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Concern over the economy and the horrible job market are on a lot of minds today. However, even in “good times” there are those who are doing without. So it is never a bad time to discuss the issue of poverty. Why are people poor; why hasn’t poverty been eliminated; will things ever get better; and what does God say about it?

In the U.S., the fall 2009 unemployment rate of 10%1 on top of the already high 2008 poverty rate of 13.2%2 (latest official information published) gives good reason to be concerned about poverty and economics. Some may say that even the poor in America have it better than most of the world who live in continual poverty. However, if you live in Chicago or Chad, the problem is serious and should not be taken lightly.

So why do people live in poverty? Why is it that some live hand to mouth while others enjoy luxury? There are many reasons that could be named but they can fit into two categories—poverty caused by humans and poverty caused by nature. Let’s look at both.

Poverty Caused By Nature

In this category we find reasons that people are poor that are beyond the individual’s or society’s control. For example, if a storm wipes out a farmer’s crops, or a tornado destroys a home, what reasonable steps could have been taken to prevent such disasters? Insurance is not an option in many parts of the world and even in America, if a person is poor, he would not have had the ability to purchase insurance. The same problem can arise out of sickness. A person or society can take every sanitary and hygienic step possible but there are many sicknesses and ailments that cannot be prevented or cured. (If you disagree, try living in a bubble and still make a living. Even if you succeed in earning money, you will still have the risk of food borne illnesses.) Thus, we see that some people are in poverty and not of their own making.

If there were a question of fairness, it would seem that poverty caused by nature was unfair. Actually it is unfair, but sadly, because we live in a corrupt world, it is one of many unfortunate parts of life. In fact, the Bible touches on this subject when it speaks of the creation groaning under the curse of sin until God makes all things new. “For the creation was subjected to futility…[but] the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” (Romans 8:20-22) The subject of the creation being in bondage to corruption is a much deeper one than we can develop here, but suffice it to say, as long as it is in bondage, one of the resulting human pains will be poverty.

Poverty Caused By Humans

Obviously, we cannot control nature, but there are many reasons why people are poor that are directly attributable to human actions, whether their own or others. These causes are entirely avoidable if only we changed how we thought about life and finances. It could be argued that in industrialized nations where people have more opportunities, these vices are more prevalent. However, a knowledge of human nature will reveal these chains of poverty are just as likely to be found in Africa as America. Consider:

..... This is the most obvious reason a person could be poor, he just refuses to work and wants someone else to care for him. The Bible warns against laziness, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep—So shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man.” (Proverbs 6:10-11)

..... Greed usually hurts others. Those who are so greedy that they have no compassion will take advantage of others in order to get more for themselves. The Bible pronounces woe and sorrow on such people. “Woe to those who devise iniquity, and work out evil on their beds! At morning light they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and take them by violence, also houses, and seize them. So they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.” (Micah 2:1-2)
..... Greed can also hurt oneself. “A man with an evil eye hastens after riches, and does not consider that poverty will come upon him.” (Proverbs 28:22) Stinginess (the “evil eye”) and a get rich quick philosophy (“hastening after riches”) lead to poverty. If you need an example, consider the drug dealer who ends up in jail. He sold drugs to make fast money but in the end, he is poor and destitute.

Love Of Pleasure
..... Those who live for fun and pleasure will come to poverty because their priorities are wrong. “He who loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.” (Proverbs 21:17) This person spends all his time looking for a party instead of working diligently to earn a living.

..... Some people live in excess, they are gluttons and they will be poor. “For the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23:21) Such an individual thinks only of satisfying his or her cravings, whether it is for food, alcohol, or just more stuff. Thinking about the future or concern for financial soundness is not a part of this lifestyle.

Foolish Friends
..... This has to be one of the saddest reasons to be poor, listening to unwise people. The Bible tells the story of King Rehoboam, “But he rejected the advice which the elders had given him, and consulted the young men who had grown up with him, who stood before him.” (2 Chronicles 10:8) This man lost 10 of 12 provinces of his kingdom listening to foolish friends. Most of us know folks like this, they waste their lives, talent, and money on evil people because they don’t have enough sense to see what they are doing to themselves.

Failure To Plan
..... The man or woman who just lives for today with no thought for the future will not plan for emergencies or the “rainy day”. As a result, when the unexpected happens, they are unprepared and end up broke, just like the proverb states: “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished.” (Proverbs 22:3)

This list is by no means exhaustive, but other reasons people are poor could easily fit into one of these categories. Now that we know some of the causes of poverty, the question is, what can be done about it?

Why Can’t We Stop Poverty?

With all of the wealth, brainpower, resources, and technology on the planet, why hasn’t poverty been eliminated? What if everyone who had just gave something to those who don’t have? Actually, this has been tried. Government poverty programs have been going strong in America for decades and there are still poor people in this country. The problem with just giving aid to people is that without addressing the root cause of poverty, you have only helped them today. What will the helped person do for tomorrow? Government programs, by design, are too big and sweeping to address each person’s actual issues and help them become self sufficient. Sadly, any program that just gives out money, food, etc. will ultimately fail because people will become dependent on that aid. The result is perpetual poverty.

