September 23, 2017

Should Christians Covet Poverty?

Some American Christians sentimentalize poverty.  They long for it as a simpler, more holy lifestyle.  They read accounts of praise-filled believers in far countries who barely have enough to eat or a roof over their heads, and they wonder if maybe poverty is a helpful or even necessary condition for the Christian life.  Jesus did tell the rich young ruler to give away everything and follow him.  If we’re not doing that, maybe we’re not in a right relationship with God.  Should we covet poverty?

Well, let’s consider what poverty really is.  I don’t mean income below the poverty line, because that varies from place to place.  I also don’t mean voluntary simplicity, which is another topic entirely.  My working definition of poverty is “Want imposed by habit and circumstance, resulting in needs that cannot be met.”   We’ll look at poverty to see if it‘s something we should covet.  We’ll consider whether those in poverty have been led by their circumstances to exemplify true Christian faith.  Then we’ll see what we can find out about necessary conditions for the Christian life.

The Meager Life
I’ve seen poverty, and I didn‘t like it much.  Let me share a few glimpses with you.

A grandmother, an abandoned wife, and three hollow-eyed children living in one room, with no food and only a threadbare rug and a few mats to protect them from the minus-twenty cold outside — this is one view of poverty.  I don’t covet this lifestyle.  Neither do the people living in it.

Families around the world generally don’t benefit from poverty.  I knew a beautiful little child in Liberia who only answered to “Girl.”  She didn’t know her name.  Children there aren’t expected to live, so parents just call them “girl” and “boy” until they’re past the age of greatest risk.  That way parents insulate themselves from caring too much.

I’ve cared for young people in the same country who died from preventable illnesses, whose relatives just shrugged in sad bafflement when they told me of the death.

I asked a poor woman I knew about her two-year-old daughter.  “She hasn’t walked in three days,” my friend said.  I had some cases of powdered infant formula that had been left by a medical team.  I gave them to her, just as something healthy for the child.  The next day my friend told me in delight that her daughter was up and walking again.  It turned out that the formula was the only food the girl had had that week.

Poverty is not only physical deprivation, it’s corrosive to the spirit as well. Once a house caught on fire in a Kyrgyz village.  Along with everyone else, an American woman who was visiting ran out to look.  “Shouldn’t we do something to help?” she asked.  Her host spat on the ground and said, “No, it serves him right.  He was the richest man in the village.  Let his house burn.”

From resentment to covetousness is a short step.  During my years in poor neighborhoods, here and overseas, I’ve been robbed several times.  Poor children playing with my kids often couldn’t concentrate on the toys they were invited to share.  They only wanted to have them to themselves, to steal them, even if that meant they could never play openly with them again.  They didn’t expect ever to get toys by any other means.

I had a Kyrgyz friend who began to ask me for things every time she came over to my house.  I gave happily; I gave pragmatically; then I gave resentfully.  I had become an object, a resource, to her.  I was no longer a friend and a person. Finally I demanded, “Do you think I’m a store?  You used to come over to visit me, now you’re just going through my things looking for what you want next.”

What a terrible thing to say.  Even though I was living simply by Western standards, I had a lot more than she did.  But sadly my generosity, in that and many other cases, didn’t always build a relationship but instead destroyed it.  I learned not to give as frequently as I wanted to.  There were many people I would have been happy to help over the long term.  But the money I gave engendered shame and resentment, and I never saw them again.  People living in poverty, it seems, don’t always respond well to blessings or know how to seek their own good.

