Christians Are Not Obligated to Poverty

One of the problems with Christianity is its size and complexity. If someone says something negative about the Church, that statement is almost certainly true at some level: there will be believers who commit the sin that has been observed. What’s more, the Bible is an incredibly complex, challenging, and altogether confusing document, leading people to think they know what it means even if they do not. Stereotypes abound about Christians and our religion, and these are applied en masse with the assumption that they are true. Christians shouldn’t smoke, shouldn’t drink, shouldn’t curse or dance. They should always give to the poor, never commit violence, and never accumulate wealth. And if someone doesn’t do these things (or does the things they oughtn’t), they aren’t Christian.

Each of these stereotypes is, of course, upheld by the Bible. To be more correct, we should say that each of these stereotypes is upheld by a verse in the Bible, and maybe even by a few verses. We have all heard the admonishments about “cherry picking” verses though, and as critical scholars and earnest Christians, we should examine the Bible with complete openness and honesty. We need to take the entire book into account and in context.

On the matter of poverty, a few assumptions have become common:

  1. If someone asks for something from a Christian, be it money, food, a coat, etc., the Christian ought to give it to them
  2. Christians should not be wealthy–if they are, it’s because they’re not doing what God told them to
  3. If a Christian does not give their material possessions away, they’re not a good Christian (or perhaps aren’t a Christian at all)

While the Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, advises us to support the poor, widows, and orphans, and we should certainly give to anyone who needs help, the above assumptions aren’t entirely correct. Let’s look at some of the key verses and consider each of these points.

For reference, I am using the English Standard Version Study Bible by Crossway. Though my work is copyleft under the Creative Commons, everything from this translation falls under the following copyright statement:

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

If someone asks for something, give them everything

It is written in Matthew 5:40-42

And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

There’s an Internet forum I’ve been frequenting the last few months that is ostensibly Christian, but attracts a great many atheists who post questions and shout down the Christians who answer simply because the atheists don’t agree with the concept of deity. One of these posed me the following test: Give me everything you own; if you do not, you are not Christian. I refused him, and he went on to state that I either haven’t read the Bible or simply don’t understand it.

This interpretation of Matthew 5:40-42 (when someone asks you for something, you must give it to them) is an overly-simplistic conclusion based on these verses, rather than the entire Bible. What Jesus is saying here is something altogether more interesting and complex.

We should absolutely give to someone who is in need. The problem is judging when someone is “in need,” though, and the Bible differentiates between these two states (“in need” vs. “not in need”). If someone is forced to beg and is in need, we should help them, no questions asked. We are not obliged to help those who fall into the latter category.

First, Christians should not give foolishly. The ESV Study Bible cross-references Matthew 7:6 in regards to the above passage, where Jesus states

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

In a specific sense, Jesus is referring here to the message of the kingdom of God. The study notes additionally relate:

Pearls symbolize the great value of the message of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 13:45-46). Believers are to be merciful, forgiving, and slow to judge (7:1-5), yet they should wisely discern the true character of people and not indefinitely continue proclaiming the gospel to those who adamantly reject it, so that they can move on and proclaim the gospel to others (cf. 10:14; also Acts 13:46; 18:6; Titus 3:10-11).

By cross-referencing this passage and Matthew 5:40-42, the scholars who worked on this ESV study Bible suggest that we are likewise to not give of our money or other resources foolishly. We must be wise in our donation so we do not waste our time, talents, and material goods on those who would spurn them, or for whom they would not point to the glory of the kingdom of God.

This does not mean that we should not give to non-Christians. Charity to non-believers is a blessing intended to lead them to repentance (Acts 14:17; Romans 2:4) as well as to serve as common grace that God shows to all people, believers and non-believers. But if what we give will be used to spurn, mock, or attack the kingdom of God, we should spend our resources elsewhere.

Second, Christians should not give to those who are simply lazy. As St. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians, 3:10-11

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.

