows, as we will never know, just how massive the problems are. He, the gracious and compassionate God, loves people perfectly, in a way that we never can. And as the incarnate One, during the three years of his ministry, he helped them in their suffering one by one, without being overwhelmed, without frustration, without despair, without frenetic activity. Just one by one, as he met them down the street.
To this same uncluttered and stressless compassion he calls us also.
A. BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON POVERTY
Both the Old and New Testaments assume the existence of poverty. It is part of the abnormal world between Genesis 3 and Revelation 21. We can assume that it will continue to exist as long as there is sin on this earth and as long as we live in a world that has been physically impacted by our sin.
[A problem that confronts us when studying poverty in the scriptures is that the Hebrew word for ‘poor’ is used to refer not only to financial poverty, but to people who are, for instance, humble or depressed, or helpless in some other way. We therefore can’t assume that every mention of the ‘poor’ refers to material poverty.]
A.1 How are we to understand poverty?
Poverty is part of life from Genesis 3 onwards. It will always be part of life on this earth until the return of Christ and the final judgment [Revelation 21:4,5]. Note: If everything was as it should be, if our choices were all godly choices, there should not be any poor people, but even among God’s people that ideal state does not exist. [In Acts 4:32-37, where the early believers shared their possessions, we read that ‘there were no needy persons among them’.]
What do the Bible verses below teach about the following aspects of poverty?
Poverty as a fact of life
The causes of poverty
God's compassion for the poor
Psalm 10:12-18;12:5; 14:6b; 35:10; 40:17; 68:10; 69:32-33; 72:12-14; 109:31; 113:7; 140:12
Isaiah 25:4; 41:17;
The Messiah’s ministry includes a specific ministry to the poor
Luke 4:18; 7:22
The fundamental equality of rich and poor
Proverbs 22:2; 29:13
[The specific inclusion of the poor in the ministry of the Messiah highlights the fundamental equality of man, demolishing the perceived inequalities and outlawing the preference given to the rich.
In addition, these scriptures indicate equality:
Because both rich and poor eventually die
Because God made them both
Because God gave both the same physical abilities
Because, for Christians, both believe in the same Lord Jesus Christ
Note that those who have embraced the Messiah should be acutely aware of this equality and unity.]
Desirable aspects of poverty
Proverbs 13:8; 18:23;19:1a,22b; 28:6
[Although none of us would automatically think that poverty is desirable, the Bible makes it clear that it does have some desirable aspects, and is certainly not the worst state to be in. For example:
It is better to be poor and righteous, than wicked, for the wicked will be judged by God
If you are poor you don’t get threatened with extortion
If you are poor you are more likely to be humble and seek mercy
Poverty is preferable to perversity
Poverty is preferable to dishonesty/lack of integrity
In addition, Jesus taught that it is ‘impossible’ for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, and had much to say about the wrongness of focusing one’s life on the accumulation of wealth, instead of seeking God.]
Undesirable impacts of poverty
Proverbs 14:20; 19:4,7; 22:7; 30:8-9
[God understands that poverty is not pleasant. Most of these undesirable impacts of poverty are the result of human reactions to the poverty of others, and the perceived innate inequality between rich and poor. Thus they are the result of the sinful responses of others to the condition of poverty.]
What have you learned from these biblical perspectives on poverty?
A.2 The significance of our attitudes and actions towards the poor
The Bible is clear and strong in its teaching about the significance of our attitudes and actions towards the poor. God considers that how we relate to the poor is evidence of the integrity of our relationship with him.
Kindness to the poor is an expression of genuine faith in God
The Bible makes it clear that if we really believe in God, and believe God, kindness to the poor will result.
Job’s generosity to the poor was the result of his faith in God as both Creator of all men and Judge of all men, and his desire to be faithful to God
The ‘man who fears God’ and who is blessed by God, is a man who is generous to the poor
Oppression or mockery of the poor is evidence of contempt for God who made them, but kindness to the poor actually honours God
Those who trust God will be free to give to the poor, rather than clinging fearfully to all they have
Failure to be kind to the poor reflects a faithless, godless life
True knowledge of God expresses itself in generosity to the poor
In an extended passage Paul speaks of giving to poor Christians; included is a statement describing the generosity of the Corinthians as evidence of ‘the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ’.
Check these scriptures
Job 29:11-16; 31:13-23
Proverbs 14:31; 17:5a
Luke 16:19-31 NB
Giving to the poor is considered an expression of worshipping the Lord
Not only does generosity to the poor provide evidence of the genuineness of our faith, it is also a form or expression of praise and worship.
