Thursday, April 26, 2007

Prudent excuses

"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.

6 Comments:

Blogger brwashington said...

Jeffrey,

Awesome conviction. Your post is so timely as this same topic occurred in my life yesterday and Tuesday. I was walking to CVS on Tuesday and was asked by a man for some money to ride the bus. I panicked because I didn't know what to do. I really never know what to do. I have given in the past, but then I don't know for sure what they're going to do with that money. I want to help those in need as Jesus said to do, but how do I know when to do it, or is there no particular time to do it, but to just do it?

Perhaps I could've taken him to the MARTA station and bought him a pass, but 1) I was afraid 2) I was in a hurry to get back to campus. Was I wrong to not do anything? I always ask this question in conjunction with another: Is it good to give to those who ask on the streets, on the MARTA, or any other public transportation or place---is that our duty? These questions bombarded me as the topic came up in D-Group yesterday---I couldn't speak on the matter to give my opinion.

Was I selfish or stingy on Tuesday? No. I just didn't know. But I hate not knowing...my heart twists, I get this pulsating pain in my neck and my insides dry up, until I hurt inside and nothing else is in my mind but how I didn't help someone who I could've helped.

I want Christ to say to me that when he was hungry I fed him, when he was thirsty I gave him drink, or when he was naked I gave him clothing....everytime I turn away from someone who asks, I'm devastated...

Though I still don't know the answer (I also need to read iMonk's post!)it's good to know that I'm not alone in my torment, I guess I can call it that. I appreciate your words, Jeffrey.

BRW

7:32 AM, April 26, 2007  
Blogger travis said...

I think you're right Jeff - an "easy" solution to these delimmas is time. Either that or a stack of low-value gift certificates to some fast food place in your wallet. But of course, it takes time to be prepared like that.

I should get some of those gift certificates.

8:12 AM, April 26, 2007  
Blogger Jeffrey J. Stables said...

BRW,
You've brought out another nuance of obedience to Christ in today's world. I think it would have been unwise (note: unwise, not imprudent) for you to take the man alone to MARTA. If you were clearly led to do something, then giving money was all you could have done. For women, it's a whole different ballgame when we're talking about homeless/begging men.

Travis,
I think the gift certificate thing is a good idea. At first I was thinking Kroger gift cards or such, but grocery stores sell liquor. We should get together for a Wendy's run so we can be prepared in that way, even when we don't have time to take the beggar somewhere. Who's in?

11:41 AM, April 26, 2007  
Blogger TC fish said...

Deuteronomy 15:11
"There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land."
Openhanded, always helping; am I, are you?

Luke 12:33
"Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys."
That's asking for a lot, I don't know if I'm able to do that...

Yes we need discernment, yes we need to be careful. But I sincerely believe that we are suppose to ALWAYS help them. It's not something that we are not sure about, no, we know ourselves what we need to do. When have you helped the poor and felt like you did something wrong? You are right Jeffrey, time is a big thing, but that is the very thing that are asked of us. We are supposed to "take up our cross daily", come on now. Do I always help the poor? No. Should I? Yes. What now? Always be ready to help and the next beggar that comes my way will receive not just food for a day, but more importantly, the bread of life. Giving to the poor will amount to nothing if Christ were not preached, remember that.

4:06 PM, April 27, 2007  
Blogger David said...

All good points everyone. It's also cool to see Jeffrey documenting his faith out in the real world. (Sorry Jeffrey the week has flown by and yet no change to get some southern cooking.)

As for this particular situation, I wouldn't feel too bad - the guys at 14th are professionals.

However, I'd take that motivation and apply it where it can really be used. An urban ministry that invests in the lives of people as well as meeting physical needs.

8:50 PM, April 27, 2007  
Blogger Jeffrey J. Stables said...

JT posted a follow-up article of sorts from First Things. My favorite part of the piece:

"Many people got fed up with this [the (RED) campaign]. They thought it was just an attempt to ease our consciences about being so well off. To give until it feels good, not until it hurts."

JT also links BuyLessCrap.org and quotes them on this:

"Giving money will never be the focus of the real solution. This simplistic view assumes that Africa’s only ailment is material lack. But this is to mistake the symptom for the cause. A materialistic understanding of the causes of poverty—at home and abroad—will never suffice. Real answers need to address culture and its institutions."

That's a good word, as well.

5:13 AM, April 28, 2007  

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