When our boys were growing up, my wife taught them to “live a life God can bless.” I’ve become convinced that’s the key to living well. How do we live a life God can bless today?
When I became a Christian, my answers were simple: Ask Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Savior; read the Bible; pray; go to church; be moral. In recent years, I’ve come to see that there is a very significant dimension to biblical obedience that I had simply missed. Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, calls it “the hole in our gospel.” What is it?
Feed the body to obey the Lord
When Jesus began his public ministry, he was invited to speak in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth. This was his opportunity to announce his ministry purpose, to define his vision, to explain his goals and priorities to all.
He was handed the scroll of Isaiah, but could have read from any of its 66 chapters. Which would you expect him to select? Isaiah 9, with its promise of a “wonderful counselor, Almighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”? Isaiah 53, with its incredibly precise prediction of his suffering and crucifixion?
Here’s what he chose to read:
“Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor'” (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).
What happened next? “Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'” (Luke 4:20-21). Why did Jesus know that his Father would bless those who care for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed? How does God feel about such people?
- “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18).
- “The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9).
- “He will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help” (Psalm 72:12).
- “He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea” (Psalm 102:17).
- “The LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Psalm 140:12).
- “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked” (Psalm 146:7-9).
- “You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat” (Isaiah 25:4).
What does God want us to do for the poor?
- “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
- “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).
- “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4).
- “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’—when you now have it with you” (Proverbs 3:27-28).
- “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
- “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
- “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
What happens if we do not help the ppor?
- “He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4).
- “He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty” (Proverbs 22:16).
- “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them” (Proverbs 22:22-23).
- “He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses” (Proverbs 28:27).
- “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
- “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).
- “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).
What will he do for those who care for the poor?
- “He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy” (Proverbs 14:21).
- “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31).
- “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done” (Proverbs 19:17).
- “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:6-11).
- Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).
To summarize, the Lord said this of godly King Josiah: “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 22:16).
Feed the body to feed the soul
Why does God care so much about the poor? Why does he call us to do the same? Because each person is his creation, made uniquely in his image, someone for whom Jesus died. A father cares for the physical needs of his children as well as the spiritual. If one of your children were hungry or hurting today, how would you feel? That’s how God feels about every impoverished person.
But a second reason is that the first leads to the second. Jesus met physical need so he could meet spiritual need. He healed blind eyes so he could heal blind souls. He fed bodies so he could feed spirits. His disciples did the same. His disciples are called to do the same today. Dr. Randel Everett, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Midland, Texas, is right: “I have no right to preach the gospel to a hungry person.”
A third reason why God wants us to care for the poor is that such compassion demonstrates the relevance of the gospel to our skeptical culture. The number of atheists and agonistics in America has quadrupled in the last 20 years. Sixty percent of our young people, ages 15-29, have left the church with no plans to return. What will happen if their children follow their example?
Why are they leaving? Every survey gives the same answer: they don’t believe the church is relevant to their lives and society. In our culture, God is a hobby. He’s for Sunday, not Monday; we separate the spiritual from the secular, religion from the real world.
But when God’s people, in God’s power, demonstrate God’s love to those who need his help the most, we show our culture that he is relevant to our day. We meet physical need to meet spiritual need to preach the gospel. That’s why Jesus began his ministry by preaching good news to the poor. It’s why we must continue it in the same way today.
When last did it cost you something significant to help those less fortunate than yourself? When last did you meet physical need in Jesus’ name? When last did you earn the right to meet spiritual need in this way? When last did you demonstrate the relevance of God’s word to our culture?
You can do so today. You can decide right now to join Jesus’ ministry to the least, the last, the lost. How much should you give to care for the hungry? How much will you sacrifice to “preach good news to the poor” in money and message? C. S. Lewis, when dealing with our question, advised, “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” It is impossible to measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.
Would you ask your Father how he wants you to share his compassion with his children?
I recently led a study tour of Italy, where our group’s favorite stop was in the town of Assisi. There we visited the tomb of St. Francis, the 13th-century monk who founded what became the largest order in Catholic history. And we remembered the prayer often attributed to this great and gracious servant. Let’s make it ours today:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.