Giving to the poor was part of joyous celebration of God’s goodness
Giving to the poor is lending to the Lord
The fasting God requires is looking after the poor and needy
Acts of generosity to the poor are to be done ‘in secret’ for God alone to see
Ritual worship and tithing ought not replace true worship that is evidenced by practical generosity and justice towards the poor
Generosity to the poor accompanies genuine devotion to God
Paul describes the Philippians’ gifts to himself as ‘a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.’
Check these scriptures
Wickedness and godlessness express themselves in wrong treatment of the poor
While true godliness is accompanied by generosity towards the poor, godlessness is accompanied by harsh treatment of and injustice towards the poor. The following aspects of this are evident in the scriptures to the left:
In their unbelief the godless do not care how they treat the helpless for they do not think that God will do anything about it
The wicked are habitually opposed to the righteous, including the righteous poor
The wicked have no concern for justice for the poor
Part of the meaninglessness of life is the oppression of and denial of justice to the poor. It ought not to surprise us, for that is what men without God do.
Godless national and spiritual leaders are accountable to God for their harsh treatment of the poor
The foolishness of the wicked is seen in their treatment of the poor
A generation that forgets God will be judged for their mistreatment of the poor
The arrogance of unbelievers makes them inconsiderate and careless towards the poor
Those who pursue idolatry end up oppressing the poor
Check these scriptures
Ezekiel 16:49; 18:12; 22:29
A.3 Biblical principles and instructions regarding poverty and the treatment of the poor
A.3.1 Old Testament law included special provisions for the poor
What special provisions do these scriptures make for the poor?
Leviticus 5:5-13; 14:21ff
Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22
Leviticus 25:25, 47f
Leviticus 25:39f, 47f
A.3.2 The principle of justice for the poor
What do these scriptures teach about justice for the poor?
Amos 2:6-7a; 4:1-3; 5:11-12; 8:4-10
A.3.3 Generosity and helpfulness towards the poor is commanded and mistreatment of the poor condemned.
What do these scriptures teach us about how we should personally treat the poor?
Proverbs 22:9; 28:27
A.4 The attitude and example of Jesus
Some of the references included in the lists above present some of Jesus’ teaching regarding the poor and regarding poverty.
Answer the questions below, identifying from your knowledge of the New Testament any further insights we can gain from the attitude and example of Jesus Christ. Give references to support your comments.
What does the incarnation of Jesus teach us about poverty? How can it impact our attitude to poverty?
What lessons about poverty can we learn from the miracles of Jesus?
What lessons about poverty can we learn from the parables of Jesus?
Is there any additional teaching of Jesus that can instruct us about poverty and about correct attitudes to the poor?
B. GLOBAL POVERTY TODAY
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty contains articles on various aspects of poverty, plus links to a variety of other sites with comment on poverty.
http://world.bymap.org/Poverty.html has a map of global poverty and ranks countries for poverty.
B.1 Recent statistics
B.1.1 The world’s poorest countries
Congo (Democratic Republic of the), Niger, Burundi, Mozambique, Chad, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Malawi, Côte d'lvoire, Sudan, Gambia, Benin, Rwanda, Djibouti, Zambia, Comoros, Togo, Uganda, Lesotho, Mauritania, Haiti, Nepal, Nigeria, Senegal, Yemen, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Madagascar, Cameroon, Myanmar, Angola, Timor-Leste, Bangladesh.
These countries are listed as the 42 poorest countries in the world or the 42 least developed countries according to the United Nations. Sourced from http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0908763.html .
B.1.2 Evidence of poverty
The United Nations Environment Programme identifies the following as key indicators of poverty in a given country:
The percentage of malnourished children
The percentage of people not expected to survive to age 40
The percentage of people lacking in health services
The percentage of illiterate adults
The percentage of people lacking safe water
The percentage of people who are income-poor
B.1.3 Other interesting statistics revealing the impact of global poverty
Figures sourced from various websites estimate that:
Every day 22,000 children die as a result of extreme poverty
Every hour 1,200 children die from preventable diseases
One in seven children has no access to health care
Over 120,000,000 children are deprived of primary school education
246,000,000 children are engaged in child labour, over half in hazardous work
15,000,000 children have been orphaned because of AIDS
It is estimated that about 300,000 child soldiers are involved in 30 different armed conflicts around the world
The UN estimates that 1.2 million children are trafficked annually in an industry that reaps over 6 billion British pounds annually.
An estimated 2 million children are exploited annually in the commercial sex trade.
40% of the world population [2.6 billion] do not have access to safe water and sanitation
the wealth of the three richest individual people exceeds the combined GDP of the world’s 48 poorest countries.
