In Part 1 of this teaching, I made the claim that the early church focused on two avenues of giving, namely giving that (1) helped make disciples and (2) relieved suffering, and I elaborated on the wise application of the first of those two. In Part 2, I’d like to look more closely at some of the best ways we can use our financial resources to relieve suffering. But first, a little philosophic pondering:
When it comes to suffering, there is no shortage of those who need help. No one can debate that God allows a lot of suffering, and His reasons for doing so are sometimes a mystery to us. Yet Scripture makes it clear that God’s allowance does not alleviate us from relieving suffering when we can. On the contrary, it seems that God may allow some suffering to test our love for those who suffer—and for Him. God certainly does test free moral agents (see Ex. 16:4, 20:20; Deut. 8:16; Judg. 2:21-22, 3:1; 2 Chron. 32:31; Ps. 11:4-5; Prov. 17:3; Jer. 17:10, 20:12; Rev. 3:10).
So how can God test our love apart from circumstances that give us an opportunity to relieve suffering or sacrifice in some way? As church father Chrysostom wrote, “Do you not know that God did enact almsgiving not so much for the sake of the poor as for the sake of the persons themselves who bestow?”
Love, the Highest Virtue
Isn’t it true that all of us—Christians and non-Christians alike—admire those who sacrifice for the sake of others? Selflessness is universally esteemed, whereas selfishness is universally despised. Yet all of us contain a mix of both. Most of us try to conceal selfishness and display selflessness in ways that don’t appear to be purely a display.
The greatest lovers are the greatest givers. We all know, of course, that God does not gauge us by how much we give, but by how much we retain. In His eyes, the widow’s mite amounted to more than the combined gifts of all the wealthy:
Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on (Mark 12:43-44).
This is not to say that giving—motivated out of love—from one’s surplus is not praiseworthy. It is just to say that “surplus givers” (like me, and most of you reading this) should be prepared to possess less heavenly treasure than the truly sacrificial givers. And we would be wise to think and pray about how we could sacrifice—and love—even more before our day comes to stand before Jesus.
But as I tried to emphasize in Part 1, we should not only think about how much we’re giving, but how, when, what, why, and who we give to, so that our giving has its greatest potential impact for good. The organization that I direct, Heaven’s Family, has given many millions of dollars to relieve suffering around the world over the past 16 years, and we’ve learned a few things along the way. We’ve learned, for example, that we can potentially harm the people we’re trying to help. So please allow me to help you avoid some of the most common errors in this regard.
Relieving poverty is one way to relieve suffering. But when you live in a wealthy nation, defining poverty becomes difficult. So let’s consider poverty from a global perspective.
According to the 2018 Global Wealth Report by Credit Suisse Research Institute, to be wealthier than half of the world’s residents, you need a net worth of at least $4,210. To be in the top 10%, assets totaling $93,170 will do it.
According to the World Bank, 10% of the world’s people live on less than $1.90 per day, or about $700 per year (defined as “extreme poverty”), while about half of the world’s people live on less than $5.50 per day, or about $2,000 per year.
When you see those statistics, you realize that at least half of the world’s people would be thrilled to suffer American “poverty.”
This is not to say that we should ignore America’s poor. But if there were four families living on your cul-de-sac, and two of those families were living in shacks made of plastic tarps and rusty, corrugated tin and drinking out of a mud puddle, and one of those families was living in a small three-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch in need of repair, yet with electricity, air conditioning, running water, and a car parked in front, I’ll bet both your family and the “poor” family in the ranch would be trying to help the other two families.
From a biblical perspective, poverty is defined as lacking food and covering:
For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content (1 Tim. 6:7-8, emphasis added).
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself (Jas. 2:15-17, emphasis added).
Do not worry then, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear for clothing?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matt. 6:31-32, emphasis added).
