Responding to Poverty: Who’s right, Luke or Paul?

Luke 3:11 says: “And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

2 Thess. 3:10 says: “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you: that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”

So which is it? Should I give my tunic away or should I make them work to buy their own tunic? Do I help by giving or do I help by restraining to give? Who do I believe Dr. Luke or the Apostle Paul?

The Bible seems to indicate that when helping those in need there aren’t any cut and dry answers. It seems, sometimes we are told to help by supplying physical need, and other times we are told to help by letting the person help themselves first. It’s certainly confusing to me and I wonder if it has been confusing for others too?

As the TCT – Local program launches it’s training this fall we are seeking to bring a tad bit of clarity to this struggle.

We all run into situations of need on a weekly basis. Whether it be a person panhandling along the sidewalk, a bulletin request for shoes to give to a local shelter, or a mail request to buy a goat for a hungry child. It seems you can’t go far without seeing need and being asked to respond. So, what do we do?

A response of love

Well, I know one thing for sure and that is that we are called to respond, and we are to do it with Love. (Mark 12:31) But how that love is demonstrated is where it gets tricky. In the book “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett readers are challenged to see helping the poor through the lens of 3 concepts; relief, rehabilitation and development. (If you haven’t read this book, what are you waiting for!)

The basic idea around this concept is that as Christians we must learn to evaluate the situation (both historically and presently) that surrounds the impoverished person. Sometimes a handout or immediate “relief” is needed. At other times a handout can hurt and a more long-term intervention of skills training or human development is needed. (Rehabilitation & development) Since there are no easy answers let’s just look at two examples and ask some questions that may help us begin to respond appropriately.

Story 1 – The Phillips Family

Joe and Tammy Phillips have been a part of your church congregation for as many years as you can remember.  About a year ago, Joe (a graphic designer), suffered a heart attack that set him back in his work jeopardizing his status in the company. The difficult situation added additional stress to Joe’s marriage and family leaving Joe with frequent nervous breakdowns and anxiety attacks. Unable to turn the situation around Joe ultimately lost his job and has been out of work for 5 months. Tammy is a stay at home mom who homeschools their three children ages 5-10.

After losing his job the family no longer has medical insurance. Joe’s frequent panic/anxiety attacks have caused them to have a number of trips to the emergency room. With no job and insurance, accumulating bills, and a savings that has been wiped out the family is spiraling into debt. They are struggling to get back on their feet and make ends meet.

Story 2 – Bartlett Family

Louis and Tiana Bartlett have called the section 8 Lincoln Park housing developments their home for the last 6 years. This is where Louis and Tiana live with their 2 kids and Tiana’s other child from a previous relationship, in a 1-bedroom apartment. Tiana’s grandmother, who struggles with poor eyesight, lives with the couple as well.

Louis grew up in the same inner city ghetto just blocks away from Lincoln Park and has struggled to find a good path to follow in life. As a teen Louis struggled with ghetto life and often found himself in difficult situations due to bad influences and a deteriorating family structure. His father was a crack addict and Louis’s mother was in and out of jail throughout his growing up years for petty theft. As kids, Louis and his 4 siblings often lived with their grandmother, other family members or friends.

Louis is now married to Tiana but the entrapment of poverty is still very present. Both Louis and Tiana have struggled to maintain jobs and Louis just recently was let go from another temporary position due to poor work performance. Louis also dabbles in theft and has spent time in jail himself.

Louis and Tiana both attended the local high school but dropped out before graduation. Tiana currently works at a convenience store as a cashier but hates her job. Government subsidy pays their bills and the family is supported through food stamps and local non-profit pantries.

How do you help these families??

Ask the tough questions

Take a moment and consider the following questions:

1) Where will each of these families be in 20 years?  What do you think?

A question like this helps you begin to determine if this is more of situational poverty, which is likely temporary, or generational poverty which is very complex and is the product of years (generations) of decisions. Neither is easy to escape but generational poverty is far more compounded and requires a much different approach.

2) How do you think each of these individuals (Joe vs Louis) perceives their situation? Have they developed enough life skills to change? Does there seem to be a desire and ability to change?

3) What lies might they be struggling with? Lies cast upon them by society, themselves or their situation?

4) Would a handout give them a hand up that would allow them to get back on their feet? Or will a handout reinforce a sense of dependency, which could be dangerous to their long-term ability and desire to change?

Certainly Joe is struggling with a situational poverty circumstance. Though he has struggled for several months now he is specifically skilled and most likely able to overcome this situation with the correct medical and social help. Your approach to helping Joe, as hopefully discovered through the above questions, should be much more about providing relief and then quickly restoring him through rehabilitation and development back to the path of good wholistic health. As always a good trustworthy relationship with Joe is key.

Louis on the other hand is in a very different type of situation. Louis faces generational poverty, where a complexity of lies has created a circumstance of moral, and systemic failures and these lies are in many ways keeping Louis stuck in poverty. Louis probably doesn’t need more relief in the form of handouts, he’s been receiving those and they haven’t changed his situation. He more likely needs rehabilitation and development through deep loving relationships that will challenge and restore dignity where dignity has been lost. Louis needs to see that life can change, and will change when he begins to see himself through a different set of eyes. As always a good trustworthy relationship with Louis is key.

Transformation comes through Christ

We know that through the power of the Holy Spirit both the life of Joe and Louis can be transformed. So the love we share with them is the gospel demonstrated through a combination of loving words and kind deeds. We also know that both individuals have been created in God’s image and both have immeasurable capacity, ability and value. Thus, both require, need and deserve to be loved as human beings. However, how you go about doing that may differ from situation to situation. Lovingly helping one person out of poverty may look very different than how you help another.

Sometimes you need to love them like Dr. Luke and other times like the apostle Paul. Either way, don’t give up and certainly don’t stop loving. Seek the Lord’s wisdom, ask for discernment and don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. In the end, trust the Lord to transform, and praise him no matter what he chooses to do.

Image courtesy of Red Wolf /
By | 2014-09-08T05:30:54+00:00 September 8th, 2014|Categories: Learn and Apply|Tags: |

About the Author:

John Warden is Reconciled World’s global staff pastor and the facilitator for 2:10. He holds a Masters of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has more than fifteen years of ministry experience. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD with his wife and two daughters. You can contact him directly at

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  1. […] the believers have already finished the church building’s foundation. Recently John wrote about the differences between relief and development. In the TCT program we talk with our local trainers about how the church can respond to both kinds […]

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