Poverty causes many people to see others as resources to exploit.  When I lived in Central Asia, on average for almost seven years, the doorbell rang at least three times a day — I do not exaggerate — with people asking for money.  The funniest may have been the woman who asked if I was a Christian.  “I am, too!”  she declared, a remark that put me on my guard.  (There were very few Christians, and we already knew them.)  This woman hurled herself to her knees.  “O Jesus!”  she shouted.  “O God!  Help this American woman!”  She made a fumbled gesture over her chest then clasped her hands, closed her eyes, and began muttering.  “You can get up,” I said, torn between embarrassment and amusement.  She did, saying,  “Can you give me fifty dollars?”  No, I said I wouldn’t do that.  “Twenty?”  I began ushering her toward the tall metal gate.  “Ten?  Just something for bread?”  I propelled her gently outside the gate and shut it behind her.  As I did, I heard a companion whisper, “So, what did you get?”  “Nothing!” she answered in disgust.

Despite our rosy view of poverty, it doesn’t necessarily make better people out of Christians, either.  One Kyrgyz man approached my husband and told him he was a Christian.  My husband said he was glad to hear it.  “So now,’ said the new believer, “I want you to provide me with an income.  Since I’m a Christian, I don’t want to work any more.”  It seemed that Christianity, for him, boiled down to an easy escape from a hard life, not the beginning of a right relationship with the God of Life.

Poverty didn’t make these people saints.  It wasn’t a blessing to them.  It ground them down.  They lived meagerly in all ways, spiritually as well as physically.

The Generous Life
But not all poor people are like this.  I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people Westerners would consider poor.  There was the Liberian pastor who drove me far out of his way, late at night, while running short of gas, and wouldn’t take a cent from me.  “Americans have been kind to me before,” he said.  “I’m happy to return what I can.”  There were many people who brought out the last of their food in genuine delight that they had something to share with me.  There was the Muslim family in Guinea who late at night welcomed my husband and me, complete strangers, and gently rolled their sleepy children out of bed so we would have a place to rest.

For several years I lived in a rough neighborhood in downtown Indianapolis.  My husband and I had three young children at the time.  We weren’t poor, but many people around us were.  Two incidents stand out.

Once my kids and I went for a walk.  On our way home, they spied a White Castle and asked if we could get something for a treat.  I hadn’t brought my purse and only had a dollar or two in my pocket, but I said, “Sure, we can split a package of fries or something.”  Inside, as we stood in line, the three-year-old started asking for a hamburger.  “Nope,” I said, “we don’t have enough money.”  The elderly man in the worn-out clothes standing behind us bought my children hamburgers.  “It’s all right,” he said when I protested.  “You happen not to have money just now, and I do.”

Another time I was shopping at a thrift store for a few winter clothes for my seven-year-old.  The store didn’t take a check, and though I had plenty in the bank, I had a limited amount of cash.  We came out short, so I turned to put the gloves back.  Once again, a man behind me in line — maybe homeless, probably struggling with mental illness — bought the gloves for my daughter.  “I’ve known what it’s like to be cold,” he said.  Though it shamed me, I could only accept, because he wanted so much to give.

It seems that sometimes poverty leads to covetousness, sometimes to generosity.  Many poor people live in squalor, while others keep the little they have in spotless order.  Some exploit friends for their own advantage, while some are extravagantly generous to strangers of different race, nationality, or religion.  There are poor people who curse the ugliness of the world; there are also poor people who delight in the beauty of each day.  So it isn’t poverty that makes the difference here.

What makes the difference?
Gratitude.  I don’t just mean gratitude toward people, although that’s important.  Gratitude is the expression of our right relationship with God.  To learn gratitude we have to know who we are and who God is.  When we begin to know that, gratitude is the result.  Once we know, really know, that everything we have is a gift from God, then what can we do but thank him?   An unredeemed understanding, on the other hand, blinded by sin, sees everything as random occurrences or as the fruits of our own deserving.  There’s no need for gratitude in that world view.

