Over the past few years, God has placed within us a desire for mercy ministry. With this call, he has provided us with a number of wonderful opportunities to love and grace others. But whereas we originally began answering the call with the idea that we would be bringing mercy and grace to others, we have come to find that transformative power in God’s call has more frequently been directed towards us. God has taught us many things over the past few years. Just when I feel I’m getting to the point where I “get it," God reminds me that he still has quite a bit of work to do on me.
Boy, how my assurance of this philosophy has been pressured in my first six months here in Romania. While I am not going to disagree outright with the philosophy behind "When Helping Hurts," I think its message had the unintended consequence of bolstering my pragmatism. I have a feeling that most Americans are like me. We don’t need much of a boost to our pragmatic tendencies. I’ve come to the conclusion that while “When Helping Hurts” has some very important things to say about how we move forward on a larger scale to combat the entrenchment of poverty – to fix it – most of our day to day encounters with need come on the personal scale and are more about our attitude and action than about solving an issue Jesus himself seemed to think would never be solved this side of restoration.
One of the most significant convictions God has brought to my heart in the past two years is related to the way I value efficiency. I am a very pragmatic individual. But of the many lessons we can see reiterated throughout scripture, God's overthrow of, and often disdain for the pragmatic is at the forefront. God used an aged and barren couple to propagate a line that would bless all peoples. God used a bumbling murderer to save his people from slavery. God whittled Gideon's army down to hundreds to defeat an army of tens of thousands. God condemned Israel's pragmatism when it sought an alliance with Egypt rather than trusting in his provision. Jesus was revulsed by the pragmatism of the Pharisees as they hedged the laws with their own laws in order to stay far from sin. And God himself was humbled as a baby, and submitted to a bringing of his Kingdom through suffering and death rather than through political or military means.
Our God is anything but a pragmatic God, at least in the way that we define pragmatism. God's use of the feeble, the incapable, the messed up, and the weak may be impractical to accomplish a task with speed, ease, and assurance. But the use of that which is impractical builds our trust in God and provides us with hope that God can even use vessels like us. God's call for us to take up our cross, suffer, turn the other cheek, submit to one another, and love even our enemies are impractical means to asserting our power in the world, maximizing our pleasure, and minimizing discomfort. But they are wonderfully pragmatic means to bring about our conformity to the image of Christ. God may be a pragmatic God, but he is undoubtedly pragmatic towards different means and ends than those to which we tend.
"When Helping Hurts" was alluring to me largely because of its pragmatic approach. The authors provide a list of anecdotes and studies that bolster their case for approaching poverty. Unsurprisingly, they conclude that just handing out goods can be detrimental to the poor. I agree. Handing out resources doesn't fix poverty. In fact, if you give goods out in large quantities or with great frequency you can even do harm to the poor. The authors make this observation, then move beyond this basic point to posit a biblical side to poverty which centers around relationships. If we want to fix poverty we need to do so do so with a view of relationships. I wholeheartedly agree with them. But recently I have begun to question the basic assumption that was perpetuated in me through this book – the assumption that my responsibility when I give is to seek the fixing of poverty – or more simply, to make effectiveness in giving my focus. To be fair, it has been awhile since I've read the book. I don't at all think the authors were saying that it's our role to fix poverty or that the heart of giving is pragmatism. In fact, they do emphasize the importance of relationship. But the authors also make it very clear that they do not advocate just giving to an individual in need. While the book does a fantastic job of explaining how to address poverty strategically, my problem as an American Christian was never that I was giving away too much money indiscriminately. My problem was that I wasn't giving enough away, and that I was being too stringent with my giving stipulations - creating cold systems of determination that took grace and generosity out of the giving. As a stand-alone resource in my particular culture, "When Helping Hurts" just further ingrained my bad giving habits and provided me with a platform from which to justify them. I love much of the wise insight found in the book as well as the heart, but I think there are some important aspects of giving that are overlooked which can help to round out and balance the view the authors put forward.
As a Christian I think it is vital that we push back against the curse. Yes, we are called to push back against things like poverty. But it's important that we understand what God says about giving, what his purposes are in our giving, and how he defines "effectiveness." "When Helping Hurts" helps us to identify how we can do some of this work pragmatically. But what I believe God's command for our giving and generosity aren't just about fixing poverty, and his means often don't fully conform to our human pragmatism and definitions of effectiveness. The following are three aspects I believe are either missed by or overlooked in the pragmatic approach to giving.
