16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 1 John 3:16-18
I have gone back and forth many times on my opinion of what to do or not to do, but the question is always there inside me when I pass someone on a corner, holding a cardboard sign: What happens now?
We all know the feeling. Paul and I have had multiple conversations with multiple people, seeking advice and wisdom, and this seems to be one of the least talked about things that we as believers run into on a regular basis.
Last year, Paul and I sat down with a woman who ran a homeless ministry, who declared that no, we should not give food or money to those people, because it was Boulder, Colorado and they could get three meals a day from places that would give them more help then I ever could by handing over a dollar.
Shortly after our conversation with her, we even read a book that seemed to confirm this in some ways: “When Helping Hurts” gave us a general feeling of relationship being so much more important than any hand out ever would be, and the "give-money-and-go" mentality could even be hurting people more than it was helping them.
All of that was true, and we absolutely believe that relationships will cure poverty and homelessness more than money ever will.
But what’s not okay is to let the anti-hand out idea turn into a lack of responsibility, or even worse- a lack of caring.
The truth I see now is that I let that woman’s statement take too much weight off my shoulders. She ran a ministry for homeless women, so she absolutely was still serving those women, even if she didn't hand them a dollar. I was not. Her belief in not giving out money led her to help open transitional housing and life services for homeless women. At the same time, my same belief led me to keeping my money, time and energy in my own wallet, for my own needs. Who do you think laid down their lives for their sisters in that scenario?
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”
I can cite “relationships over hand outs” all I want, but if I have the world’s goods and don’t help those in need, John tells me that this is evidence that God’s love does not abide in me.
As I meditate on this verse, confronting my own sin in this area, I can feel a nugget of truth settling in my heart: Maybe, it doesn’t have as much to do with whether I give the person on the corner a dollar, a granola bar, or nothing. Maybe, it has more to do with how much I care.
The questions I need to be asking are closer to these: Do I actually care about the person on the corner with their sign, or do I look away, trying with all my might not to make eye contact? Do I wonder about their story, how I could help? Am I upset over their condition, or am I praying that the light will turn green so I can speed away, moving along with my day?
And which of those two sides of the coin feels more like laying down my life the way Jesus laid down his for me? The side where my heart is closed, or the side where my heart is open and willing to empathize?
In these scenarios, we think that we will find the right thing, the "Christian thing to do" by asking for a tangible action step: give the food, don't give the money, or give the money, don't give the food. I think that maybe we are wrong in asking that question, or at least, we are wrong when we make it the only question we are asking.
The better way to find out what to do is first to ask, where is my heart? Is it aligned with God's? Is he abiding in me? If I'm letting myself step into the place of care and love, which is where God lives, then I'll find that the answer to the question of "what to do" becomes much simpler. It's simpler because I'm asking from a place in my heart that is more concerned with God's will than what a Christian "should do" in that situation.
I pray today and this month that we would be willing to wrestle with concern over our brothers and sisters who are clearly in need. Would we care, and would we see people in need as family, and then would we follow the Lord’s leading in what he wants us “to do”.