In some cases it might be that poverty can help people see who they are and who God is, to see reflected in their humble position in the world their even humbler position before God.  But not in all cases.  All of the people I described above were certainly poor by our standards.  Only some of them were grateful.  How they responded to their poverty determined whether or not I saw Christ in them.  Gratitude is not the result of poverty but a chosen response, as much within our control as any virtue or act of will is.  The words and behavior of the men in downtown Indianapolis, the Liberian pastor, and the Guinean family reflect their awareness that they had been blessed and were happy they could pass those blessings on to others.  Aside from the pastor, I don’t know that any of those people were Christian; I know some were Muslim.  But still they had the foundation of a relationship with God.  They had some understanding of the first and great commandment and the second that’s like it:  they loved God with a grateful heart, and they loved their neighbor.

Answering the Question
I began by asking if Christians should covet poverty.  That was a trick question.  Christians shouldn’t covet anything, because covetousness is a sin.  When we wealthy people long for poverty and complain that we’d be better Christians if we were poor, we’re sinning.  We aren’t being grateful for what we have.  We aren’t displaying a right relationship to God or understanding his providence for us.

You don’t have to be in want to realize your position before God.  God’s gift of wisdom and enlightenment extends even to comfortable, insulated, slightly overweight people with too much stuff.  It’s nothing we earn or deserve by our economic standing.

So be content in your wealth.  If you become poor, voluntarily or involuntarily, be content in your poverty.  Love God and your neighbor.  Recognize your blessings and discover the freedom to give as extravagantly as you have received.  Be awe-struck by the beauty of creation and your utter undeserving in the face of it.  In everything give thanks.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    Who was it said ‘you only truly own what you have given away’?

  2. Thanks! A Christian friend, Roy, practiced “planned poverty“. He economized intelligently. He gave generously. He and his wife raised happy kids, who, as in your examples, participated in the giving and receiving. He observed, “Wealth is having choices. A choice of shoes, a choice of food. Deferred choices–hoarding–are bad for the eyes. When you plan your poverty, you clearly see that God supplies….. God supplies to you. God supplies through you. It’s hard to see one without the other.”

  3. dumb ox says:

    This sounds like Kafka’s short story, “The Hunger Artist”. I think in the end, the outcome is the same: whether Christians are prosperous or impoverished, their circus act just doesn’t attract an audience anymore.

    • Damaris says:

      Dumb Ox — I’m intrigued about the point you’re making, but I don’t get it yet. Could you elaborate? I haven’t read that story and don’t get the reference. Thanks!

      • Echoing Damaris. I don’t get the reference (I guess I could google it), but I’m intrigued.

      • Here is the link. But I only sort of get the point.

        https://records.viu.ca/~Johnstoi/kafka/hungerartist.htm

      • dumb ox says:

        In the story of the hunger artist, the character literally starves himself as a circus act to attract an audience. After a while, the crowds stop coming, so he breaks with his promoter and joins the circus, where he is lost among the other attractions and eventually dies forgotten.
        My point was sarcastic and a bit of a reach, but it just seems really odd how we swing from one extreme to the next; first prosperity being the measure of God’s blessing, then poverty. In this age of the Evangelical collapse, nobody cares. The crowds just don’t care if we’ve got revival fever or holy laughter or whatever mad spiritual manifestation is in this week. No one stops by our cage anymore and marvels, “Wow! aren’t they spiritual! What do they have that I don’t?” Eventually, they’ll haul our remains out of the cage and use it for something else…like that church converted into a bookstore in Maastricht, perhaps.

        I do agree with the point of the article, that contentment is the key, which is the one thing through all our wild extremes that we never have. That contentment is what the world desperately needs. I’m re-reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and that contentment bursts from the very first chapter.

        • Damaris says:

          Thanks. If the desire for poverty is a fashion or even performance art, that’s even more egregious than coveting the holy life by means God hasn’t called you to. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I think you have something here.

        • That was along the lines of what I thought you were thinking. A very intereresting analogy.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Eventually, they’ll haul our remains out of the cage and use it for something else…

          Like a Mosque?

  4. Even though my car just broke down and I cannot afford it towed let alone repaired, even though our washing machine is broken and has been for about 1 month & I cannot afford to get it fixed, even though I cannot afford to buy a home for my family……

    I am not poor – I live in Australia and still have discretionary funds on a week by week basis.

