When I first approached this topic in Three Kinds of Poor, I knew what I wanted to say, but really didn’t know the best way to go about it. The result was an article that I thought was weak. The original intent was to provide an extended definition of who the poor were and weren’t as opposed to an argument supporting a point of view, but it didn’t work very well. I posted it anyway, which turned out to be a blessing. I had a good discussion regarding the topic, and was pointed to another article that had been posted a day later. I decided the article would have to be rewritten. This is the rewrite.
Generally speaking, people have a heart for the poor. This, of course, is a good thing. But sometimes I wonder, have we taken this helping the poor to a level where it doesn’t belong? Have we gone overboard? Have we turned a good thing into a bad thing? How we gone to an extreme?
In God’s Word, we are told over and over and over to help the poor, and give to those in need. We are told to give with a cheerful heart. We are even told to give to our enemies and not expect anything in return (Luke 6:29-30). But with all this giving, what are we to make of Paul’s writing in 2 Thessalonians?
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, ESV)
This passage almost seems to stand in contradiction to every other teaching regarding giving to the poor. These items that seem to contradict other passages can really create problems for people, and of course, it gives those who hate God’s Word something to grab on to. Some have abused this, using it to excuse them from giving to the needy in the street, while others just seem to ignore it altogether. But, I don’t believe that’s the intent of the passage, and ignoring Scripture is never the answer.
What we find in this passage is as follows. Paul says to keep away from any brother, or fellow Christian, who is walking in idleness. He and his missionaries have passed on the tradition of needing to work for a living through word and example. While he admits that it is his God-given right to be supported for the work of his ministry, he refuses to be a burden, and will live as an example for others. Finally, Paul “forcefully commands” the idle to get back to work1.
What is being said, through Paul’s example, is do not give to those who are capable of working but don’t. Why? Because they cause problems. Instead of contributing to the community, they are a burden, and because they’re not busy doing productive work, they meddle in the affairs of others. What this passage of Scripture is saying is that there are two kinds of people in need: those who can’t work, and those who can, but won’t. It is the latter that the Christian is to steer clear of and not support.
As with many things in the Christian life, this is a command we need to be careful with. We don’t need to interrogate people to try and figure out whether we should give to them, but as Christians we should try to get to know people. After all, if all commandments can be summed with love your neighbor, shouldn’t this one as well? If you’re going to help the poor, shouldn’t you know who they are? Too many times, the poor are nameless, faceless people that we support through charity, and when we encounter them on the street, our first thought is, “they’re going to use this money for drugs.” But, refusing to help at all because of a few who abuse the “system,” isn’t the correct answer either.
In An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, and Ministry Formation, David DeSilva lists a number of reasons why someone may be idle, but in the end says, “But to abuse charity to support an ignoble and idle lifestyle went beyond the pale, dishonoring charity itself2.” I think DeSilva puts it best, because it points out that sometimes what seems good, may not be. This is the heart of what my post was supposed to portray. I’m not saying we should not give, by any stretch of the imagination, I’m simply saying we need to be smarter about it.
We’re so caught up in giving, that we’re no longer asking the question, “Who are we giving to?” We give blindly, because it’s the “right thing to do.” Remember, that Satan is the Father of Lies and the best lies are the ones that contain a grain of truth. How easy is it then to concoct a lie that distorts the truths of the Bible. Think about it. If Satan can get us so focused on helping the poor that we stop asking Christian questions, hasn’t he won part of the battle? It seems to me that we have become so focused on meeting earthly needs that we’ve stopped meeting spiritual needs. We’ve become so focused on spreading wealth, that we’ve abandoned spreading the Gospel.