In my town there are a number of services, shelters, and places where the homeless can receive assistance. I have volunteered at several, donated my time and money, and I have conversed with several of the leaders of these services who are very active in our community. Knowing what I do of these services and their leaders, when I see a homeless person begging, I cannot help but wonder why they are not availing themselves of these services. I’ve studied mental health care in the United States and know the challenges facing the homeless, particularly the mentally ill (a group that accounts for a significant percentage of the homeless in the USA), but I often ask myself, “Why are they here asking me for money, instead of there working to get out of their current situation?”

The answer isn’t the same for everyone, and it’s difficult to know on an individual basis what the answer is, but in many cases it is because there is good money to be made in begging. For every ten or a hundred people who walk past a beggar, someone will give them money. Sometimes it’s a single dollar bill, and sometimes it’s a $10 or a $20. Easier than working, in many cases.

What’s more, there are a number of stories that are used like business cards in our town. “My girlfriend from St. Louis ditched me down here and I just need some money to get a bus ticket home.” “I just need to make a phone call.” “I just need money for gas.” When I have offered to take someone to the bus station to buy a ticket, or to let them use my phone, or to take them to the gas station, I have been rebuffed. What the asker really wanted was cash to do with as they pleased.

These are not the beggars we are called by Jesus to assist, because they are not asking out of need. They are not bereft of options and therefore have turned to begging as an absolutely last resort. People asking for money because they don’t want to work for it are lazy, and we needn’t fund their laziness.

As I said, this isn’t always the case. I wouldn’t even say it’s the majority of the cases (and certainly, I’ve encountered more of the mentally ill category of homeless in larger cities than in my relatively small town–the demographic here is different). But we must be wise in our charity.

Christians should not be wealthy

Christians have often struggled with concepts of wealth, particularly in light of the following passage in Matthew 19:23-26

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

A straightforward interpretation of this passage would lead one to believe, quite simply, “Rich people can’t go to heaven.” But if the rich are condemned by virtue of their wealth, does that mean the poor are justified by virtue of their poverty? Certainly not! As it is written in Ephesians 2:8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

From verse 23 in Matthew chapter 19, we must understand that “wealth is both deceptive and intoxicating: it fools a person into thinking that he or she is self-sufficient apart from God; and the rich person wants desperately to hold on to that supposed self-sufficiency” (from the Crossway study notes). Certainly, wealth leads one to believe they are self-sufficient more readily than poverty does, but the issue at hand is not being wealthy, but failing to rely on God.

I have referenced elsewhere Deuteronomy 28:1-14, which paints a picture of God’s abundant provision resulting in great wealth. This blessing is dependent upon obedience, however, and without obedience it falls apart. Certainly, there are those who are wealthy or well-rewarded who are not obedient, but material rewards are not the important aspect of a life with God. Rather, we are to consider more directly verse 24 above.

In Matthew 19:24, we are given the absurd picture of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Yes, it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven by virtue of being rich, but we know the truth from elsewhere in the Bible: it is impossible for any person on their own to enter the kingdom of God. That impossibility, rather than the wealth, is the important part of this passage. Wealth does not necessarily indicate blessing (despite Deuteronomy 28:1-14), and Jesus is stating here that it likewise does not guarantee a seat in heaven. But this passage does not intend to state that God’s blessing in the form of material goods therefore precludes one from entering His presence. Rather, all people are unable to enter God’s presence unless God provides the means for them to do so.

Those means are through Jesus, and as he states in verse 26, “with God all things are possible.”

You’re not a good Christian if you don’t give all your stuff away

As you might have surmised, the test, “Give me all your stuff, and if you don’t you aren’t Christian,” simply isn’t a correct interpretation of the scriptures. We are to give wisely, to the glory of the kingdom of God, and not to fund laziness. In regards to allowing people to borrow, we know that we are not to practice usury (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37), and as a general rule I don’t “lend” people money, but rather I just give them what they need. We should note that the same rules that are applicable to those who beg should likewise be used with those who borrow.

But what, then, do we do with verses that admonish us not to store up wealth? In Matthew 6:19-20 it is written

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

The key is in the first seven words: Do not lay up for yourselves… The issue here is one of motivation, and it is one we must be careful with. Evil actions are not justified by good intent, and good actions that arise from evil intent do not wholly justify the evil individual. But if God bestows wealth upon an individual, that is not an indication of sin in their life. Rather, God may lead us to be quite prosperous, and for this we should thank God. If he leads us to be impoverished with little or nothing that we own, we are advised to likewise be thankful and content in God’s provision. As it is written in 1 Timothy 6:6-10

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

It is important to remember that money is not the root of all kinds of evil. Rather, the love of money is responsible for evil.