  5. Interesting -and important- take. I do not think that poverty is some kind of neccessary condition to be spiritual. I think that westerners might realize that to much stuff does get in the way of our relationship with God, and then idealize the poor Christians.

    Strangely enough, we can’t seem to give stuff up.

    I am advocate for voluntary simplicity. Though it is very, very hard.

    • Damaris says:

      “I am an advocate for voluntary simplicity. Though it is very, very hard.”

      Ditto to both things.

  6. The power of money over us is the problem. Money can rule our lives when we don’t have it as well as when we have too much. But our possessions and our money can certainly get in the way of our relationship with God. Money can make us think that we can rely on ourselves and fix our own lives. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote a wonderful book on this subject called God’s Economy. It really impacted the way I’m relating to money.

  7. Brother Bartimaeus says:

    Thanks for the article Sister Damaris.  You didn’t really say it (although you talked about both), but what makes the difference is both gratitude and generosity together.  We have been called to both love God and love our neighbor.  Gratitude fulfills the first part of the command, while generosity fullfills the second.  They must go hand in hand in the Christian life, otherwise we lose perspective on the other.

    So covetous of the poor, of course not as you said. Jesus’ message is that God’s love is for both rich and poor. Our call isn’t to be poor, but to care for the poor.

    Peace

  8. Mike (the other chaplain) says:

    What a thoughtful, balanced, and uplifting post. I’m re-reading this one later. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Good post. Like the rain, human sinful nature is distributed among both rich and poor.

    To covet is, ultimately, to be owned by the object of one’s covetousness. Thus it is a form of idolatry. And this can happen to anyone, rich or poor. Gratitude shaped by God’s spirit is the only real counter to this.

  10. BTW, O’Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” is one of the most beautiful pictures of gratitude and generosity I’ve encountered. Maybe this is a bit off topic, but I think it also illustrates the need for and power of genuine art in the Christian community. To create is also itself an act of generosity.

  11. Great post

  12. You surely gave me a lot to think about. I am afraid that I have very little understanding of being truly grateful and even less about being a generous giver. I am going to pray even more fervently for my own soul in these areas. Thank you for your thoughts. I was necessarily challenged and admonished.

  13. Leslie Jebaraj says:

    Certainly Poverty Theology is not the panacea for Prosperity Theology!

  14. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    These are thoughts and comments that first came up when reading this IMonk post a couple months ago but only jelled when reading this one.

    A grandmother, an abandoned wife, and three hollow-eyed children living in one room, with no food and only a threadbare rug and a few mats to protect them from the minus-twenty cold outside — this is one view of poverty. I don’t covet this lifestyle. Neither do the people living in it.

    Families around the world generally don’t benefit from poverty. I knew a beautiful little child in Liberia who only answered to “Girl.” She didn’t know her name. Children there aren’t expected to live, so parents just call them “girl” and “boy” until they’re past the age of greatest risk. That way parents insulate themselves from caring too much.

    During my RCIA catechism classes years ago, one speaker/teacher told us the Church draws a distinction between Poverty and Misery. (In a nutshell: Poverty = USA poor; Misery = Haiti/Africa poor.)

    I have heard a LOT of Christian comments here and there about “Spoiled Rotten American Christians” coveting Third World Poverty and Persecution. The only thing I can compare them to are the tirades about “Spoiled Rotten Baby-Fat Americans” you got in the editorial sections of Guns & Ammo or Soldier of Fortune in the Seventies. And I ask what I first asked about the above IMonk link.

    What you describe above is not Poverty but Misery. To all you who “covet poverty”: Can “God be Glorified” ONLY when His people live under conditions like North Korea?

