You see them at stoplights, appealing to the pity of passersby. They hold cardboard signs that describe their plight and, interestingly, usually mention God’s name. They are homeless and debilitated, usually by an addiction. They are the beggars of today. Do you give to them? Do you pray for them? Do you even look at them?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you” (Matthew 5:42a). In this article, I argue that obeying this command means giving to the beggars among us.
Consequentialism vs. Deontology
“You can’t give money to beggars on the side of the road. They’ll just spend it on drugs and alcohol!”
This is the classic argument against giving to beggars. It assumes that the consequences of an action determine whether the action is good or bad. This is known, philosophically, as consequentialism. An alternative to consequentialism is deontology. Deontology says that an action is either good or bad in itself, not because of its consequences. So, which of these is right?
Issues with Consequentialism
Under consequentialism, to know if an action is good, you must know its consequences. To know an action’s consequences, you must accurately predict the future. To accurately predict the future, you must have all the facts and then put them together perfectly. There’s just one problem: humans do not have all the facts, and, even if we did, we are not smart enough to put them together perfectly. Just look at March Madness bracket predictions! Clearly, we are not prophets.
Even if we can predict some of the consequences of our actions, we can never predict all of them. Every action that we take has a ripple effect that extends into eternity. Thus, the long-term consequences of our actions are unpredictable. Even in the short term, our actions will have consequences we do not intend. This is known as the law of unintended consequences. We cannot predict the future well enough to stake our morality on it.
There are more issues with consequentialism. Consider this: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II. The United States’ involvement sealed the Allies’ victory in that war. If it is good that the Allies won, and if the Allies won because America got involved, and if America got involved because of Pearl Harbor, does that not mean, according to consequentialism, that attacking Pearl Harbor was good?
Of course, the good consequence in this case–the Allies’ victory–was not intended by the Japanese. As we have already said, many consequences are unintended. You may intend to do bad and it turn out good. You may intend to do good and it turn out bad. Does consequentialism care about that? I think not. If you can never know the ultimate consequences of your actions, you can never make a truth claim about the goodness or badness of any action. Thus consequentialism, though simple at first glance, makes morality impossibly complex! But perhaps consequentialism can still be saved.
The Perfect Consequentialist
Human limitation makes consequentialism untenable. But God is not subject to human limitation. God knows the future; He is the very Author of it. Let us say that God is the ultimate Consequentialist and that He works all things for our good (Romans 8:28). Then, by obeying His commands, we too would be perfect consequentialists. But then we would be no consequentialists at all! Rather, we would be stalwart deontologists, referring to God to determine morality (This particular kind of deontology is known as divine command theory. It says that an action is good if God commanded it). Even if it looked like a command would have a bad consequence, we would not worry. We would trust that God sees all ends and obeying Him is ultimately best for everyone. Thus we can reason our way through consequentialism to arrive at deontology.
Perhaps it is permissible to use consequentialist reasoning in matters about which God has given no specific revelation of His Will. However, where God has spoken, we must obey without regard for our own evaluation of consequences. It is as the late Dr. Charles Stanley said: “Obey God and leave all the consequences to Him.”
Where giving to beggars is concerned, we must not refuse on the grounds of consequence. If we do not give to beggars, it must be for some other reason.
Our Wisdom vs. God’s Wisdom
“Sure, God gave us good commands that we should obey. But He also gave us brains, and He intends for us to use them!”
The first time I remember hearing this argument, I was with my dad at a favorite barbecue joint picking up Sunday lunch. My dad was talking with the owner, a man who claimed Christianity. The restaurant was open every Sunday, which meant that whoever ran the place was working and not going to church. On this day, that included the owner. He gave an unsolicited justification, saying something like, “I know God wants us to go to church, but He also gave me a mind to see that business is good on Sunday.”
Most can see the error in this, but they may not grasp the deeper truth: When God has spoken, man’s rationality is irrelevant.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.Isaiah 55:8-9
The Sermon on the Mount itself proves that God’s Word opposes man’s rationality.
Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.Matthew 5:39
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute youMatthew 5:44
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction,Matthew 7:13
Obeying God will at times conflict with our rationality. By having faith in God, we subject our flawed rationality to His perfect rationality. It’s not that rationality is useless. I am using rationality to write this article! It is that rationality must be put in its proper place.