The Riddle of Tithing

When attempting to understand the role of wealth and poverty in Christianity, I think a consideration of tithing is an important piece to the puzzle. As I was pondering this essay one day, the language I was attempting to use struck me as incorrect. I believe that everything we have is given to us by God: our health, our jobs, our money, our homes, etc. God gives us everything we have, and when we tithe it is common for us to think, “This ten percent is certainly the least I owe God.” That is true, in a sense, except how can we owe what we never earned? In terms of our every-day world, when we “owe” something it is because something was lended to us.

The concept of debt or “owing” something in regards to our relationship with God doesn’t seem an accurate one to me. Debt is a concept of this world based on borrowing something someone else owns and then needing to pay them back. But from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, 100% of what we have is God’s. He asks us to give 10% back. We are not giving God 10% of what we have earned–we are not bequeathing on our Holy Sovereign a tenth of what we have gotten for ourselves. God gives us 100%, and then asks that we give 10% back.

Why does God do this? Why does he not ask for 20%, or 50%, or 100%? I asked myself, “Why are we not commanded to be completely impoverished, giving away 100% of our time and money to benefit others? Why does God only ask for a tenth of what he has given us?”

The only conclusion I could reach is that God simply doesn’t want to. He does not want us to live impoverished, retaining nothing of what he has given us. I have afternoons where I can sit on my Sumo Sac and read for hours. God does not begrudge me this time, and I can only conclude that God wants me to have time to sit and read and enjoy the life he has given me–that God wants us to have money to travel and eat and have clothes and a warm, wonderful home.

God could have asked for 100%. He could have given me nothing, and he could ask for everything. He is certainly entitled. And he’s not entitled to ask this because I owe him everything, but because everything is already his. God does not ask this, but instead only asks for 10% of what he has given me. Therefore, I must conclude that God wants me to have that other 90%.

I do think that God is OK with us giving more than 10%, though he does not ask it of us. In my consideration, though, I cannot help but wonder if God is similarly OK with those who give up to 100%, particularly if it makes them a burden to others or places unnecessary hardship upon their families. Regardless, I have concluded that God wants us to live and enjoy our lives within the bounds of his scripture, and tithing is an important part of that.

Obligations

In essence, Christians are commanded to be content within the situation that God has placed them. Whether we are given much or little, we need to seek first the kingdom of God and not let our situation lead us to either a sense of self-sufficiency and independence from our Lord or, conversely, a sense of depression and hopelessness. If we are obligated at all (which we surely are), it is to God’s decrees, not to the stereotypes people attempt to force upon us. If we are to give to the poor, it must be within the context of wisdom, the direction of the Holy Spirit, and the guidance of scripture, not simply because someone told us to. And if we are to renounce this world, it must not be because we want to seem holier than others, but rather because God is holier than this world.

The Jews have a saying when faced with the complexities of the Hebrew Bible: “Why would you want a God that is easy to understand?” The Bible is challenging, and we need to be accepting of that. We also need to recognize and make allowances for it, and for ourselves, and by doing so drive ourselves to greater scholarship. No verse within the Bible stands on its own, but is a single thread in a great tapestry. Just as we all are part of the Body of Christ–the Holy Church–a verse in the Bible must be taken in the context of all the books of the Bible.

We have an obligation to God and to ourselves to learn more about this world and the life that he has given us, and to learn what he would have us do with this world and life. Just because God only asks for 10% does not mean that the 90% should be Godless. And as St. Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:14-17

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

Just so, when the stereotypes are trumpeted and our faith condemned, we must be ready to give an account for our faith. We are not obligated to refrain from drinking or dancing, nor from being rich or poor. We are certainly obligated to love God and to love others, and to work to make disciples of all people by means of our testimony, our love for one another, and the truth we have found in Christ Jesus. This above all else we should do and, in so doing, everything else in our lives will fall into place.