If you have any doubt that giving people money will not improve their lives, look at the track record of lottery winners. Many of them are desperate for a break to make ends meet but they have no financial education. So what do they do with the winnings? They may pay off a few bills, but they will immediately start buying things they don’t need, giving money to deadbeat friends and relatives.3 They end up worse off than before they were awash in cash.

When people try to help poverty caused by humans, they usually end up enabling instead of helping. Remember the old saying; give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime? It’s fine to give out one fish, but if someone doesn’t want to learn how to fish for himself, why should he live off others’ generosity? Human history has proven that people who can work but instead live off of others’ kindness become problems for society. But handing out a few dollars makes us feel good and is easier than teaching someone a trade or how to manage money. So poverty persists.

What Does God Say About the Poor?

Now that we know some of the causes of poverty and why human efforts to eliminate it have largely failed, why not consider what the Almighty thinks about the subject? The Bible has a lot to say on the matter.

God Cares About The Poor
..... The Psalmist writes that God, “will deliver the needy when he cries, the poor also, and him who has no helper. He will spare the poor and needy, and will save the souls of the needy. He will redeem their life from oppression and violence; and precious shall be their blood in His sight.” (Psalm 72:12-14) Though it might not appear this way to human eyes, God has a special place in His heart for the poor. Remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar found in Luke 16? It illustrates the principle that, since the poor are neglected in this life, God will provide justice for them in the life to come.

God Blesses Those Who Help The Poor
..... King David told us, “Blessed is he who considers the poor; the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.” (Psalm 41:1) The Bible also states that, “He who has pity on the poor lends to the LORD, and He will pay back what he has given.” (Proverbs 19:17) Jesus confirms this principle when He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) God provides blessings to those who give.

God Warns Not To Take Advantage Of The Poor
..... “Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals.” (Amos 2:6) Since the poor are vulnerable, God warns that He will take up their cause and not pardon those who victimize them.

So we see clearly that God cares about the poor and notices how they are treated or mistreated. Yet, the Almighty does not promise to eliminate poverty during our lifetime. In fact, He says the opposite, “the poor will never cease from the land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11a) Why is this? Let us first consider what God is doing about poverty.

What is God’s Anti-Poverty Program?

The Lord has a two part program for combating poverty. Unlike human programs, His is tailored according to ability, part is for those who can work and part is for those who cannot work.

God’s Assistance Plan For Able Individuals
..... God’s plan for helping poor people with healthy bodies and minds requires those who have to provide work for those who have not. An example is seen in the commandments given to Moses. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.”(Leviticus 23:22) This command is to leave a little in the farmer’s field for the poor to come and gather for themselves. Notice, God did not command the farmers to harvest everything and then tell the poor to come eat what they want. This ordinance is so that the poor can have the dignity of earning their food, yet it still requires generosity by the land owners.
..... Just so no one thinks that God only commands the wealthy to be generous, the Bible tells us that everyone should work. This is why Saint Paul said, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who [live] among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10b-11) Never does God command charity for people who are capable of feeding themselves. The reason, as we have seen above, is echoed in this verse, that those who don’t need to work will become nuisances to society. Thus, God’s plan helps the needy and keeps social order. So the principle for us is to help those who can work overcome the obstacles that keep them from working or managing their money properly.

God’s Assistance Plan For Disabled Individuals
..... God also has a plan for helping poor people with physical or mental disabilities or who otherwise cannot work (such as, young orphans). This plan requires those who have to actually provide for those who have not and cannot. An example is seen in more commandments given to Moses. “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) This command was to set aside food for the Levites, strangers, fatherless, and widows because they had no land to farm, no family to take care of them, and no work that they could do. The same principle is in effect for us today, we should help those who are disabled, abandoned, and too young to work.

Final Thoughts

We have seen God’s plan for helping the poor, but yet the question remains: why doesn’t God just wipe out poverty? One reason we have already seen is because human nature would squander God’s blessings and just come back looking for handouts (see “Poverty Caused By Humans” above). Another reason is to test you and me. He said, “For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:11) The test for us is to be compassionate in following God’s two plans for helping the poor. Think about it, if God solved all our earthly problems, what would you have to do with your life? What about it, are you willing to help someone learn to work or manage their money properly? Or are you willing to be discerning in charity so as to help people financially who actually have needs rather than enabling those who don’t?

Challenge yourself with these closing questions. Why did God prosper America so much? Is it because we are better than other nations, because He wanted us to live in fun and luxury, or because He wanted us to do something worthwhile with our prosperity? Then remember the words of Jesus, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” (Luke 12:48b)

1 www.bls.gov/cps/
2 www.census.gov/prod/2009pubs/p60-236.pdf (page 20)
3 www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-02-26-lotteryluck_x.htm

(All Bible passages are from the New King James Version)

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