From the Colson Center audience:
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” – 1 John 3:17-18
I’d like more insight on the Bible text noted above. Not sure how to apply that to today’s world. My family gives to organizations that provide help but not so much to individuals.
The Colson Center replies:
That’s a great verse, and I see how it can be challenging. There is so very much need in this world around us. So much that we could never come to the end of it before coming to the end of ourselves. Are we being unfaithful to our calling as Christians if we don’t give away all we have to those in need?
There are two things going on. First there is the more obvious insistence on caring for the poor among us, or, to be precise, to have a heart sensitive to their plight. But, below that, or, perhaps better, behind that and driving that is the fundamental principle that a true appreciation of the Christian worldview will lead to an embodied faith that diffuses through all our lives.
The question of poverty relief is fundamental to Christian ethics. It is very often in our care for those with less that the reality of our faith is put to the test. As God has been generous to us by the gift of His Son, we are to be generous to others in a pale, yet real imitation of this divine care. In this passage, John would have our lives characterized by generosity and lead us to ask if our faith is real if we have no love for others.
John here calls us to open our hearts to our brother in need, particularly if we have the means of aiding him in some way. The first of these verses only emphasizes our internal disposition, how we see our brother, but the second widens it to embrace making this love real by taking action.
What does this action look like in practice? Is it enough that we give, or must we give to everyone who asks of us? Luke 6 would seem to say just that: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.” Before we jump to conclusions that’d put us in the poor house along with our brother, let’s consider a thing or two.
While a simplistic reading would have us giving to every beggar on the roadside, that same shallow perspective would have us giving to those far less-needy. I don’t mean that our generosity should be limited to the “worthy.” After all, who of us is worthy of God’s grace? Our rule of thumb in such matters should be to give more than is comfortable, but to give with wisdom.
If the only qualification for our giving is that others ask, what’s to keep us from giving to those who would harm not only themselves but others? If a madman comes to my door asking for a gun to shoot up a school, I hardly think Christ would’ve insisted I give simply because the madman asked. Nor would it be Christlike to “give” in a way that hurts the recipient of this misguided generosity.
Another qualifying question is, am I giving to do good or to be good? That is, am I giving to those in need because it helps to push back the effects of Adam’s Fall in their lives, or am I doing it because it helps me to complete another part of my checklist as a morally upright person?
This is no abstraction to excuse us from giving generously. It gets to the heart of the matter. Our love for others must be centered on their well-being and not our self-satisfaction. Am I helping the person by my gift, or am I leaving them in their squalor? Or, am I even making their lot worse? Remember, it was the widow with her mite that Christ praised in all her anonymous generosity and not the ostentation of the rich who gave for the sensation of giving.
This is the virtue of working with ministries or charities whose full-time task is caring for the poor. I’m not suggesting that we should never give spontaneously. As others have said, it’s better to be swindled than to be heartless. But, if it isn’t our ordinary life to work with those with little, and we don’t have the insight or experience to make healthy judgments, we may inadvertently cause harm when we’re trying to do good.
This is all very true, but I suggest that there’s more going on here in I John than a canonical version of the storefront Santa, ringing his bell for the poor. Instead, like a great many verses in Scripture, John here is calling us to live out our faith in all its fullness, not as an artifact solely of the mind but as the lived-out experience of a life renewed.
Many verses throughout the Bible echo this principle. Not all of them center on questions of giving or charity, but each in its own way works to show that the Christian worldview has no place for a static, cerebral faith. If these doctrines we claim are true – God’s good creation, our Imago Dei, Adam’s Fall, God’s redemptive work, and Christ’s eventual victory – then they impose upon us certain reactions to this world.
Look to James 1:22-24 where James all but mocks those mocks Christians whose faith was so shallow that it made no impression upon them. Think of the very next chapter in James 2:14-19 where he goes so far as to say that if we only have a set of right beliefs but with nothing to show for them, we’re in the same category as the fiends of Hell. Or consider Paul in Romans 12:1-2 as we are reminded that the whole of our being, bodies included, are part of Christ’s claim on our lives.
Each of these passages, and many others like them, shares the rejection of the conceit that the Christian life can remain solely as a matter of the mind without bearing fruit across the span of our lives. Our faith isn’t to be believed the way we believe in algebra but is to change us the way being in love changes us. No one who is truly in love can help but be altered by the experience.
So, too, no one who is truly in faith can avoid showing it by a transformed life. This is true when it comes to giving to the poor, and it is true when it comes to our ordinary vocations. The Christian understanding of the world cannot remain isolated as an intellectual exercise but must be rooted in the holistic transformation of our entire beings and lived out by us in everything we think, say, and do.
Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series where Colson Center staff respond to questions and comments from our audience. If Christianity is true, as we say it is, then Christians should be willing and able to offer what Francis Schaeffer called “honest answers to honest questions.”
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