We’ve all seen the posters, videos, letters, emails, and websites pleading for our support and help. It’s no wonder. There are billions of people around the globe who lack many of the things we take for granted—food, water, shelter, legal, protection, medical attention, and more. Somehow, however, despite the desperate condition of our fellow human beings, many Christians remain ungiving and uncharitable. We lack the generosity that is expected of us. Why is this? Why don’t we give much to the poor, or do much to help alleviate the desperate poverty around the world? And, better yet, what can we do about it?
Why We Don’t Give Much to the Poor
Techniques That Simply Don’t Work
It’s a question of motivation, really. What works and what doesn’t in getting people to give their money, time, and possessions to the underprivileged, abused, or marginalized? Whether the problem exists “across the tracks” or beyond our borders, most people just aren’t motivated to help. Here are some of the most common motivational techniques—techniques that aren’t really working.
The most common way to get people to give to the poor is guilt-driven motivation. Contrasting our prosperity with the poverty of the downtrodden is truly a powerful way to stir deep human emotions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and often the guilt technique is successful in compelling people to give. Perhaps we should more often feel the conscience sting of our selfishness and stinginess. Guilt can only go so far to prompt a genuine and long-term motivation to give.
Another form of motivation is the evidence approach. This comes in two varieties: Bible evidence and data points. The Bible is replete with references, cross-references, and even more references that deal with the theme of social justice, giving to the needy, taking care of others, etc. It is not hard to construct a biblical theology of social justice and to proclaim it in such a way that is clear and logical. The Word of God is living and powerful, and its effect is indisputable. Yet even Bible proclamation doesn’t have the desired effect upon everyone. (Just ask the preaching pastor at any church.) Another form of motivation consists of giving a lot of information about the problem. E.g., such and such a number of children are dying each day, this many millions of people live with unsanitary water, this number of unwed mothers in the city are without a source of income, etc. Such information is both true and appalling, yet even with these facts staring us in the face, we are not stirred to action as much as we should be.
A final form of attempt at motivation is the work-harder or discipline technique. This trait characterizes much preaching: “You gotta give ’till it hurts! Go without meals! Don’t take family vacations!” True enough, there is most likely a need to fast more, eat less, and scale back on lavish self-spending in order to give to others. Yet work-harder preaching provides no solution to man’s natural weakness and inevitable exhaustion. We can no more summon the necessary self-discipline to give away our hard-earned income than we can staunchly resist every temptation that comes our way. Something more is desperately needed—and that something is the mind-blowing, heart-changing, soul-energizing grace of Jesus Christ.
The conventional modes of motivation—guilty feelings, Scripture references, and grit-your-teeth discipline—can compel a generous spurt now and then. But they are basically ineffective in the long run. Charity organizations are still not flush with cash. Humanitarian non-profits are not swamped by applications. Neighborhood restoration programs are still stymied by lack of cooperation, and churches still grope desperately for more support in their efforts to help the homeless.
The Heart of the Problem
To find the best form of motivation, we first need to understand the most fundamental problem. Is it that we aren’t feeling guilty enough? No. Is it that we don’t really understand the depth of the problem? Probably not. Is it that we just need to work harder and dig deeper. No.
The fundamental problem is our sin nature. We are sinful human beings. Depravity runs deep—so deep that it can be considered totally pervasive. Yes, we are made in God’s image, and thankfully there are millions of people giving millions of dollars, investing many of hours, and expending their energies to provide help to the needy. Good is being done. But more can be done. More should be done.
The problem is sin. The heart of the problem is the heart of man—ruined by the Fall.
The solution to the problem, then, is God’s saving, sanctifying grace—the grace that cleanses sin, the grace that restores the fullness and beauty of God’s image, the grace that gives us both the will and the ability to do good, to give, to do justice.
Gospel Grace: The Ultimate Motivation
Gospel grace is the good news that changes everything. It should even change the way that we view, give, and care for those who lack, who are sick, who are needy, who are marginalized, and who are abused. The gospel not only changes hearts, but it also provides a picture of God’s sense of justice. It looks like this: Jesus Christ gave His life so that we may be saved.
Salvation produces good works, as James makes remarkably clear: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Tim Keller writes, “If [a person] doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.”
Thus, the true motivation to help others is none other than untarnished, undiluted, amazing grace—understood and applied. Keller goes on to write, “When justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and to the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up.”
In Christ, we find the entire reason and motivation for good works and justice. There is no simple motivational trick that will get Christians to give up their swanky retirements, lavish vacations, fine dining, or bigger Vizios. There is, however, a life-changing gospel that can turn the world upside down. The atomic power of the gospel can blast away stony hearts, and obliterate obstacles.
In light of this, then, believe the gospel, preach the gospel, and live the gospel. The gospel is the life-changing reality that will allow us to live a life of giving to others, loving others, and making a difference.