The Burning Question: Should I give to beggars?
A Christian Response
[This short article is taken from Church on the Street’s latest newsletter]
There is no other question that I am asked more often than this: should we give to beggars? What I write here is not an exhaustive account, but a primer for a Christian approach to the question.
Any Christian response must begin with this reality: the root of creation is loving relationships. All society begins and ends with this one truth. So the exchange between two neighbors—in this case a beggar and a giver—represents the most fundamental exchange of society. Thus, in a broken world redeemed by Christ, it is also the launching pad of the ministry of reconciliation; reconciliation of two people who were previously divided by innumerable circumstances, choices and animosity.
Within these human exchanges it must be kept in mind that each person is unique, whether beggar or donor. They all come with their own history, background, experiences, sins, hopes, contexts and expectations. This makes every encounter one-of-a-kind. It also shows that a one-size-fits-all ideology doesn’t work. Accepting this reality is the first step: we deal with whole persons in unique moments of exchange. Because the Holy Spirit continually speaks to us, we do not make universal decisions about what we will or will not do. The Holy Spirit may guide us to do something we’d never have thought of.
Next, we have to remember that when we stand before another person, we both stand before God as two sinners in our utter poverty. Accepting our own lowliness frees us from the pretense of self-assurance and moves us toward realizing our actual reliance on God’s provision (“It’s my money, time, talents and resources to use how I want” vs. “It’s all God’s gifts that He entrusts to me to use how He wills”).
The next step is sometimes practically harder to implement: it is a willingness to know—and be known by—the stranger standing before us. This takes time. Getting to know someone, to hear and enter into their story, and for them to enter into ours, takes not only time but also a willingness to learn and be changed. But if you’re willing to take this time, you will develop the skills of listening, asking meaningful questions, and speaking truthfully. Then real people with real needs are revealed. And this process of revealing allows God to surprise us in the midst of the exchange. He will surprise us by amending our habits, calling us to sacrifice and spurring us on to think and do things we’d never have anticipated. We will also discover and face our own prejudices and fears.
So what does all this mean when confronted with a beggar? It means that our attitudes and actions matter and should move us in the direction of friendship, especially with the stranger, the enemy, and the ungrateful. Every encounter with a stranger is an opportunity for friendship. And a gift to a stranger is an invitation to friendship and an echo of God’s indiscriminate love.