By Diana Lisle
Note: Diana Lisle is a member of FBC Durham and has spent many years ministering in the urban context of Durham, often leading Bible clubs for children in nearby neighborhoods around our church building.
If you minister in an area of poverty, it can be easy to err in two very different ways: pity or pride. The gospel teaches us to set our minds on things above, not on things on earth. The gospel teaches us apart from Christ we are hopeless, all things are given by Christ not gained by the strength of our own hands. The gospel teaches us that the most pressing need of every man, woman, and child is to be reconciled to God. God gives all spiritual fruit. We were once God’s enemy, but now we are adopted into his family and coheirs with Christ. This is not based on any merit of our own, but only by the merciful, pursuit of Christ. It is with this understanding that we must minister. It is out of the knowledge of our past condition and God’s mercy that we must share the good news with those who are still, like we once were, dead in their trespasses and sin.
Keeping this right perspective, can be a struggle when we are ministering to people from our own culture (i.e., those who look like us, think like us, and live like us). When we minister cross-culturally, whether across ethnic or economic lines, this struggle can be increased if we don’t fully understand and live out the gospel. In other words, as we minister to others our practical theology comes to light. What do we really believe about the gospel? How do we view the places we minister? How do we view the people we minister to? How do we view other peoples’ circumstances?
Working in areas of poverty can be a distraction from the gospel for many Christians. When they see others without things that they have come to depend on as daily provisions or comforts, often it produces a response of pity. They may hurt for those in such conditions and want to help. It can be hard to see others without the comforts that you are used to or at times without their basic needs met. This can make one pity the families in this situation and begin to find solutions to their financial or material woes. Some people are so overwhelmed by entering a culture of poverty that they leave emotionally paralyzed. Others return with a determination to change the earthly situation of those they met.
There is a time for providing for those in need. Having compassion and providing for others in need is an important godly response. We should be generous in doing so. However, pity can be used to distract us from what’s not physically seen: their spiritual condition. I can become more concerned about the living conditions of others than spreading the hope of the gospel. My concern for providing material wealth for others can be used to distract me from the gospel.
Another wrong response to poverty can be pride. It is easy for one to be thankful they would never be found in a situation of poverty because of their own hard work and faithful service. Some start to judge those in poverty. While following patterns of biblical principles can lead to stable or fruitful lifestyles, all people living in poverty have not been the cause of their situations. Consider those who were born in poverty, many for generations, sometimes because of unjust societal structures or oppression. This may have left them without the resources and knowledge to get out. Consider also what the Bible tells us about wealth and material possessions: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth …” (Deut 8:17–18). If one falls into the trap of taking credit for their material possessions or wealth, this can also hinder one’s gospel witness.
If I let pride cause me to think I have gained material wealth by hard work, then I am failing to truly understand the grace of God, and I might judge myself more highly than I ought and might judge others lower than I ought. This can damage any ministry in which I am involved. If I let pity drive me to focus on changing the lifestyle of my friends, those I minister to, I can be distracted by valuing the temporary over the eternal. The same God who provides me with every good and perfect earthly gift (common grace) provides me with eternal life with Christ (saving grace), and I don’t deserve either one. If I compare my life with that of another without the correct view of the God’s grace, I may walk away with misguided pity or unmerited pride.
When you think about ministering in an area of poverty, what do you think? Do you think someone needs to go rescue those poor people? Do you view those living in poverty as in a more desperate situation than your unbelieving neighbors next door? Are you distracted from the gospel by the effects of poverty and wealth? Does one’s earthly condition cause a stronger emotional response in you than their spiritual condition?
Do you think of all people in poverty as unbelievers? Or do you believe there are co-laborers and co-heirs of Christ, people saved by grace just like you living in poverty? Are you distracted from the gospel by thinking too lowly of others or too highly of yourself based on material possessions?
Do you believe that some of the next church leaders are living in neighborhoods of poverty? Do you believe that God is at work pursuing, saving, and growing believers living in a variety of life’s circumstances? Do you believe that the greatest rescue that can be made is not from a life of poverty, but a life of sin? Do you believe that God has rescued you by unmerited favor from his wrath and made you his child and he will do that for others?
Believing that all material gain I have comes from God and not from my own self-worth means I must humble myself and give all credit to God for my earthly possessions. Believing God offers his grace freely to all who believe, completely without merit gives me the best strategy for rescuing others in poverty. We have the glorious privilege of joining the father in ministering to others in a variety of life circumstances within the body of Christ and throughout the world. By remembering God’s sovereign role in our lives, we can minister humbly and compassionately with great joy sharing the same hope of the gospel that has rescued us.