Does Jesus Want Me to Be Poor?
By Carol R. Cool
“Got a dollar?”
Pretending I don’t see her, I keep walking, a bit more quickly. When I get to the corner, I glance back to see the homeless woman still on the bench, still hoping to find a sympathetic passerby. I tell myself she would just spend it on liquor. Then I hear Jesus say, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). And I feel guilty…again.
There is no getting around the abundance of Scriptures that command us to care for the poor.
There is no getting around the abundance of Scriptures that command us to care for the poor. Neither can we explain away Jesus’ declaration while addressing the crowds that “any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
On the other hand, Proverbs tells us that “prosperity is the reward of the righteous” (13:21). And Deuteronomy 8:18 declares that “the LORD your God…it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” The context of the verse is Moses directing the Israelites to remember who is responsible for the prosperity they will enjoy when they cross into the “good land” where they will “lack nothing.” The implication is that prosperity is a good thing.
How to reconcile these seemingly contradictory scriptural views?
I’ve been struggling with these questions for years. Sometimes I’ve felt like Tarzan, swinging from one side to the other. First I would move fully into a social-justice mode, responding to every plea that came my way to bring about a more equitable society. I would jump at every opportunity, throw money at every cause. But more needs presented themselves; more photos of starving children showed up in my mailbox. I couldn’t stem the flood, and guilt and frustration set in.
Then I would give up. If I was going to feel guilty even when I was doing something, wasn’t it easier just to do nothing?
If I was going to feel guilty even when I was doing something, wasn’t it easier just to do nothing?
So for a while, I ignored the do-gooder stuff that only made me feel more guilty and instead tried to enjoy the “abundant” life. But soon guilt set in again, propelling me into heavy-duty activism.
I didn’t really want to believe that what Jesus told the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:21 applied to me: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But the message seemed pretty straightforward: There is no claiming to be a follower of Christ unless you have renounced possessions.
How are we called to live as middle-class Christians in a needy world? I began to look for some answers.
Some 25 years ago, Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was my first exposure to evangelical social action. My mindset was radically different for having read it. Unfortunately, while I was more aware of the needs around me, I was also filled with guilt that I wasn’t measuring up.
It was with some dread, then, that I approached Sider and asked him my questions: Can a Christian be a disciple of Christ without becoming poor? Can a person continue in a middle- or upper-class lifestyle and still be living as God desires?
His answers surprised me, and made me wish I’d asked two decades ago. I might have found the way of balance much sooner.
First I asked him: Do we have to be poor to follow Christ? “Absolutely not,” he replied. “The biblical perspective is for us to live in wholeness, which includes a generous sufficiency of things. Poverty is a bad thing; God wants us to have all we need for a joyous life. God wants no one to be poor.”
God wants no one to be poor.
Sider said we needed a biblical understanding of possessions. God made all things and declared them “very good.” He then put humans in charge as stewards to care for, nurture, and create new things from what He had given them.
As Sider put it, “God could have created Beethoven’s music, or spaceships, but instead, it was His choice to let us create…to produce things that never were before.” In other words, producing more material abundance was the Creator’s intention for us.
But God gave us a few restrictions: First, don’t abuse the earth. Genesis 2:15 tells us that God put humans in the garden “to work it and take care of it.” We are custodians of the earth, not owners. God told the Israelites they could not sell the land permanently because the land was His. They were merely “aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). As such, we have a responsibility to care for the earth. God is Lord of creation and its sustainer (Hebrews 1:2-3); we must not thwart God’s work.
The second restriction: Don’t worship our own creations. The Bible calls possessions dangerous because we often treasure things, and neglect God and others. True fulfillment comes first from a relationship with God, and then relationships with others. Only then do possessions bring any fulfillment.
True fulfillment comes first from a relationship with God, and then relationships with others.
Sider says that the average Christian hasn’t developed a godly attitude toward possessions and the poor because of the omission of that topic from the pulpit. The care of the poor is the second most common theme in the Bible, according to Sider, and while evangelicals claim to teach the Scriptures, they don’t talk about the poor as much as the Bible does. Sider calls this neglect “biblical infidelity.”
We live in a world where at least a billion people have never heard of Christ and over a billion struggle to live on a dollar a day or less. Those numbers alone underscore the need for expanded evangelism and economic development throughout our world. And that, Sider says, means we as believers are “called to live more simply.”
According to some statistics, average churchgoers give only 2.5% of their net income to charity—and Sider says evangelicals approach that norm: “The typical American Christian could easily give 10 to 20%. Our motivation should be to spend radically less on ourselves to free up resources for ministry.”
But what about the apparent extremes presented in Scripture? One place that seems to reconcile them is 1 Timothy 6:17-18:
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”
True life comes as we recognize God as the source of all we have, enjoy all the gifts He’s given us, and seek opportunities to be generous and share with others. God’s balance does not involve swinging on a vine from extreme to extreme. Instead, I now envision God’s balance as a tightrope. There will always be tension; in fact, there needs to be tension if I am to walk it successfully.
I find encouragement for this tightrope-walking in Galatians 6:4-5, in The Message, which says: “Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.”
So what is “the work I had been given”? I began to investigate my passions and my gifts and abilities. I’m enthusiastic, an organizer, and able to teach and write. I enjoy showing hospitality. I always root for the underdog, for I love seeing someone succeed against the odds. With a sense of how God has created us, we can have a plan for our giving. This frees us to say no, without guilt, to opportunities that don’t fit. We want to use our gifts to mirror Christ in our world.
And that’s the goal of all who walk the tightrope. We learn to step carefully so we don’t fall to one side or the other, landing on the soft pillow of materialism or the hard floor of asceticism. And we have an advantage over the typical tightrope walker—we walk with God. If we hold onto God, our feet will stay on the rope, and we will stay on course.
Carol Cool is a writer and speaker who encourages listeners to find balance by living authentically and blogs about it on her website. She has been published nationally and internationally and is the author of the book Finding Balance in the Circus of Life. Carol lives with her pastor-husband, Les, in Ephrata, PA. This article was adapted from a longer version that originally appeared in Moody Magazine, and again in PRISM. It is reproduced here by permission.