"The poor man is hated even by his neighbor but the rich man has many friends.""What do you mean, we 'hate the poor?' We don't hate the poor; we're Christians, we wrote the book on this stuff!" It is true that Christians, more than many, have an intense awareness of poverty and feel a greater social obligation to help the poor, Ghandi notwithstanding. But there is a big difference between helping the poor and loving the poor.
In fact, part of the reason that giving to charity feels so good is that it reaffirms our distance from poverty. We prove that we are not poor by giving to them out of our wealth. The last thing we want to do is jump into the squalor and live with them. The last thing we want to do is identify with the poor man.
Now, hate is a very strong word, one we like to put on par with words like "murder," and rightfully so:
"Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." 1 John 3:4.But, consider for a moment the way we view poverty. This issue is not quite so simple as giving to charity or feeling bad for the dying children in Uganda. It is not so simple as voting a particular way. This hate is much more insidious, its roots go deep into our humanity and is closely tied to what we believe to be true about God's role in pain and suffering.
When we see an individual living in squalor, we are intensely uncomfortable; our instinct is to run away. We try desperately to find a reason for their situation: they didn't work hard enough, they picked a bad industry, they made bad decisions, they aren't willing to work beneath themselves, they like getting unemployment or welfare. Or we explain what we would do differently in that situation. Or we simply try to think about it as little as possible, anything to distance their existence from our own. To prove to ourselves that we could never be in that same position.
There's a story we love to forget in John 9 when Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who had been blind his entire life. The disciples asked Jesus whether it was for his own sins or the sins of his parents that he had been so cursed with this disability. Jesus rocked their world with his response:
"It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." John 9:3-5We see the same thing in the story of Job. Job's friends saw his death-defying plunge from a place of wealth, blessing, and honor to sitting in the dust scraping his sores with a shard of broken pottery. They could not bear the idea that God would do this to a good man, so they turned on Job and tormented him with their ignorant piety. They turned him into a bad man so they could deal with the pain, poverty, and suffering in his life.
But Jesus doesn't let them off the hook, "Not so fast!" He says, "This guy isn't blind because he's a sinner, He's blind because I chose to make him blind." He then explains that there is something greater than this man's plight at work here. He pulls the focus off of the blind man and says, "This here? This is about ME."
By making suffering His own action rather than a reaction to something we've done, he takes control away from us and puts us all on the same level. And that's a scary thing. But until we can freely acknowledge that God has absolute control in our lives and in the lives of those around us, we cannot experience Him fully. We are trapped by our own fear in a static, legalistic existence and can never truly experience His grace.
We elevate to sainthood those who have chosen to suffer and die for the sake of the Gospel. Foxe's Book of Martyrs is just a tiny fraction of the more famous martyrs and those stories alone are overwhelming. But what about those who, like this man, never made that choice? We may be able to shake off a bit of the discomfort by saying that he, no doubt, was a sinner and was able to understand the amazing miracle that had taken place in his life.
But what about the children born into poverty who are never given the knowledge or the resources to overcome their circumstances? What about the babies dying of AIDS? What about the millions of broken men and women who have been afflicted with poverty, pain, and disease who, instead of experiencing healing and rejoicing in the glory of God manifested in their life, turn their backs on Him?
These are the kinds of questions that make us squirm when non-Christians ask them. These are the questions we don't particularly like to ask when we are Christians. We like to respond with affirmations of God's goodness and omniscience, but it is not good enough to shrug off the discomfort and move on, God doesn't let us off the hook so easily. God is not satisfied with that, He wants use to jump headlong into that frightening place where things simply do not make sense...
...and to stay there.
So what happens when, instead of blaming the poor for their poverty, ignoring the problem, instead of making our monthly donation we hang out with them in their poverty? What happens when we take that burden of suffering, doubt, confusion, and frustration upon ourselves?
It changes us.
Don't think so? Ask Richard Stearns about what hanging out in that place did to him. Ask my friend Dan Merchant. Ask that guy who just got back from two weeks in Haiti. "Helping the poor" doesn't change their world so much as it changes ours.
Like the first week (or month) of Calculus when you want to quit because nothing makes sense, like the 10 minutes (or 30 minutes) of a 5k, this is not a fun time. It does not make it easier that you don't suddenly wake up one day understanding everything. But painful experience by painful experience, choice by choice, you come to a better understanding of the character of God. It never makes complete sense, but as you spend time with people in their difficulty, as you see the grace of God pushing impossibly through the pain, disease, and poverty, you slowly come to a place you've never seen before; a place where God's grace and love and justice is entirely fresh and new. Its a tedious, painful, messy, beautiful path and but there is no other path to that place.
God lays the suffering at our door and says, "Look! This is the reality and, yes, I could have prevented it. Now what are you doing to do about it? Are you going to try to explain away the reality of suffering? Are you doing to close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears? Maybe throw some money or condolences at it while you slam the door? OR will you get down into the dust and help this guy scrape his sores? Will you let him ooze all over your couch? Will you acknowledge that you and he are the same in my eyes?"
"Will you let me teach you something new about my grace?"Don't hate the poor because you are afraid. Don't sit in your affluence (or sufficiency!) and pray desperately that God will preserve it. Don't just write your check and try to forget. Open your eyes and your arms and let God teach you something new.
For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.' Deut 15:11Gift a gift that lasts this Christmas from Compassion International or World Vision but don't stop there. Start a tedious, painful, messy, beautiful journey into God's grace.