Charity reveals our citizenship
I wrote this letter to Barry Malek, one of our deacons, who has just assumed responsibility for our needs-assistance ministry.
One of the defining characteristics of the first Christians was their care for the poor both inside and outside their community. You have a passion for continuing the legacy of compassion, and I see in you the same holy commitment to charity that first lived in our spiritual predecessors. You want to help others. You want to invest in people. You want our church to be a lighthouse of hope and not a country club for wealthy saints.
In a world of darkness, those who offer help are like shining lights. The church is a confederation of light in the midst of a dark conglomerate, and it’s people like you who help us radiate the light of Christ more faithfully. Giving people money isn’t enough; we’ve got to develop the poor so they are no longer poor. We’ve got to rehabilitate the whole person, not just loan them a few bucks to get by.
We have a system in place at our church for how we help those in need of financial assistance. The assistance is limited, but we do want to help, and so we do what we can for as many as we can while still being as careful as we can that folks don’t take advantage of our generosity.
And—let’s be honest—people do take advantage.
I used to think churches should be able to pass out cash, food, and clothing willy-nilly to any who wanted it, since that’s basically what God does with us and his grace. But there are some important differences, considerations that mitigate the comparison between his sanctifying generosity and our material provision. God never runs out of grace, for one, but we run out of money. If we give our money to people who misuse it, what will we give those who need it and can be trusted to use it faithfully?
The more I’ve studied the Second Testament, the more I’ve been surprised that the earliest churches also had to deal with these issues. They, too, needed systems and structures to ensure they weren’t being fleeced. Tim Keller, perhaps the most accessible theologian on the topic, summarizes Paul’s means of managing these issues:
Paul lays down conditions for the widow’s admission to the poor roll. She shall not ‘live in pleasure.’ The word used here usually refers to immoral living. It could be that single women were then (as now) tempted into sexual sin for emotional and even financial support. Especially important is Paul’s insistence that the widow be active in ‘good deeds.’ He fully expects the widows on the permanent role to be ‘working,’ if not for a financial livelihood, then full of diligence for good deeds. The object of mercy shall be merciful herself!
I love that last line: the object of mercy shall be merciful herself. That’s about the most perfect summary of our journey from recipients to agents of grace I’ve ever heard. And it doesn’t just apply to money. Jesus assumes his followers will be givers in every way and on every occasion. God has blessed us so we can be a blessing to others, and the flow of his blessing is not aimless. “God’s gifts flow to us so they can flow through us.” God wants to create givers who give like he does. All of this leads me to believe we should not need charity, but be among those able to supply it.
The truth is that there are few joys in life that compare with giving, but there are equally few sorrows that sting so deep as when we give away what could have been earned, what might have been appreciated, and what will now never be repaid.
What I’m hoping for and praying toward is a future for our church in which we can do the most possible good with the greatest possible return; not only through our financial investment with those in need, but through our investment in people who have moved beyond their need and into gratitude.
 Keller, Ministries of Mercy, 95.
 David McDonald, Church Survival Guide, 123.