  15. I know Jesus loves the rich and the poor, but it is the rich that he said will have a harder time getting to heaven than a camel going through the eye of a needle. I am rich (top 2% of wealth of the world — America), and I don’t long to be poor. I love my home and comforts. I love my car and cash. But as I’ve been reading the red letters, the words of Christ, I cannot reconcile my comfort being of any importance. I have poor friends-migrant worker and his family of 8; widowed single mom; unemployed single mom with a mortgage (all of whom speak broken or no English). I am not looking to be poor, but I am simplifying my life (we are as a family) so that we can give more from our disproportiante bounty.

    I think there comes a problem in being content with wealth if it not shared extravagantly with one’s neighbors; unfortunately I know few who share so. I think there comes a problem when we don’t try to make life for others a foretaste of the one to come. I think there comes a problem when our wealth (i.e. a mortgage so large it takes two full-time jobs to pay for a house that far exceeds our need– or a ton of money raised to build a large additition onto the local church) is enjoyed while all around us people are hurting, hungry, homeless.

    No, we shouldn’t covet anything. I don’t covet poverty. But I am broken for my Haitian friends who are among the least in my communty. I don’t give them charity, but I also don’t give expecting to receive. I give because I love them. I give because they are my neighbors and they have great need. That looks like: calling legal services and translating/advocating before a mean landlord, signing them up at the local food pantry, helping to find them temporary housing, having them over for dinner and going to their place for dinner. I expect nothing in return, but I am blessed. I just want to love God, love others and follow Jesus. Whereever he leads…and he’s been leading us further into community with (not charity to) the poor.

    I’m just a broken sinner finding my way to the real God and the real Jesus of the Bible after years of thinking I knew.

    Headless Unicorn Guy—I say, “no.” God is not glorified *only* among the poor or those living under particularly tough regimes. I’m just one person, not saint, just sinner, who has seen God be glorified through small things done with great love for my friends. I don’t covet poverty. But I will simplify my life further to be able to teach English to one and help another study for the GED, if God continues to lead us down that path.

    I have to say, this post and discussion grieves me some. I don’t have it all figured out. But I am dealing with shock and awe (not the good kind) when sharing with most friends/family that we are visiting homes in the city while praying for God’s will for our family. It may or may not happen. We trust the Lord to lead. But financial freedom that will give me back my biggest resource (time) to be able to better love the poor in my life (friends) is a constant desire of both me and my spouse. It’s hard for some to undertand; harder for others to accept. We are the crazy radicals all of a sudden, and all we’re doing is seeking to love God, love our neighbors and follow Jesus. This is where we’ve been led. I haven’t done it yet. I will likely never be truly poor. But I can’t help but imagine what the world (my community) would be like if all of us were willing to give to others as extravagantly as we have received.

    I hope I didn’t offend by sharing my honest thoughts. It’s a risk. I know.

    • Kris — No offense at all. Your comment is inspiring and should be taken to heart by all of us. You have an advantage that not all Americans have, of actually having seen poverty. And your reaction to poverty is to do what you can to alleviate it, not to sentimentalize it and wish you could try it on for size. As I said, I was not writing about voluntary simplicity, although it would be a great topic — sounds like you could make a good contribution to it yourself. Voluntary simplicity would be a great diet to reduce our Western obesity-of-things. I do contend, though, that gratitude and a right relation with God — the focus of this post — is the starting point for dealing wisely with our wealth. You’ve already gone beyond that.

      • Thank you, Damaris. I agree that gratitude and a right relation with God is the starting point. I’d also say that those two together (if you’re reading the red letters) will make it hard to be content to rest in the comfort of one’s wealth if it is not being shared very generously with the poor. Maybe I should speak for myself. I only found my way to a right(er) relation with God after begging for him from the depth of real brokenness. His faithfulness to me has been/is so great, I want nothing less than to be in His will–even if he tells me to go live behind our pond (my Ninevah), as I share often and I mean it. From that soul pouring and cry, He’s given me passion for those with less by giving my friends with less. Thank you, again, for your kind response to mine.