This post is the conclusion of a four-part series on poverty and the church. Read the initial post here.
I Thess. 4:11-12 “work with your hands . . . so that you may . . . be dependent on no one.”
We don’t know the entirety of the background of Paul’s correspondence with the church in Thessalonica. But we do know that Paul had to encourage them to get to work. He instructed them to “admonish the idle” (I Thess. 5:14).
As Paul notes in I Thess. 4:11-12, one of the reasons we have been created to work is to avoid dependency. We need to support ourselves and our families, and a paying job can help us to do that. Not everyone can work or should work at a paying job, but those who can work should. And many of us should work at paying jobs.
If someone can’t work, or is in great need, then we should be generous and share what we have (Eph. 4:28). I Thess. 4 gives us important guidance for our generosity.
Paul assumes that being dependent can be a problem. Sometimes the help we give is enabling and creates dependency. This wrong kind of help does not encourage growth or sustainability. It puts a person in a position of subservience. If I do all of the giving and none of the receiving, then I position myself like God to another person, because only God has no needs.
When my boys were very little (two and three years old), they loved to help. Jeremy used to like helping me bring in the garbage bins. Why did they like to help so much? Part of it was they enjoyed feeling older and grown. They were glad they were able to contribute. As we get older, some of the joy may be taken out of small tasks, but at the same time, it is not healthy for others to do things for us that we can do for ourselves. When they were little, I spoon fed my children. Now that they are grown up, more or less, it wouldn’t be good for me to deliver each bite of food to their mouths. Some of the giving we do takes away more than it gives. Our giving can harm those to whom we’re seeking to be generous.
Insofar as we are able to help people get to work and to take responsibility, we should do so in order to allow them to meet their own needs. It is dignifying to them to do this. It is also often much more difficult. Money is one of the easiest things to give. Time, skills, relationships – these are more difficult to give. They are also more relational. They involve mutual inter-dependence – giving and receiving. Giving money often avoids cultivating relationship with the recipient.
In my first post, I described my horror when my friend Chris ate a homeless man’s food. I have since decided that Chris did exactly the right thing when he took a bite out of a homeless man’s muffin. He took a bite, but he gave dignity. He allowed someone to give back to him. He let the other person be human: someone who both gives and receives. Poverty alleviation should be relational. It should be done in the context of healthy mutual interdependence with one another. Harmful giving is non-relational giving. It insists only on giving and refuses to receive.
When is it good to eat a hungry person’s food? When he offers it to you for the sake of building a relationship. The church will alleviate poverty when it builds relationships and thereby spreads the shalom of God.