We Assume Giving is About Changing Others
I was listening to a New Testament survey class a few weeks ago and the speaker was going over Matthew 6. Right before we get into chapter 6, Jesus commands listeners to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Chapter 6 and 7, then, are Jesus's explanation of how we should be perfect through positive action. Chapters 6-7 are essentially the spiritual disciplines we are to put on that will help us to bear fruit and throw off the negative actions mentioned in chapter 5. Christ discusses prayer, fasting, trust in God (not being anxious), not judging others, and loving others. But the very first discipline Jesus mentions is giving to the needy. It seems that God's primary concern here in this section of Matthew is that our hearts are changed through various disciplines. In fact, in all of these positive disciplines we are encouraged to only focus on ourselves. When we give, we should do so in secret. Yes, we are giving to others, but we alone are the ones who know our action. It’s between us and God. When we pray, we should do so without fanfare. When we fast, we should do so without drawing attention to ourselves and looking “gloomy.” When we are judging, we must be introspective and judge ourselves, not focusing on the specks that others have in their eyes. And while we are to ensure we don’t focus on what’s going on in the minds of others, all of these prescribed actions help to shape our relationship with God. When we pray, we are acknowledging God's sovereignty and will. When we fast, we are reminded of our reliance on God for even our daily bread. When we avoid judging others, we are introspective about our own sin and we must trust in God to bring about his justice and judgment on ourselves and others. And if we are to love others as much as we love ourselves - even our enemies - how can we do this without divine intervention and example? The spiritual disciplines Matthew lays out are centered around our own hearts, not around fixing any ills or issues in others. In fact, these examples are to the contrary. Time and time again we’re told not to worry about others when we perform these disciplines.
Such a truth has been demonstrated in my own heart time and time again here in Romania. I could give a number of examples, but perhaps the best is the usual weekly grocery trip we take. Quite frequently upon exiting the grocery store, a woman carrying a baby and medical documentation or a group of kids with tattered clothes will come up to me and beg for food. When I say “beg,” I mean it quite literally. They are relentless, tugging on every heart string imaginable. At first, there was compassion. I felt so bad for these individuals and wanted to help. But I knew what "When Helping Hurts" says, so I didn't. Over time, my continued encounters with these beggars deformed my compassion and sorrow into resentment and anger. Learning more about the beggar culture here, seeing the same individuals over and over (if you can beg as a day job, why not get a day job?), and continuing to horde my goods without giving made my heart more and more hardened to these people. Finally, Catalina and I began trying something a little different. Whenever we went grocery shopping, we went with the assumption that we were going to be approached by some beggars. We started getting extra milk and eggs each time we went shopping with the intent of giving them away. When we went shopping, we shopped for the beggars as well as ourselves. I can't tell you how much that softened our hearts to these people. Instead of thinking about handing over some of our goods after a long grocery trip, we made sure that some of what we got was dedicated to others. While there is still significant frustration at times, our giving helped our hearts. Now we don’t question intentions, sincerity, truthfulness, need, legitimacy, worth, or any of that. We simply give.
The fact of the matter is that we can financially afford to give some eggs and milk to those in need when we make grocery trips. This is money we would likely otherwise spend on ourselves. But I don't know that we could spiritually afford to continue working here in Romania without just giving. Looking in the eyes of the needy - regardless of whether they are "deserving" needy - and denying them time and time again would just turn our hearts to stone. Instead, giving away some of our resources each time reminds us that we're really stewarding God's resources, we’re reminded that God provides for us, and we’re reminded that God demands mercy even to those we may think are undeserving.
We Assume Giving is About Material Goods
Most are familiar with the saying, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." It's a wonderful and true saying and we love applying this to giving. The modern view of efficiency in giving seems to be that we don't just give things away without having all sorts of stipulations and procedures in place. We need to verify the need. We need to make sure a poor individual didn't get themselves into this situation through foolishness or vice. They need to deserve our help. We need to make sure all of our goods are used as we intend them to be used. But I wonder what this whole process does to the hearts of those who have to check all of the boxes before receiving mercy.
I think the problem here comes in with our conflation of stewardship and efficiency. We tend to believe that to be good stewards means to utilize 100% of our resources towards that which will have the greatest impact (as far as we can tell). If we give money to someone who might misuse it, our resources have not been stewarded. We must put the needy through the ringer to make sure we're getting the best bang for our buck.
