Poverty & the Image of God

Poverty & the Image of God

2015 | Week of March 16 – #1089

Like you, I’m not insensitive to the plight of the poor, not by any means. I’m not immune to the emotional pull of starving people living in what appears to be absolute squalor.  And most of the time, I’m encouraged that private organizations and Christian ministries are trying to meet these needs rather than the government. 

However, I was challenged recently to think differently about poverty, to think about it more deeply than I have before from a different perspective.

I’ll tell you now that this commentary will be filled with questions—and probably very few answers. For instance, “What did Jesus mean when He said, ‘You’ll always have the poor with you’”? “How do we define poverty?” “Is poverty part of the result of the fall?” “Does giving money to the poor advance the eradication of poverty?”

I confess, as I pondered and continue to ponder these questions, I realized my view of poverty and my view of my response as a Christian has been significantly challenged. I don’t pretend to have firm answers, but I believe this subject is worth our considering.

America is the most generous nation on earth. I believe that springs directly from our Judeo-Christian heritage. Christianity is a giving faith, including money and tangible goods to those who have needs. But is our giving to the poor in this country or other countries always in their best interest?  When is a hand-out appropriate and when is it perhaps even detrimental to long-term well-being.

Many of those who have thought about this issue longer and more deeply than I have agree that people caught in natural or even man-made disasters need a handout immediately in order to save lives and homes. We as American Christians should respond with gifts of money and material goods and our even our time and physical presence, if at all possible.

But what about where poverty just seems to be the norm, day in, day out, year in, year out, generation in and generation out? If you think about those situations, especially where poverty relief has been a focus for a long time, perhaps you, like I have done, begin asking, “How much money does it take to get these folks out of poverty? Do they really want to be out of poverty? What’s keeping them trapped in this poverty cycle?”

In thinking about this and doing some research, I was confronted with the idea that perhaps what we as American Christians see as “doing good to the poor,” just might actually be doing them a real disservice, even to the point of not acknowledging the reality of God in their creation and their lives.

The truth is all people are created in the image of God, which includes creativity, a capacity for work, a mind that can be extremely resourceful, and the ability to produce wealth in manifold different ways. The image of God also includes individual dignity which is not recognized if a person or an entire people group becomes virtually completely dependent on external sources and resources to live, rather than using their God-given abilities to better their own position and to eventually bring themselves out of poverty. Perhaps we catch part of this in the old saying, “Give me a fish, and I eat for a day. Teach me to fish, and I eat for a lifetime.”

Being poor isn’t inherent in our God-given DNA. If anything, being able to not be poor is in our DNA.  God designed us to be dependent on Him—as our creator and all-sufficient Heavenly Father.  He designed us to work and to create. His way is so much better, so much more ennobling, so much more reflective of His character. This truth isn’t just for middle-class Americans. It’s for everyone, everywhere.

For me this puts an even bigger question mark over government programs that consistently give handouts of all sorts to people government pretty arbitrarily determines are living in “poverty.” These programs far too often use your money and my money to deny the reality of the image of God in the people we are supposedly helping. Maybe Jesus was saying that we’ll always have poor people because He knows we’re far too often more willing to give someone a fish rather than to teach them to fish?  In so doing, I’ve squelched their dignity and diminished the image of God in them and made it harder for them to get out of poverty. It’s something to think about, isn’t it?

This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

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