By Jonathan Ho
A few years ago in the late fall or winter, I was sitting in the subway train when a young man came into my train car and broke the public silence, saying loudly, “I really need help. I just found out that the nearest shelter was full and I need money to get to the other one. Please, please, help me out, I have to get there before it closes!” I didn’t want to give him money and I also didn’t know whether he was telling the truth or not. But it was cold, and would I deny someone just because I thought he might be lying? I ended up giving him a few dollars. The person next to me told me I was a good person. I felt conflicted.
In that situation I had two obvious options: give money or not give money. If I gave him money, I might be giving him money to spend on vices like alcohol, but if I didn’t give him money he might not have a place to stay that night. I didn’t have time to listen to him and try to figure out if he was telling the truth or not.
If you live in the city you probably run across this all the time. You can’t possibly talk to every beggar on the streets. You will end up either ignoring some people asking for help or burn yourself out. And you can never guarantee that what you give will be used for good. What do you do when you have no good options?
There’s something economist James Buchanan calls the Samaritan’s dilemma, giving help for a need that ends up increasing the need. Some economists or insurance agencies describe it as “moral hazard,” keeping someone from receiving the consequences of his or her actions, enabling someone. We want to help others but not enable them. In this case, I might be helping this man if he really needed shelter for the cold night, but I might be enabling him to pursue his vices if he already had a place to stay and just wanted some extra money for some kind of addiction.
Paul once wrote to Timothy, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”1 If someone doesn’t work and support especially his family, then he is denying faith and is worse than an unbeliever. Hard work is important, so we should expect to work hard.
But then, was Jesus an enabler? Jesus saved us from the ultimate deserved consequence of our sin nature. Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,”2 and again he writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”3 Our salvation, our redemption is a gift. In the letter to the Roman believers, Paul also wrote, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”4 Was God wondering who was worthy before sending Jesus to die for us? Or does he freely offer this gift to all of us?
Not only is our salvation outside of ourselves, so are our gifts.
When writing to the believers in Corinth, Paul asked, “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”5 What we have is all a gift. I was born to an upper-middle-class family. I was given all the support I needed for academics and musical training. Does that mean I’m superior or more capable? No. But it does mean I have some advantages and they are not because I’m super smart or super capable, but because of what I have been given both in my upbringing and genetics. If we go to the example of the beggar, we might ask, if my “soul” had been born into the situation of the beggar on the train, would I also, years later, be on the train begging for money? Am I better than the beggar?
David Powlison says our world often takes differences and turns them into ways of measuring value. We turn spectrums of differences into ladders of worth. In the Kingdom of God, being smarter does not increase my value in the eyes of God, who is no respecter of persons. If God does not show favoritism, then that means he does not value one of us over another, but welcomes all: no matter how attractive or unattractive we are, the amount of money we have, or how athletic or unathletic we are. Doesn’t God allow it to rain on the just and the unjust? As Paul wrote to believers in Rome, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”6 We did not earn our righteousness or God’s love.
When I look at my life, I see a lot of goodness from God, but also a lot of messiness. I still struggle to love others well, to fight against bitterness, jealousy, and pride. Yet, amidst all of this mess, God pursues me. Am I so different from the beggar on the train? Am I not someone who asks God for shelter and provision for my soul?
If we are to believe God is love, then we believe God is moving in our lives. If you look at our lives, you will see a perfect love which continuously fights for us amidst a messy warzone. As the writer of Hebrews exhorts us, “For consider Him who had endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”7
Jesus endured and often continues to endure hostility from us, and yet he still died for us and knows what our entire story shall be. Will we not do the same for those who are around us, for those Jesus also died for? Imperfection in ourselves, this world, and in others should not prevent us from seeking to love well. This love is not enabling nor is it ignorant. This love is one which is not afraid of being wrong or making mistakes, but also a love which endures and forces us to grow. Love does not change, but if we love well, love will change us. This means taking the time to hear someone’s story, of committing and claiming others, of laying down our lives for others.
My giving of money was a bit naive, but it was an attempt, and maturity requires attempts. We become mature by practicing to have our senses trained to discern good and evil.8 May we learn to try, but also learn from our trying and from the attempts of others. This may mean listening to those in need, studying case studies, and talking to experts, but it also means being open to the Spirit, trying, listening for God, making mistakes, and ultimately, persevering to love as Christ loves us. In an imperfect world and with earthly bodies, there is a temptation to rest in platitudes, in sayings and proverbs rather than embodying the Word of God in pursuing others in the world. I hate making mistakes, I hate being wrong, and I hate being uncomfortable, but Jesus came and died for me so I could be free to love others without fending for my ego, pride, and comfort.
My goal is not to tell you whether to give money or not to those who ask. My point is to ask whether you are pursuing those God has called you to pursue and whether you have chosen to give up or to continue to walk by faith despite the failures and inadequacies our attempts may reveal. Having a perfect love does not mean we are perfect, but true love always endures and never fails.
My prayer is that our imperfection may be exposed in our trying so that Christ may be seen and felt in the world. May we learn that to give God the glory is to take action, even if it is through imperfect means.
1 1 Timothy 5:8, NASB
2 Romans 6:23, NASB
3 Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB
4 Romans 5:8, NASB
5 1 Corinthians 5:7, NASB
6 Romans 4:4-5
7 Hebrews 12:3
8 See Hebrews 5:14