Having worked with a number of individuals in need, I understand the desire to be a good steward. Many of the people who approached our diaconate were a bit shady. Plenty just made their annual rounds from church to church to get what they could. I am not at all advocating that we throw off discretion. But at the same time, I have seen what a sterile process looks like. Sterilizing the giving process may steward finances to ensure that only those who "deserve" assistance get it, but it often means we fail to steward the grace and mercy we were intended to steward. We often steward our material goods at the expense of stewarding our spiritual goods.
In all of my time on our church's diaconate, I only ever handled one mercy situation well enough that I have no reservations or regrets about it. I had spent a year or two administering questionnaires to those who approached the church with mercy needs, handing out money here and there, and not at all feeling like I was really doing "mercy" or "ministry." But then *Jan came into the church for assistance. Rather than just keep the ball in her court to be upstanding and pursue us, we pursued her. We visited her fiance in jail. We picked him up from jail when he was released. We gave her some of our own personal kitchenware. We helped her get an apartment and set it up. We went shopping with her and taught her about price differences. We met her in the middle of the night when she called us in a murky situation. We helped her to look for a job. Our church diaconate, Catalina, my family, and another deacon and his family really came behind this woman in so many ways, Yes, we had limits on our funding and we did have some expectations for Jan, but we pursued her hard. We gave her the benefit of the doubt and we paid some bills for her to start, but we were all in relationally. It was exhausting, frustrating, depressing, and very hard. And in the end, Jan ended up relapsing and going off the deep end. Some might say we wasted resources. but I know that Jan not only received needed material goods to sustain her and her family while we helped, but more importantly she saw the love and grace of Christ Jesus through us. We were not stingy with our mercy and grace. We may have ended up spending more material resources on her because we lead with mercy and grace, but there is no doubt in my mind she saw the gospel. She knows she can come back to us at any time and we will love her. Sadly, I can’t say the same about any of the others who came to me in need through the church. While I did choose to give others resources for their situation, I only ever lead with mercy and grace once. In the end, leading with the notion of being efficient with our money may often mean that we are hording mercy and grace, and stewarding none of the above.
[If you want a little glimpse of some of the people with whom our diaconate interacted, you can check out my writing about it at the “Perspectives” series. You can see the beginnings of my inner dialogue about what it means to love people and the difficulties of certain situations.]
We Assume Giving's Efficiency is Measured by Functionality
Matthew seems to view giving as a spiritual discipline. Giving involves the helping of others with material, but the discipline of giving is meant for so much more than that. It's meant to reorient us towards God. It's meant to help us conform to Christ's image. If there is one thing that Christ is clear about, it is that our conformity to him often comes through suffering. A true Christian is called to put himself or herself in positions that will likely lead to their suffering or abuse. Stories abound of Christians taking in orphans, loving and taking care of the sick, not bowing to Caesar or other gods, and loving their enemies. Jesus himself told us that we are to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, not take brothers and sisters to court, and go the extra mile. We are called to bear our crosses in love towards others. Choosing a road that knowingly leads to the bearing of a cross and joyfully submitting to that path can help to amplify the love, mercy, and grace of Christ as seen in our example. Being willingly vulnerable, enduring abuse, and pursuing in love even those who afflict us is taking up our cross and representing Christ in the most tangible way possible. While I'm not at all saying we have to be unwise or we have to seek martyrdom, I am saying that we should count our lives as nothing in the pursuit of loving others as Christ did - self-sacrificially.
What does that mean for our helping of the poor? It means that the giving process isn't meant to be a safe bet. It's not meant to be a process centered around functionality. Our main job isn't to figure out what "works," because the means God prescribes are almost always in opposition to our definition of functionality and efficiency. God's means are foolish means that lead (at least in the human mind) to suffering and death. Giving is a means that fits this notion of foolishness. Not only is giving unsafe in the sense that if we are truly giving generously, we will be giving from the depths of our resources rather than hording and saving them for pleasure and security. Giving is unsafe because of the abuse we may face from others. The types of people who truly need our help are often on the fringes of society and have often developed habits or traits that may put us in danger, or they may live in an area that presents us with danger if we meet them where they're at. Giving is risky. I know that I've been lied to, cheated, manipulated, and verbally abused by those who I've helped. But even though giving is a foolish means that presents us with the likely potential to suffer, how powerful is it to humble yourself, willingly walk towards a situation that may lead to your suffering, yet choose pursue in love?
