Exercising Wisdom When Helping People in Need
In my time as a pastor I regularly encountered people who were in dire straits—unemployed, homeless, struggling with addiction, and the like. I feel sorry for people when they suffer and always did what I could to render assistance. Our church always reserved funds, for example, to purchase food for people if they were struggling to make ends meet.
Yet, at the same time, an experienced ruling elder made an important observation that has stuck with me. When people came knocking on the church door, more often than not, they were typically at the end of a long series of broken authority structures in life.
Gather pertinent information to more effectively help people.
This elder reminded me that people seldom have calamity randomly fall upon them. There are certainly times when this does occur, and so in each case you have to ask a lot of questions and do your best to evaluate the specific nature of a person’s problems. But God places numerous authority structures in our lives to assist us along the way: parents, extended family, school teachers, local authorities (e.g., government and police), and for Christians, the church (pastors and elders).
Along these lines, when you talk to someone who has been unemployed for a long period of time and regularly struggles to make ends meet, ask a lot of questions. You ask questions not to accuse or find reasons to dismiss people’s needs, but rather so you can do your best to help them. You can toss money at a problem and provide for a person’s rent for one month, but will that actually solve anything? Have you only treated the symptom rather than the root cause?
For example, you may be attempting to help a person who ignored his parents’ and teachers’ advice and dropped out of high school, and who has regular run-ins with the local authorities. If you give this person money, you will fix the problem for the short term but leave the underlying cause untreated. Namely, this person does not want to submit to authority, and a failure to repent of this attitude will only continue to bring problems in their life.
We must be wise in how we assist people.
For someone who needs financial help, you need to ask: Where is your family? Do you have extended family that can help? Have you tried government assistance? Are you a member of a church, and have you approached your deacons? Again, you aren’t looking for a reason to say no to people but rather are trying to figure out why they have problems to begin with. Perhaps they are estranged from their family. Perhaps they have been disciplined by their church. Regardless of the scenarios, don’t just throw money at people. It may make you feel better if you toss money at a problem, but in the end, you may do more harm than good.
We should always seek to help the needy, but we must be wise in how we assist people. It could be that by failing to do your due diligence and ask questions, you give money to someone and make their life worse. Then you run out of money and can’t help the person who genuinely needs it. Take note of when people cross lines. Seek to treat the causes of a person’s problems, not merely the symptoms.
J. V. Fesko is Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He has written numerous books on the Christian faith, including Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights and the newly released commentary, Romans (Lectio Continua).
The Fruit of the Spirit Is... by J. V. Fesko
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