"When will the world see that we need Jesus?"
This song (by Petra
) was playing as I drove along the I-75N on-ramp the other day. My windows were down because it was over 75°F and sunny, and the stereo was playing at volume level 20. Volume level 20 is slightly above volume level no-more-conversation-in-the-car, which was okay because I was driving to Wal-Mart alone. In short, it was a beautiful day; and I was enjoying in one of my favorite ways."If we open our eyes, we will all realize that He loves us."
The light at 14th turned red, and as I slowed and stopped at the front of the line, I saw him. Standing on the corner, well-covered in clothes that might have been comfortable if it were twenty degrees cooler, was a man with a cardboard sign. Yes, it said the typical things in the typical handwriting: "Homeless," "Need food," "Please help." It was too late to roll up my windows. I focused on the light ahead and wondered exactly how well tinted my sunglasses were."When we share the love of Jesus..."
I've given guys like this food before, not money. And I didn't have any food. I continued studying the traffic light as he walked toward my car and made his request with words I could not hear. What I heard instead was..."...see each other as He sees us..."Oh, God, what does he think of me? Can he hear these words and see me doing nothing?
My heart rate quickened, and my palms began to sweat. How can I call myself a follower of Christ as I'm coldly ignoring this man?
I nearly lost it.
My time at the red light stretched into what seemed like five minutes of him walking back and forth, staring straight through my sunglasses into my eyes, and throwing the words of my song right back at me. The principle "never give beggars cash" seemed like a weak leg to stand on, but I stuck with that and anxiously awaited the green light. I spent agonizing moments wondering if I really could do anything, or if I even should, realizing the decision of how to see this man as God sees him needed to come soon or not at all. I was paralyzed: I couldn't change the song, I couldn't roll up my windows, I couldn't justify doing nothing, but neither could I think of anything to do. So I did nothing. Nothing but nearly come to tears at this man's need and condemn myself as the farthest thing from Christ's compassion that ever walked the earth.
The light finally turned green, and I drove away, neither fast nor slow. Just convicted and confused.
I thought about it for the rest of the day, and then forgot until Justin Taylor posted
a link to iMonk
's recent post, "Question: 'Should I give money to people on the street who ask for it?
Spencer points out several relevant Scriptures, which provide a good overview of principles that come into play when we deal with the poor and beggars. (I intend a distinction here between the poor and those who beg.) One that seems especially simple and direct is Matthew 5:42
, where Jesus simply says, "Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you."
I shall proceed under the assumption that you've read iMonk's post. (You thought you could get away without reading that, didn't you?) His #1-4 are very good, taking into account what Scripture has to say and reflecting my feelings on the matter. From #5 on, he discusses what he calls "aggressive panhandlers." The guidelines he gives seem prudent and right, but I can't help thinking that perhaps I'm simply justifying my inaction. And I'm not talking about the inaction that could be solved by getting involved in a ministry to the poor. I mean specific inaction in specific circumstances, like this one. Being involved in charity and compassion in other areas does not excuse a lack of those virtues elsewhere.
Most importantly, I just don't see the responsibility of discernment in these matters placed on the individual's shoulders in Scripture. We are commanded to "lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil" (Luke 6:35
). If we are to follow the example of the Most High, it seems we would give not only to those whose motives are unknown, but also to those who are known to be "ungrateful and evil." Could it be that "prudence" and "discernment" are just euphemisms that lukewarm followers of Christ like to use in place of "unwillingness to take the time," "lack of trust in the commands of Jesus," and "selfishness"? Was I guilty of this? I still don't know.
Then there's the clear leading of the Spirit. Maybe the intensity of my conviction at the traffic light was the Holy Spirit trying to tell me this was a special case, or at the very least that He wanted me to do something then.
All these thoughts leave me with two options. It's possible that it was right of me not to do anything and that we should show such prudence in how we fulfill our command to give to the poor. In that case, the flood of compassion I felt was a good thing and something that Christ is doing in my life; but any conviction of error in doing nothing was an attack of the devil. The other possibility is that I, and it would seem the church in general, have missed what it means to "give to the one who begs from you." We hide our disobedience to Christ behind prudence and discernment, assuring ourselves that "he would have used the money for beer," or "he's a professional beggar and not actually poor." I can't say which possibility is reality, because I still don't know.
There is, of course, an ultimate solution to all this. Time. Even a broke college student like me has time. If you don't think you have time at some point, it's not because you don't have
the time—it's because you've chosen to spend that time on another activity that you find more important. If obedience to Christ is one of the options, it should trump all in the competition for that time slot. The question is: do I look for the things that would constitute obedience to Christ, and once I do, am I willing to admit it and give up the time for it? Are we?
Why is time the solution? Well, if I'm being so "prudent" as to not give cash, I could drive the man to a place for lunch. I could take him to a grocery store and buy a few basics. Often we say there was nothing we could do because there was nothing easy to do, or nothing that could fit into our arbitrary sense of time we had to spare. Should I have offered to take the man to a store? That certainly would have revealed whether he actually needed charity or was a con man. That would have been the Christlike thing to do. That would have taken time, maybe even made me late or required sacrifice. But if the principle behind Jesus's command to give to the poor was to see them as God sees them, I think that kind of sacrifice would have fit quite nicely.
Is your time and how you would like
to use it more valuable to you than obedience to Christ? God, please forgive me, because that time it was.