Of course, we can, while trying to suspend our rationality, devolve into absurdity. We can take a command to such an extreme as to violate the Spirit by which the command was given (think of the Pharisees prohibiting Jesus from healing on the Sabbath, for example). There are extreme iterations of all commands. Yet, many consider it extreme to obey, “Give to the one who beg from you,” at all. This should not be.
On Subsidizing Laziness
“The Bible says that anyone who is not willing to work should not eat. God doesn’t want us to subsidize laziness.”
The line, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,” is often cited as a universally applicable principle of giving. But this takes the statement out of context.
The statement comes from 2 Thessalonians 3, in which Paul discourages the church from financially supporting idle members. It has to do with giving from believers to other believers, not from believers to unbelievers. Look at the way Paul opens this admonishment a few verses earlier:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.2 Thessalonians 3:6 (emphasis added)
Paul makes it clear from the outset that he is decrying idleness among believers. He goes on to say,
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 (emphasis added)
I have italicized the words which further indicate that this admonishment is for believers specifically. It does not follow that Paul would hold unbelievers to the same standard. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul deals with sexual immorality in the church. But Paul is careful to point out that his prescription does not apply to unbelievers.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.1 Corinthians 5:9-10
And here is the key line:
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.1 Corinthians 5:12-13
Those who have received Christ are held to a higher standard of morality. If an unbeliever is unwilling to work, that is between him and God.
You may be concerned that giving to the lazy will remove their incentive to work. But this is not the Christian way. As believers, what is our incentive for righteousness? The threat of Hell? Not at all! Rather, it is grace. As the old song says, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” In Christianity, it is grace first, righteousness later. Never the other way around. Why do we sit and wait for beggars to get their acts together before we show them charity, while when we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)? And now we are getting to the heart of the matter.
Giving in Imitation of Christ
Who are we to judge who is deserving and undeserving of charity? In the economy of God, the currency of which is righteousness, who is more of a beggar than us? How can we who are so undeserving and yet have been lavished with grace then refuse those around us?
Remember the parable of the unforgiving servant. The king forgave his servant 10,000 talents (worth approximately 200,000 years of labor), and the servant turned and refused to forgive his fellow servant 100 denarii (approximately 100 days of labor). Here is what the king said to the unforgiving servant:
You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?Matthew 18:32-33
Let it not be said of us!
Will some abuse our charity? Certainly. But they could never abuse it more than we have abused the cross. Let us put away such earthly squabbles as getting a good return on investment. Ask yourself this: If God looked into your future before He saved you, would He judge your life since salvation as worthy of the price He paid? If God was as stingy with grace as we are with money, we would all be doomed.
We have an opportunity to love others as Christ loved us. Let us not pass up on that opportunity, lest we incur God’s chastisement.
What if my giving makes the beggar’s situation worse?
It is clear that we must give to beggars. Even still, you may feel convicted about putting money into the hands of one for whom that money may be dangerous. This is a legitimate concern. In the words of psychologist Jordan B. Peterson,
I had lots of clients who were much better off when they had no money at all. Those were often people who had addiction problems, because as soon as they had any money at all they were just in the bar and into the cocaine until they were face down in a ditch.
It is true that it may not be wise to give a beggar money. But what is certainly not true is that this releases us from our obligation to them! When God commands us to give to the poor, He does not necessarily command us to give money (Although, the fact we all seem to assume money should tell us something, no?).
In Acts 3, Peter encounters a lame beggar who asks him for money. Peter replied, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” How much better is this than whatever alms the beggar was expecting!
My view is this: If you do not give money, you should give something even more valuable. If you are concerned about the risk of putting money in the hands of an addict, I would suggest putting together some bags to hand out. Some cheap, reusable shopping bags filled with food, water, hand warmers, and basic hygiene supplies could go a long way. This, I think, is a legitimate alternative. Notice, however, that this costs more than the money it takes to purchase the materials. It takes time and energy to decide what should be in the bags, shop for the materials, and then put it all together. But so be it if it makes the beggar’s situation better and not worse.
So, should we give to all beggars? Are we any closer to an answer than we were at the beginning?
Obey God, and leave all the consequences to Him. Suspend your rationality where God has spoken. Pity the poor as God pitied you. If you do not give money, give something more valuable. Give to the one who begs from you.