It is probably difficult for most readers to imagine such a degree of poverty. In the U.S., it is experienced, at least to some degree, by America’s unemployed, homeless population. Thank God for the Christian ministries that tirelessly serve and lift such folks. And praise God for the churches and believers who support them.
My point is that, when it comes to relieving suffering, it makes sense to focus most of our attention on those who are suffering the most. If you are looking for a way to invest in helping Christians, including widows and orphans, who are facing poverty that is almost unimaginable to Western minds, Heaven’s Family continually serves them through all of our 20 Focused Ministries.
Speaking of Widows and Orphans…
Another important principal regarding the relief of suffering is that we should be cautious relieving that suffering which is self-imposed. There is no divine mystery to suffering we bring upon ourselves. And for that reason, Paul wrote:
For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread (2 Thes. 3:7-12).
Laziness can lead to poverty, which makes one dependent on other people. Those people effectively become the sluggard’s slave, as they work so he can eat. The sluggard does not love his slaves as he loves himself. And for that reason, laziness is a sin, and we don’t want to encourage or enable sin.
The remedy for laziness is hunger.
When relieving the poverty of the unemployed, we are wise to offer them work for which we will pay them. If you are going to give them money anyways, love them enough to give them some dignity by letting them work for your money. The alternative is to reward laziness and communicate that the recipient has nothing of value to offer…he is worthless.
Generally speaking, those who are able to work should never be given anything for free. That is a commandment from the New Testament (that we just read). If you can’t think of any service that a person seeking a handout can perform for you, then pay him to serve someone who can’t pay him. And don’t offer a subsidized payment for “token work.” Pay fairly according to actual value. Only God knows the harm that has been done to human lives by well-meaning people trying to assuage their guilt by giving handouts!
How different is America from Africa in this regard. In America, poor people stand at road intersections with signs begging for charity. In Africa, they rush to your car at stoplights to clean your windshield, hoping for a little payment for their service (although many drivers don’t give them anything, as their windshields were not that dirty). No African beggar would ever expect a handout unless he is obviously handicapped, thus proving his inability to work.
And this is why Scripture often points to widows and orphans—who in developing nations are generally unable to earn what they need—as those who are worthy of our compassion.
A larger principal in this same category is to never do for others what they are capable of doing for themselves. Otherwise, we rob our “beneficiaries” of dignity and cripple them by encouraging laziness. Rather than going on a short-term mission trips to construct a church building, why not go and teach carpentry skills so parishioners can build their own church, and then perhaps earn a living with the skills they’ve learned?
Speaking of Teaching Skills…
You have no doubt heard the adage, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” I would alter the first clause to read, “Give a man a fish, and thus (1) teach him that food comes by appearing to be hungry when nearby people have fish, and (2) launch a generational cycle of dependency, poverty and worthlessness.” The harm done by handouts far outstrips the benefits.
As we strive to relieve suffering, we should seek long-term solutions, treating the needy as we would want to be treated ourselves. In the world of “relief and development,” development (that is, long-term, sustainable improvements) is always preferred, and relief (stop-gap emergency handouts), if it is necessary, should be offered only temporarily, until development efforts can begin.
This is one thing I love about Heaven’s Family’s Farming God’s Way Ministry. We don’t give money to small subsistence farmers. We offer them agricultural training that, coupled with their own hard work, can exponentially increase their harvests. And we include biblical discipleship through what are called “God’s Love Groups.” As they learn to become more like Jesus, they use their profits to care for widows and orphans!
The same is true for Heaven’s Family’s Microloan Ministry. Our borrowers first receive invaluable basic business training. Once equipped with knowledge of how to succeed, our small loans create borrowers who are our business partners, rather than the objects of our pity. They too, are required to regularly meet in God’s Love Groups for business education and discipleship.
Many other Heaven’s Family ministries similarly promote development through education and skills training. All 20 of our Focused Ministries have the gospel at their core.
