People are talking – a lot. In the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold Obamacare (and the subsequent debates over the extension of Bush-era tax cuts), I have encountered several comments and conversations recently about the responsibility of working Americans to fund the lifestyles of those who do not work. What I find most disturbing are two misconceptions many Christians seem to have in regards to this issue. I would like to address both of them.
Misconception #1: Poor is poor. There is really no difference. We should give money to them all.
In my experience in outreach ministry, which for years has been largely based around those of limited financial means, I have found that there are basically three types of “poor” – (1) those who are passing through, (2) those who are camping out and (3) those who dwell in poverty.
In the first group are those who have lost a job or home, had a major medical situation or suffered some kind of a temporary financial setback. Most of these folks have no problem working to support themselves and their families. They want to be self-sufficient and strive to be so, but they need a little help getting over the hump until things turn around for them. These are the ones who are most often overlooked by the government and the church and too often end up trapped in poverty because they make too much to get any real assistance from the government and not enough to break out of their current situation and really thrive financially.
These are the occupiers – they are occupying a territory they don’t really belong in, but they like it here and really have no intention of moving on. They live on government assistance by choice, because they have figured out how to work the system, staying under the radar, doing just enough to qualify for every government program they can while doing as little actual work as possible. Even though they are fully capable of supporting themselves, they simply choose not to. When these individuals are offered work that pays well, they turn it down, because their paycheck would jeopardize their taxpayer-funded income, which has come to be something they feel they must protect at all costs. They see their lifestyle as one of leisure because since they don’t work, they can spend their days doing whatever they want. They don’t want to give this up to go to work.
These are the ones who drain the resources unnecessarily and stomp all over every last nerve of hardworking taxpayers who see their tax dollars funding the lifestyles of people who believe that having others pay their way for them is somehow a right. It is this entitlement attitude that Paul addressed in the Thessalonian church when he established the rule, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
In the third group are those who live in poverty because it is all they know (the result of multi-generational poverty) or who cannot work for some reason (children, the disabled, the elderly). These are the ones about whom no one really complains about providing for, either through taxes, through churches, organizations and ministries or giving directly to the need.
I think the problem is that most of the time, we group all these people together and call them “the needy” or “the poor”. Doing so incites an emotionally charged argument over the roles of government and the church in helping them. Some see only the genuinely needy and feel that those who want to cut funding to them are heartless and selfish. Others see only the “frequent flyers” who abuse the system and are sick and tired of seeing their hard-earned money going to fund their lazy lifestyles. What we often overlook is that we are, in fact, talking about three distinct groups of people, and I believe that as stewards of what God has entrusted to us (it all belongs to Him), we need to address each group individually.
We should assist the “visitors” in getting them over the temporary hurdle so they can return to supporting themselves and their families. They in turn are able to become a blessing to others. This is what they want, what we want for them, and what society needs from them.
The “campers” may require a more “tough love” approach as we perhaps help with immediate needs but insist that they become productive in some way, cutting off the permanent assistance plan. If they are unwilling to work to earn what they receive, are we really being wise and faithful stewards when we continue to feed and provide for them, which leaves less in the coffers for those with legitimate needs who cannot take care of themselves? It is for the good of themselves, their families and society as a whole that they learn the Biblical principles of work and reward. We are to lead them to a place where they are willing to allow God to change their hearts from being takers to being givers and in turn be a blessing to others.
The “dwellers” are where we all agree that we (the CHURCH) should have stepped up a long time ago. This is where the cheerful giving of whatever we are able to give comes in. They are the widows, the orphans, the helpless, the sick and wounded, the elderly and those unable to care for themselves. These are the ones we cannot turn our backs on. These are the needs that we are moved by the Lord’s compassion to meet, whether directly or indirectly. When we are obedient in meeting these needs, we receive not only the immediate blessing of the joy that comes from being able to help someone but an even greater reward awaits us on the other side of eternity.
Unfortunately, however, the Church has not adequately stepped up to the plate to fulfill this part of her mission. We as the Body of Christ in America have abandoned this part of our destiny in pursuit of other more self-gratifying endeavors, leaving the meeting of these needs to someone else.
Enter the government (aka We the People). We pay (not give) our taxes to a government entity to redistribute a portion of what we earn to provide money to those who have not earned it (whether or not they are able to try). Unfortunately, our government has a history of mishandling those funds by redirecting them to other places and by not implementing a system by which true eligibility can be determined and verified. So people learn how to work the system and collect money they have not earned from those who did, leaving not enough to adequately care for those with legitimate need. This in turn motivates the government to raise taxes and take even more money from those who earn it to give to those who don’t, and the cycle continues.
Our government is not the vessel by which the Word of God instructs us meet the needs of the widow, the orphan and the poor. That vessel is the Church. If local churches would adequately channel our gifts to these individuals and families, their needs would be met. But most churches spend too much on buildings, staff salaries, utilities, media and sound equipment, advertising and “stuff” to have much left over to actually meet any needs. In fact, most churches, when approached by someone in need, will turn them away because they don’t have the resources in the church budget to help them. This is a shameful fact about the Church in America today.
We faithfully bring our tithes and offerings into the storehouse thinking we are furthering the kingdom of God, when all we are actually funding is the building (which spends more time closed than it does open), staff salaries and a handful of social events that promote not the kingdom of God but another man-made empire. Think I’m being too harsh? Ask to see a copy of your church’s books for the last year. Look at how much came in through tithes and offerings. Now take a good long look at the expenses and how much was spent helping those in need as opposed to the other expense categories. We run our churches like a business rather than like a living organism. We have applied the world’s concepts of business management to an organism that was never intended to function like a business, but like a family.
So we are left with individually meeting the needs directly. When we see someone in need, if we have it in our ability to meet that need (in whole or in part), we are instructed by God’s Word to do so. Period.
Give to Caesar what it Caesar’s – absolutely. But let our tax dollars be used for providing services that benefit ALL our citizens and for defending our country against all enemies foreign and domestic. Tax less and leave more money in the hands of the people who earn it so they (we) can meet the legitimate needs of those around us. This brings us to the second misconception.
Misconception #2: Paying taxes is the same thing as giving a gift.
Here is where I have heard many confused Christians lately reprimand other believers who oppose higher taxes; they immediately start quoting scriptures about giving, mistakenly equating paying taxes with giving to the kingdom of God. One of their favorites is:
“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7
Here in this one verse is actually found the answer to this misconception. It is in the two words, “under compulsion.” A tax is something we are commanded by the laws of man to pay (under compulsion). Failure to do so results in a penalty. Giving a cheerful gift to further the work of God’s Kingdom on earth is something we are commanded by the principles of God to do (cheerful giver). There is a huge difference. Let’s not confuse the two.
Finally, I challenge all of us to stop giving to get a tax deduction. Making sure we get that tax receipt is too often at the forefront of our thinking as we give. We are to give out of obedience to the Lord, with a cheerful and thankful heart and because we have the ability to do so – for therein lies the blessing.