The First Time I Read Isaiah

I met a Mormon girl at History Bowl my senior year of high school. There were three Mormons in my school, but what made this particular girl fascinating was that she actually knew something about her religion. I had always been interested in studying other religions so I’d read a fair amount about Mormonism, and the ones I knew at school were largely clueless. They spent time with their families, went to church, and did some of the social stuff, but they knew surprisingly little about their religion or its history. The girl at History Bowl was educated.

What’s more, she was also cute, and I was determined to talk with her about her faith because I found that intelligence so exciting. I asked her out for coffee, and when she said she didn’t drink it, I quickly changed my suggestion to tea or hot cocoa. We ended up making plans to go ice skating, and when I went to pick her up at her parent’s house, her dad shanghaied me and we ended up talking about religion for several hours (and eating dinner) before we could get out the door.

One of the things we discussed was the book of Isaiah, which they (as a family) had been studying for quite some time. The father of the family had a huge book that attempted to explain Isaiah, and he said it was the one book in the Bible with which he really struggled. It just didn’t make any sense to him and was really difficult to read.

I was perplexed by this. Having just read the entire Bible for the first time, I blew through Isaiah without any problems. The Holy Spirit had acted as my interpreter and educator and I hadn’t stumbled for meaning. I’ll admit a few things here: I was young, foolhardy, and prideful; I may very well have been wrong and subsequently only thought I was understanding Isaiah; my Zondervan Study Bible was a big help in this endeavor. However, my circumstances led me to believe that my teaching was from God and my understanding of the Bible was solid.

During my senior year of high school, God took me in a powerful way and compelled me to read the Bible. I sat down in our living room one night and started in Genesis, shaken and enthralled. There was nothing else I could do, nothing to which I could turn my attention. When I tried to read for class, I would be distracted after a few sentences or a paragraph and have to pick up the Bible again. I’d read for six hours at a time, sleep, and then wake up and read more. I was inspired.

In six weeks I had read the text. Isaiah had seemed no more a challenge than any of the rest of it.

Since that time, the Holy Spirit has acted as my interpreter less. For the first couple of years after I became Christian, God held my hand and led me through whatever I faced. He taught, comforted, and 100% took care of me. Around my junior year of college, though, he let go. It was time for me to stand on my own, to make my own way in the world, and to put what I had learned towards making my own decisions without influence. God wasn’t going to tell me what to do anymore–he wanted me to decide for myself based on his teachings.

I don’t expect this reading of Isaiah to be as easy as when I was in high school. However, I’ve also learned a lot since then (my degree in religious studies, only six credit hours from completion, hasn’t been an entire waste), and my in-laws just bought me a new study Bible for my birthday, so I’m feeling pretty good.

I’m not going to try and explain all of Isaiah, nor am I going to write about every verse or even every chapter. I’m just going to read and, when something jumps out at me that I want to write about, I’ll say something.

I’m still not sure where to fit the podcast into all this. Doing a dedicated podcast without writing something for those who prefer to read feels odd to me. I think what I might do, vis-a-vis podcast, is take notes throughout my reading and then once a week do a sort of review. “Here’s what the last week of my study has been like.” I’ll write about specifics and podcast about the general overview. Sound good?

Not sure it does to me, but it sounds feasible. We’ll see if it happens.

A Change in Direction

When I broke my collarbone, I pretty much stopped doing the online Bible study (OBS). Studying the Bible isn’t something that comes naturally to me, so this whole scheme to read, write, and podcast about what I was reading was there to keep me motivated and moving forward. I elected to organize the study by book, digging into the verses and pressing through, with the goal of researching even verses that seem mundane to find out what they really mean.

Unfortunately, I never had the time to do this. Even the barest research on a few verses would take 2-3 hours, and then add an hour or so for writing plus half an hour for recording the podcast… that wasn’t so bad during the summer before I broke my collarbone. For a month and a half I had a sling on that prevented me from moving much, and once I took it off it still hurt too much to type more than fifteen minutes. Once I could type regularly, the school year had started and my weekly schedule exploded.

