Although people have a responsibility to help themselves, it doesn’t alleviate our responsibility to raise our light in the darkness and help those who cannot help themselves.

As I crossed the street, I dropped a penny on the pavement. I stooped down to pick it up, but before I could get it in my hand and put it in my pocket, I heard a voice coming from the dark end of the sidewalk. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed a bearded man walking my way.

He was wearing a topcoat to keep him warm from the cold January evening. He looked like someone I knew—an old man who has come by our church on several occasions looking for handouts, a person we’ve helped before but stopped after we found out many of his stories were fabricated.

I acted as if I didn’t hear him and kept walking to my car. As I drove home, I thought about how I’d taken time to stoop for a penny, but I didn’t take time to listen to an old man.

I’ve always struggled with knowing when to respond to the requests of the poor, especially when I suspect the money will be used for alcohol or something worse. When I help, I try to ensure that my money goes to pay some legitimate bills or to purchase food. If I suspect or know that people squander their money or don’t do anything to help themselves, I don’t like giving away my hard-earned money to pay for their sins.

For those I know are trying to help themselves, it’s much easier. These people always seem to be grateful, too. It’s rewarding to see how you’ve made a difference in their lives. The rub comes in discerning between those who help themselves and those who don’t.

The Bible seems to give advice along both of these lines. The Apostle Paul had a standing rule that he lived by and expected others associated with him to live by: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10b). On the other side of the coin is a proverb that says, “He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses” (Prov 28:27).

The prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Amos all dealt with the poor. Their pronouncements were often directed to those in authority whose rules led to oppression—and poverty. Of course, Jesus embraced the poor and once said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied” (Lk 6:20-21).

In some cases, poverty is due to a lack of initiative: to learn, to work, to sweat, to be productive. America is a land of opportunity. If people cannot make it here, they cannot make it anywhere.

However, the majority of poverty may be due to our unwillingness to see that no child is left behind in education. It may be due to the wealthy taking advantage of the poor. It may be due to the government giving most of its monetary breaks to the rich. It may be due to the selling of false hopes in systems like the lottery. It may be due to our own personal greed and lack of compassion.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue mentioned the treatment of the poor in his inauguration address, quoting Scripture to justify his reasons for passing ethics reform in government:

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always” (Isa 58:9).

After his comments about ethics reform, he reminded Georgians that compassion cannot be legislated and that conviction to help others is birthed in each individual heart. Whether the government does a good job in decreasing the numbers of those living in poverty, voices will always call out to us from dark places asking for help.

Although people have a responsibility to help themselves, it doesn’t alleviate our responsibility to raise our light in the darkness and help those who cannot help themselves.

May the Lord guide us as we discern how and when to help those who hold out their hands for assistance.

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.

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