Speaking of the Gospel…
Relieving suffering without a gospel component is what secular humanitarian organizations do—as well as Christian organizations that have drifted from their original mission. Heaven’s Family will never be among them because Jesus is at the center of our Mission and Vision Statements, where He’s mentioned a total of 11 times. Moreover, all of our trustees and staff members must annually affirm their agreement with our Mission and Vision statements. And our bylaws declare that those statements cannot be changed except by a unanimous vote by our trustees, three years in a row.
I bring this up because those who give to relieve suffering should consider if their gifts, through their long-term investment, could actually end up supporting the opposite of what they intended. A mission-minded friend and physician, who was raised on the mission field by parents who were also physicians, explained this phenomenon to me:
When a Christian physician starts a missionary hospital, in the first generation, with the founder’s zeal, there is a strong Christian witness at the hospital, and a clear commitment to putting Christ first, etc. Then the founder goes to be with the Lord. So the board finds a doctor willing to do the work, but one who probably does not share the same vision or commitment to the “mission” of the hospital. The mission is now seen in more natural/neutral ways as being provision of health care, rather than a way to touch people for Jesus and bring them into the Kingdom.
Now take it one generation further, and this hospital and maybe this same 2nd-generation doctor are wondering about the role of chaplains at the hospital, and don’t want them to be pushy. Maybe chaplains are taught just to “care for, but not preach,” to patients. This has now become unspiritual. It is now a short step to the hospital making the decision that it is a woman’s choice to have an abortion if she wishes.
And so by the 2nd to 3rd generation even Catholic hospitals, which have a strong ethic dictated to them by the Catholic Church, find themselves agreeing to do things that even violates their own statement of faith. So now there are bishops, such as I read about in Phoenix, forcing multibillion dollar hospital institutions to drop the word “Catholic” from their name because they have long stopped being Catholic.
This type of scenario is acted out all over the world where institutions that started in Christ (say, Harvard University) have now ended up as bastions of the enemy’s activity.
This is one reason, among others, why Heaven’s Family rarely funds any buildings (although we did in past years). Another reason is that land and buildings in the developing world are often easily sold by unscrupulous ministry directors, their heirs, or their board of directors, to pad their own pockets. Just about anywhere you may travel in poor nations, there are people waiting who will suddenly have a “burden from the Lord” to do what your ministry is funding.
At one time, Heaven’s Family was funding the building of many “orphanage” buildings in Myanmar—until we discovered that most of the orphans weren’t orphans at all. And when we did, most of these “orphanage” directors were not willing to cooperate with us to reunite their “orphans” with their biological families, who often lived hundreds of miles away. Their “orphanages” were sources of income for them. Some even developed orphanage franchises, because the more children and locations they had, the more money that could be generated. And all such charlatan directors need to keep the money flowing are well-meaning Western Christians who, like us at one time, didn’t wonder long enough why the “orphanage” signs were all written in English rather than Burmese.
Part of our Orphan’s Tear Ministry is now focused on educating other Western ministries that are financially supporting these “orphanages” about Myanmar’s orphanage industry. You would be shocked to learn how many are resistant to the idea of reuniting children—fake orphans—with their actual parents. The reason can only be because of the income that is generated through their “orphan” ministries.
On the bright side, the Australian government has recently enacted legislation to greatly curb what is known as “orphanage tourism.” Australia has become the first country in the world to recognize the orphanage industry as a form of modern-day trafficking and slavery. Also, the 2018 United States Trafficking in Persons Report includes a section on “Child Institutionalization and Human Trafficking,” which explains that “many orphanages facilitate child trafficking by using false promises to recruit children and exploit them to profit from donations.” It seems many in the secular world are listening to their consciences more closely than some Christian ministries!
There is much more that could be said, but all of us who are believers in Jesus have the Holy Spirit within to lead and guide us. He knows everything, and He will reveal to us what is good. It is good to give, but please think, and pray, before you clink! — David
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things (1 John 3:16-20).