The Christian tradition has always stood in solidarity with the poor. James reminds his readers that caring for the poor is a mark of true religion (James 1:27). In a similar manner, John writes that a failure to care for the poor may be a sign of an unregenerate heart, as he rhetorically asks,
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? (1 John 3:17)
Indeed, those of us who follow Christ face high expectations in ministering to the poor. Jesus teaches that caring for the poor is the same as caring for God himself (Matthew 25:31–40), while neglecting the poor is an offense to God (Matthew 25:41–46). Proverbs teaches these same truths, saying,
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker…. Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord. (Proverbs 14:31; 19:17)
Even though Christians have consistently ministered to the poor, such ministry can be a challenging task since the measurement of poverty is relative and the causes are varied. Even in Scripture, the discussion of poverty is paradoxical at points. For instance, God’s stated ideal is clearly that “there will be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). Yet, as I discussed in another post, Jesus voluntarily adopted a life of poverty and taught, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20).
As we seek to minister to the poor in a biblically faithful way, these tensions highlight how important it is for us to answer pressing contextual questions: Is the poverty in view voluntary or involuntary? Is the poverty in question the result of personal sin, public injustice or some other cause? Does the situation call for immediate aid or long-term development?
The Causes of Poverty
One way we can gain a proper foundational perspective on ministry to the poor is by examining the causes of poverty. Indeed, identifying the cause(s) of poverty in any given context can help us understand how best to minister to the poor, if ministry is called for. As we’ll discover during our discussion, the roots of poverty fall into three general categories. But it is important to note that the causes of poverty in a given context are usually mixed and self-aggravating. This is one of the many reasons why ministry to the poor can be complex and why it often (if not, usually) requires a personal, long-term commitment.
1. Personal Sin
The first category of causes of poverty is personal sin. Scripture often mentions moral failures that lead to poverty. For example, the Bible warns about poverty as a result of laziness or idleness (see Proverbs 6:10–11; 10:4; 19:15; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). Likewise, Proverbs warns about the effects of a poor work ethic (see Proverbs 14:23), and Paul teaches that those who will not work should not be insulated from the effects of their sin—namely, they should not be allowed to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Scripture cites other moral failures as cause for poverty, including a lack of self-discipline, stubbornness, drunkenness and gluttony (see Proverbs 13:18; 23:21). Jesus called out these sins in his parable of the Prodigal Son, describing how the wayward younger brother made his way into poverty (Luke 15:11–16). Poverty can stem from other personal sins, including greed, expensive tastes, dishonesty and frivolous pursuits. For example, Proverbs warns us,
Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich…. He who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty. (Proverbs 21:17; 28:19; see also 1 Timothy 6:9–10)
2. Natural Evil
Natural evil is the second category of causes of poverty. Simply defined, natural evil consists of things such as natural disasters (earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, droughts and other “acts of God”), diseases, genetic defects, injuries and death.
Natural evil is not directly caused by a person’s own actions or another person’s actions against them. Rather, this type of evil is a part of the fallen created order and, as such, involves material forces beyond human control. Natural evil can lead to poverty when it causes a loss of material goods, the death of a family provider, or a disease or physical infirmity that prevents a person from labor and production (see Mark 5:25–26; Luke 18:35).
A third category of causes of poverty is oppression by others. Unlike natural evil, this type of poverty can be prevented; thus, Scripture frequently warns against oppressing others.
Examples of oppression that cause poverty include common theft (Psalm 12:5), delayed wages (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15; 1 Timothy 5:18), excessive taxation (2 Chronicles 10:1–19), biased justice systems (Leviticus 19:15) and exorbitant interest rates on loans to the needy (Exodus 22:25–27). Many of these types of oppression are systematic or institutionalized, or become so over time; thus, they tend to affect larger groups of people than do individual sins. Perhaps this is why the Lord promises to defend those who fall prey to this type of oppression and exhorts us to do the same (Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17).
So if you want to minister to the poor, understanding the root cause of the poverty will help you pray for and minister to them more effectively.