Should poor people give?

Should poor people give? (Christians, that is)  This is an excellent question.  I get asked this often.  Here is my best answer.  (I’ll say right off the bat:  This is an area where I believe you are free to disagree with me.  The scripture isn’t quite concrete enough for me to call this an absolute, but I hope you find my position convincing.)

Before diving in I want to start with a little aside.  It has been shown time and time again that poor people are more generous with their money (proportionally) than rich people:

For decades, surveys have shown that upper-income Americans don’t give away as much of their money as they might and are particularly undistinguished as givers when compared with the poor, who are strikingly generous. A number of other studies have shown that lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans. (NY Times)

I think sometimes we don’t approach this question from the right perspective.  We tend to be a little melodramatic.  We discuss this issue painting a picture of a single mom with starving kids who can’t put food on the table because the manipulative pastor is ringing every last cent out of her budget.  With A LOT of irony, as the rich and middle class sit around debating the financial ramifications of the Bible’s instructions for the less fortunate, the poor are out giving.  Kind of funny if you stop to think about it.  The rich and middle class sit around trying to “help” the single mom who in actuality might be giving a higher proportion of her income than them!  Therefore, I think we should move forward keeping in mind that, statiscally speaking, maybe the poor should be the ones teaching the rich what to do with their money!  (Plenty of exceptions for sure, but think it brings a little balance to the conversation to make this point first.)

Should poor Christians give?  We will start at ground level and move up.

First, Paul says in 2 Cor. 8:12 that giving “is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.” Giving what you don’t have is not Biblical.  So, if someone literally has nothing, then they have nothing to give.  This is permissible by Scripture.

Second, in several passages in the New Testament, giving is proportional. (Acts 11:29)  We can move forward recognizing that it is Biblical for a person with less means available to give less.

Thirdly, the poor widow in the gospel accounts gives us huge insight into this question.  When she puts in her miniscule two copper coins, the description in Mark says she gave “all she had to live on” (12:44).  Jesus’ reaction is crucial.  HE COMMENDS HER, He doesn’t correct her.  Jesus points out her contribution to the disciples.  Jesus doesn’t stop her from giving.  We can’t quite make the leap that the poor should give based on this passage alone, but we hopefully are beginning to see that it is appearing more and more likely that the impoverished aren’t exempt from the call to give.  (It is important to note that the poor widow, though she gives all she had, still didn’t give what she did not have – discussion point one.)

Next, I want to ask you two simple questions:  Would you agree that giving is 100% about the heart?  Would you agree that giving is 0% about the amount?  If we answer yes to both questions, then why do we distinquish between the rich and the poor?  If giving has nothing to do with amounts and everything to do with our hearts, then why is our call to give dependent on our tax bracket? 

Final Answer:  Yes, I think the poor Christian should give, though they should give less proportionally (with the exception of a person who literally has nothing to give.)  Here is why I believe they should:

-I believe the Bible teaches that giving is matter of the heart not the amount; therefore, when we distinguish subgroups as exempt we unintentionally make giving about numbers and amounts.  The poor should give, even if it is a very small amount (Remember it has everything to do with the transformation of heart, so a tiny, miniscule amount–say two copper coins–is a significant contribution because of the heart that gave it.) 

-There are so many lessons that have nothing to do with money that are learned by giving.  We prevent the poor from learning these lessons by telling them to withhold all of their contributions. 

- Giving is about principles not assets.  Are those low on time and energy exempt from the call to serve?  Are those lacking self-control exempt from the call to purity?  If not, why would someone with lesser resources be excused from giving altogether?  I know these aren’t perfect comparisons, but they aren’t as different as we might think.

-If we say that only a certain income level is called to give, we get into the ugly mess of trying to decide what “poor” is.  It’s easy to see how this gets complicated quickly. 

-Saying the poor shouldn’t give makes us approach the matter too pragmatically.  We think, “If a person’s budget is slim pickings to start with, and then they give yet more of it away, how are they supposed to live?”  In this, we leave no room for faith and no opportunity for God’s provision if we require all contributions to be from surplus.  I think God provides for the poor Christian that gives in faith.  After all, remember where we started.  The poor are out-giving the rich (proportionally).  So this whole notion of “if they give, they won’t live” isn’t really reality. 

- If we argue that their contributions are “keeping” them poor, we passively state that financial stability/success is a higher priority than supporting the work of the Lord.  (1 Tim. 5:8 makes this an easy one to argue about, but I hope you see the point I am trying to make.  I do not mean to neglect your family in order to give.)

In conclusion, I think most people ask this question out of compassion for those less fortunate.  I think it is a well intentioned inquiry.  But, let’s not care for the poor only with our words.  Let’s care for them with our wallets too.  Take your compassion for the poor (that drives you to ask this question on their behalf) and turn it into generosity for those less fortunate.  In essence, let’s take our compassion from conversation to contribution.

You may walk away from this post thinking I have no heart for the poor.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  In actuality, it is because I care for the poor I encourage them to give (according to their means).  I desire them to experience the joys of generosity, the wonders of God’s provision, the heavenly rewards of sacrificial giving, and many other fruits of obedience.  If these things weren’t true, I don’t think we would see the poor giving as generously as they do. 

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