B.2 Critical issues
The United Nations identified a number of areas in which Millennium goals were set with a view to reducing global poverty by 2015. These goals indicate key poverty issues: [More information is available from http://unstats.un.org/unsd/mi/mi_goals.asp ]
 The eradication of extreme poverty and hunger
 Achieve universal primary education
 Promote gender equality and empower women
 Reduce child mortality
 Improve maternal health
 Combat AIDS/HIV, malaria and other diseases
 Ensure environmental sustainability
 Develop a global partnership for development
At first glance some of these goals do not seem to relate to poverty, yet all of these areas of concern do in fact affect the poverty levels of a country.
B.3 What is being done?
There is a lot of work being done by humanitarian organizations, Christian and other religious aid and mission organizations, and by government and United Nations endeavours. Obviously however there is still much more to be done.
Christian missions have been involved in providing humanitarian aid and support from the very beginning of the modern missionary movement, with involvement in medical work, education, agricultural and other development assistance.
C. WHAT SHOULD THE CHRISTIAN DO?
This is a study on Christian ethics. We are here faced with the question: what should we as Christians, individually and corporately, do in the matter of global poverty? Part of the answer is clear; but part is also unclear. The issue has also been made murky for evangelical Christians by that fact that some Christians have in the past left off concern for the spiritual destitution of mankind and focused on material poverty and need. The ‘social gospel’ has in some areas of Christianity replaced the proclamation of the gospel of salvation through the death of Christ. In an over-reaction the temptation has been to ignore physical needs altogether. But such a one-eyed focus on the spiritual needs of people does not tie in with the example of Jesus Christ, nor with the principles of concern and compassion for the poor embedded in the Old Testament.
C.1 The Christian should express practical compassion for the poor, both locally and worldwide. This is quite clear from the Bible.
C.2 This should not be done at the expense of ignoring the spiritual needs of the people. This is also clear. God’s word expresses deep concern for people at both their physical and spiritual points of need.
In relation to the two points above we need to learn an important point from the example of Jesus, and indeed, from the example of the exodus. Many can be helped physically, but not all of those who are helped physically will be helped spiritually.
Consider the following incidents in which there is a division between those helped physically and those impacted spiritually. Comment on the implications of this for Christian involvement in humanitarian aid projects.
 The exodus event in which approximately 2.3 million were physically delivered from Egypt. Read especially Exodus 32.
 Jesus’ healing of ten lepers, only one of whom came to thank him personally. [Luke 17:11-19]
 The statement in John 2:23-25
 The feeding of the 5 thousand [John 6:1-15; read also 6:25-71 where it is obvious that the physical help they had received was not accompanied by true faith.] They asked many questions, but did not receive the spiritual help Jesus offered to them by challenging them to believe in him.
God knows, as the example of Jesus proves, that while there are many who are willing to receive physical help, not many of these are willing to receive spiritual help. They might listen. They might even ask questions, but they will go away still holding on to their existing belief system. This however does not excuse the Christian from withholding either physical help or the offer of spiritual help. Our responsibility as the children of God is to demonstrate his compassion and to deliver his message.
The poor will always be with us, both in our neighbourhood and overseas. Advances in both communications and transport mean that we know about global poverty, and are able to do something about it in a way that simply could not happen in previous generations. We can no longer hold out the excuses of ignorance or distance or difficulty. Nor can we plead our own poverty. We may be poor by the standards of our own country, but by global standards, almost everyone in developed nations is in the world’s wealthiest few percent.
C.3 Discernment needed
Combating global poverty is not a simple matter of handing out money. Money is needed, but not in the long term as a hand out. It is needed buy food, to care for orphans and refugees, to fund medical supplies, to support people in times of disasters, and the like, but it is also needed to provide training and infrastructure to enable developing countries to work towards the Millennium goals listed above, and other similar goals.
Farming methods and breeding stock need to be improved; local people need to be trained; clean water supplies and sanitation need to be set up; people need to be educated in the prevention of disease and in good nutrition; home based industries need to be introduced to provide income. All of these are projects in which Christians can get involved in either Christian mission or secular aid organizations.
C.4 Impacting government policy and involvement
Member countries of the United Nations are committed to contributing aid to developing countries and disaster relief. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the rights of all people to education, freedom, health care, etc. By our votes and by our voices we can impact global poverty through decisions made by our government.
C.5 Caring for the environment
Part of our original responsibility at the point of creation was the care of the earth. This responsibility is even more critical since the fall. Contemporary global poverty is partly the result of our inappropriate use of resources and abuse of our environment. What we do to our own country now will affect its wealth or poverty in generations to come.
Define your personal response as a Christian to global poverty.