Tim Keller recounts this story in Generous Justice:
When I was a young pastor at my first church in Hopewell, Virginia, a single mother with four children began attending our services.
It became clear very quickly that she had severe financial problems, and several people in the church proposed that we try to help her. By that time I had begun to share my doctoral research with some of the church’s deacons. I pointed out that historically church deacons had given aid in exactly these circumstances. So the deacons visited her and offered to give her church funds for several months to help her pay off outstanding bills. She happily accepted.
Three months later it came out that, instead of paying her bills with the money we had been giving her, she had spent it on sweets and junk food, had gone out to restaurants with her family multiple times, and had bought each child a new bike. Not a single bill had been paid, and she needed more money.
What would you do?
Here’s how one deacon responded:
One of the deacons was furious. “No way do we give her any more,” he said to me. “This is the reason that she’s poor — she’s irresponsible, driven by her impulses! That was God’s money and she wasted it.”
That is exactly how not to respond. It sounds reasonable. “She wasted the money.” But it is arrogant and judgmental.
Here’s why. That very deacon is guilty of doing the very same thing with God’s gifts to him. Every single gift that God gives us we misuse in some way. And yet God keeps giving.
He can say “well, she did it much more flagrantly.” But to say that would be to move too fast and miss the main point.
As sinful people, we are all guilty of squandering God’s gifts to some extent. For example, God gives the gift of speech. Yet we sometimes use that to discourage and talk down to people. He gives us the gift of our minds, but we sometimes use them to covet and disobey his commands. And even the most “responsible” person with his money will make some selfish decisions.
Does God say “well, that’s all then. I’m not going to let you speak any more, or use your mind, or enable you to earn any more money.” No, for Jesus says “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:45-46).
And we must also remember that Jesus came to save us from a situation that was entirely our fault.
Jesus clearly does not have the mindset that when a person wastes something, we need to let them stew in their own juices. The problem with such a view is that it lacks mercy, and God is after mercy in our hearts — not simply absolute justice (Matthew 9:13). The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is that we are commanded to be more than just — we are to be merciful.
If God were simply after absolute justice, he would never and could never have sent Jesus — whose mission was to forgive and show grace. This means that mercy and grace now become an essential part of the righteousness God requires of us — and not simply things like “stewarding money well” (which, oddly enough, is often defined in a way that excludes grace — the very thing God requires his money be used for).
I think one reason for the centrality of mercy is that mercy most of all demonstrates our utter dependence on God. To fail to be merciful is to fall into thinking that you are the source of your own advantages, rather than God.
Hence, I would suggest that this deacon was actually the greater sinner in this situation than the woman who possibly wasted the money. For the woman is simply guilty (perhaps) of wasting money, whereas the deacon is guilty of lack of mercy.
But was this woman even in sin at all? This is the second problem with the judgmental attitude of the deacon. It blinded him to seeing perhaps some greater realities going on here that show that the woman’s behavior may have in fact been much more understandable (though contrary to cultural expectations) given the circumstances of her pain.
In other words, the poor are in great pain, and being in pain changes things drastically. The deacon is looking at the situation without accounting for her pain. Given her pain, her actions actually make a lot of sense. I know it is counter cultural to say that, but this comes to light as we read the rest of what Keller has to say on this story:
I countered with some passages from the Bible on doing justice for the fatherless and needy….[Then, applying some of Jonathan Edwards’ answers to objections to giving to the poor], I got our deacons to continue their aid to the single mother.
As time went on it became clearer to the deacons that the reason she had squandered the church’s money on restaurants and new bikes was that she felt terribly guilty for the poor life she was giving her kids. “It’s so hard being the child of a single mom in this town. And I can’t buy them the nice things other kids get.” When she had the church’s money in hand, she could not resist the temptation to take the children out to restaurants and buy them bikes, because it made her children feel like they were now part of a normal family.
When we began to look at her in this light, her behavior not only made more sense, but our hearts were touched. Her actions were not simply selfish.
When we understand that, we see that the woman was not being quite so irresponsible as the deacon had accused her of.
Now, I’m not saying that this woman should have bought the bikes for her kids and failed to use the money to pay the bills. As Keller also says, though her actions were much more understandable, “nevertheless, she had not kept her word to us, and we showed her that what she had done was shortsighted.”
My point is this: Though her decisions were not necessarily the wisest thing to do, judging her and cutting her off as the deacon initially did was an even greater sin because it lacks compassion. We need to understand this before we go about assessing and judging the way people in poverty allegedly spend their money.
The thing we need to understand about compassion is that it is not just about helping a person in need. The deacon had that — initially — and so we might wrongly think he was being compassionate, because he tried to help at first.
But that is only surface-level compassion. It was a compassion fail because the deacon failed to understand that true compassion has a much deeper dimension.
The way compassion works is that it makes allowances for peoples mistakes. This is the true test of compassion, because it is how God treats us: true compassion makes allowances for mistakes and keeps working with people anyway.
A compassionate response to the woman would have first realized that there may be larger factors going on here which show that the behavior was not simply selfish. Then, a compassionate response would not have sought to end the aid to her because of the mistakes she made, but would rather have recognized that moving through mistakes is part of the process of growth, and thus must be allowed for.
If she would continue to refuse to pay bills with additional money given, that would indeed be a bad thing. But to refuse to give allowance to people, even when it seems that what they are doing is a bad idea, is very contrary to the nature of compassion and how God treats us.
Second, true compassion would recognize that perhaps money for bikes and restaurants would be wise to have given her as well. For why should someone be left in pinching want, with just the necessities of life, and withheld some of the fun things in life that most people take for granted? Why do we so often have this minimal approach to helping the poor? Once again, God does not limit us to just the necessities of life, even though we have sinned greatly against him.
Third, and most of all, compassion means this: ditching the superiority complex. The root problem behind the deacon’s thinking was that he was exhibiting the superiority complex. He came in and thought he could judge and assess this woman. This failed to recognize, as we have already seen, that he was surely himself guilty of “abusing” God’s gifts in various ways in his own life — and yet God had not responded to him the same way he was responding to the woman.
Beyond this, though, the superiority complex also manifests itself in assuming you know exactly how another person should proceed. Instead, compassion recognizes a place for individual differences and the need for the poor to be able to utilize their own judgment as much as possible. Using one’s own judgment is part of learning how to escape poverty, and thus if it is denied to the poor, then the entire endeavor of helping them escape poverty is defeated.
And part of learning anything includes making mistakes. That’s why, while seeming “wise” and “responsible,” the deacon’s initial response would actually have kept the woman in poverty because it would have cut her off from the path of learning how to begin using money better — a path which requires the development of judgment, and thus includes mistakes.