All this to say, I haven’t done the OBS in a while (in case you hadn’t noticed), and I’m not going to pick up where I left off. 1 John, as it turns out, was incredibly repetitive and somewhat boring, and while there is most certainly value there, there isn’t value in the way I was doing it. More importantly, it needed way more time and research than I could give it. The last OBS I wrote, which I never published, I spent quite a bit of time on only to discover I was completely wrong. I hadn’t done enough research, and when I realized how wrong I was and how much more I needed to learn, I begged off. It’s not really fair to the text or to you, but those are the circumstances in which I find myself.

In addition, I feel like my focus needs to shift from a general idea of, “Let’s read the Bible and write about it,” to a more specific topical study. Namely, I need to start focusing in on what the Bible has to say in regards to spiritual warfare, and I’m shifting my writing to that topic as well. Rather than picking a book and pushing straight through it, I’ll be reading for this topic and sharing what I find.

For those who are curious, the OBS won’t be the only place for information about spiritual warfare. When I was seeing what other people on the ‘Net had to say on the topic, all I found were platitudes, ambiguous or vainglorious statements, and long lists of Bible verses. I don’t think any of that is particularly helpful in regards to fighting demons and defending against Satan. So while I’m studying the Bible and podcasting about it, I’ll separately be sharing stories about my past experiences, suggestions for what to do, and some how-to guides (some written, some video).

I don’t know why these resources don’t exist on the ‘Net yet, but maybe it’s like Samson told me about worship. He said that when someone dances, raises their hands, and sings loud in worship, they give everyone else permission to do the same. Maybe someone’s too scared to step out on their own and raise their hands, or they want to sing but are afraid of what others might think. When they see someone else doing it, they’ll be less scared and maybe they’ll join in.

Maybe the reason no one talks or writes about this stuff is because everyone feels the same way I do: a bit silly, a bit scared, and that it’s easier to either go it alone or just ignore it. Hopefully by studying the Bible with this topic in mind, sharing my stories, and giving suggestions, others will be inspired to join in and share their words, thoughts, hearts, and strength.

I’ve got no timetable for the OBS, in regards to how often it’ll happen. Hopefully once a week again, and my plan is to start reading Isaiah and write when I come to something. I don’t recall what all is in Isaiah (though expect a follow-up to this article later this week), but something’s telling me to check it out. Maybe that urge is unfounded, in which case I’ll quickly end up in another book, but it’s worth following to see what happens.

A New Light

Sometimes you read a verse and you gloss over it. It seems like a transition sentence between ideas, or you’ve already read it and thought about it before, or maybe you’ve just never heard a sermon on it so you assume it’s unimportant. None of these are terribly absurd or unlikely.

But sometimes you force yourself to go back and read it again, to dig in and really think about what God is attempting to communicate with that verse. Sometimes your mind is blown.

1 John 2:7-8

7Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

[podcast]https://mstublefield.com/podcasts/newlight.mp3[/podcast]

For All The World

1 John 2:1-2

1My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for ((Or “He is the one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins, and not only ours but also…”)) the sins of the whole world.

What can I write other than hallelujah.

By the way, did you know that the word hallelujah is actually a command that means, “Praise the LORD!”? It seems fitting.

This section is clearly separate from the next, so though I don’t have much to say on it, I’m going to leave this as it is. I’d originally written more, but it was mostly about the gospel of John, chapter 3, verses 16-21. We’re all pretty familiar with the concept of God forgiving our sins through Jesus, and though there would be more disagreement about God forgiving everyone (a la, “Well, what about people group X? How can God forgive them?”), it’s not something with which we are unfamiliar.

Nevertheless, it bears notice. I wish I had the time to dig into the history of who John was writing to, and when, so I could highlight why this was such an important message for them. My guess is that they were caught up in the same arguments we often are today, but in their case it was controversy over non-Jews becoming Christian, or maybe just the opposite (of Jews accepting the Christ).

Part of my goal for the OBS was to do that kind of research, but I haven’t posted in weeks because I haven’t had time, so I’ll leave it at this. It’s important to God that we understand that he didn’t just come for our people group, for the doctors and lawyers, for just republicans or just democrats, for the United States of America or any other country we’ve made up. God came for the whole world.