We are dealing with that current situation even as we speak. We have been hanging out with a woman, *Alexa. We've been providing her work for pay, and have also been giving her food, clothes, and other household goods each time she comes to work and sometimes in between. While we have continued to help her without prying much into the legitimacy of her needs, she has continued to relay to us a more tragic story each week. Originally the story was that her husband died just a few years back and she has five kids. The next week it was that her daughter was a little sick in the hospital. The following week it was that her daughter had a heart issue. Now, her daughter is in a coma and needs an expensive heart transplant. While all of this could be true, Alexa says she needs some items for her daughter - items her daughter couldn't use in a coma, and Alexa says she has already used the huge package of paper towels we've given her in just one week. This, as well as a number of other things scream that we're being manipulated.
I think it would be wrong of us to continue being knowingly manipulated. That's why Catalina called her out on some of the things. Alexa knows that we think she's trying to manipulate us. But we began by giving to her in good faith, and when she returns on Thursday for work, we'll let her in and invite her to sit down for some coffee before she begins. We'll love her and push back where we think she may be trying to manipulate us, but that won't stop our generosity or love. We want Alexa to begin understanding that our love for her and our generosity are not based on her circumstances. She doesn't need to manipulate us. In fact, we won't allow it. But we also won't allow any of our misperceptions and misattribution of motives, or her mistakes and manipulation to restrict us from love, mercy, and grace.
I don't think a Christians measure of success in giving can be efficiency as measured by how many resources go to "legitimate" needs and how effectively those resources facilitate the growth of individuals to prevent future material poverty. Giving is not a sure thing. When we give organically, we often can’t be sure of how our resources will be used. While Catalina and I never give out money (unless it’s for a job), we can’t guarantee that our resources aren’t being sold. We can’t perfectly know the truthfulness behind someone’s claimed need. When we invite needy individuals into our home, we can’t guarantee that they won’t take anything of value. We can't guarantee they won't swipe a house key to use later. We can't guarantee they won't attack us. When we give, we can’t guarantee that our giving will be the provision or catalyst that boosts someone out of poverty. Our measure of success can't be the avoidance the unknown and of bearing our cross and experiencing suffering. Yet we Christians often attempt to limit our vulnerability with those who need to see it most - those who themselves are so vulnerable. Perhaps the placing of ourselves in situations where we may be taken advantage of is sometimes the right thing to do. That doesn't mean we allow others to take advantage of us or to continue taking advantage of us, but it does mean we may need to give trust before faithfulness is proven. And it certainly means that we continue to pursue relationship when we are wronged and when things get tough.
It is a wonderful thing to push back against the curse in this world and it is a wonderful thing to pursue wisdom and apply it to this battle of poverty. But it is also a wonderful thing to embrace the foolish means of God as we seek to grow in our own relationship with him and as we seek to share this love with others. I don't at all know where the line is between being wise and discerning stewards or being foolish and wasteful. I don't know where the line is between being stingy and sterile legalists who kill love and the heart of giving and being trusting servants of God's resources who can loose their grip not only of their goods, but of their control over circumstances. But what I do know is that for my heart, to always say "no" to organic giving is spiritually repressive. I can always find a reason someone isn't deserving and an excuse for why my resources could more efficiently be used elsewhere. It’s not hard for me to seek the seat of judgment when it comes to another’s worthiness. It is so easy for me to be dismissive of those in need as undeserving. Maybe my thoughts here are a pendulum swing and some of my giving is tainted by inefficiency. Maybe my giving in some way encourages the systemic poverty to continue. But the risk of encouraging poverty's continuation through the small gift of milk and eggs seems worth it to me when compared to the risk of the poor never encountering love, mercy, grace, and pursuit from those who horde and withhold them. The risk of encouraging the continuation of poverty seems better to me than risking the corruption of my soul through greed, judgmentalism, and a desire for control. Even more than this, the risk of encouraging the continuation of poverty seems better to me than being miserly with grace and mercy, and becoming a millstone around my children's neck as they watch the way I begin to resent those in need and withhold myself from them. Better for my children to see us lavish the undeserving and relinquishing our own resources than to have them see us horde and defend. If I'm going to err, I want to err with material goods and not precious souls.
I'm sure the right answer lies in the middle of efficiency and immediacy. There are likely times where one is more appropriate than another, and it is surely wrong to never be open to the Spirit's leading. That’s what I’ve come to find out about mercy ministry over the past few years. It’s this weird, dichotomous mire that leaves you with more questions than answers. I’ve never second guessed myself so much in my life. But I’ve never had something grow me so much either. I continue to learn more about my need for God and his grace and generosity towards me. Please pray for us as we face this question of giving often, sometimes on a daily basis. Pray for the hearts of those with whom we come in contact, and pray for our hearts as well.