Poverty’s Personal Cause

Today I continue in a series of blogs that I started a few  weeks ago about views of poverty.  While last week I wrote a bit about the systemic causes of poverty, today I turn to:

3. Poverty can have a personal cause to it.

This is the view of poverty that I grew up with.  Having grown up in a very small town in a very conservative area of the country during a time of steel mills and good paying jobs, this was the common view.  The poor were portrayed as lazy, unmotivated, and loose in their lifestyles. The mindset that resulted then was that the poor had made their beds and now it was time for them to lie in it.  We would serve the poor at times, yet there was an attitude connected to it.  (Let me pause to say that most of the people we serve do not fit this description of poverty – we serve some of the hardest working, deeply loving, strongly motivated women I have ever met).

Of course this kind of thinking did not simply develop in a vacuum, but rather it has a Biblical background.  The Bible actually has a lot to say about the personal causes of poverty.  Take for example, Proverbs 20:13, “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare”  Bottom line – Laziness can cause poverty.   I am sure that all of us could think of people for whom laziness or lack of motivation has taken a toll and perpetuated poverty for them.

The Bible also seems to point out that a focus on the wrong things can lead to poverty.  Take for instance Proverbs 21:17 “Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and olive oil will never be rich.”  Or consider Proverbs 23:21 “for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.”  Or even consider Proverbs 28:22 “ The stingy are eager to get rich and are unaware that poverty awaits them.”  Most of us have also known someone who is impoverished who appears to spend all of their money in the wrong places or who are consumed in an addiction.

There are also passages pointing to the lack of judgement – or ongoing judgments – causing poverty.  Consider Proverbs 13:18, “He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame…”  or Proverbs 22:7 “and the borrower is servant to the lender.”

I have witnessed situations over the years where a person’s choices have exacerbated their poverty.  I especially think of the dozens of people whom we used to work with in a store front in Canada whom now found themselves in poverty because of substance abuse, poor choices, lack of judgment and lack of motivation.  They were poor and continued in poverty on many fronts because of ruts, habits and the ravaging effects of continued poor choices.

But, what is our response to be?  Could it be that there is more to be said than, “Grow up and get a job.”  On the surface it is probably not bad advice, yet I think there is more under the surface that we need someone to catch.

We need folks to be restored to whom God originally intended them to be.  For those who do not know Jesus, it means that we invite them on a journey of coming to know Him and thereby know who he or she is in and through Him.  For those who have chosen to follow Jesus it means to be taken on a path of discipleship to respond to who God designed us to be.

If we go the whole way back to Genesis we get a glimpse of what it means to be made in God’s image.  As Adam was in the Garden, before sin and brokenness has entered into the picture, there was a task put before him.  Genesis 2:15 reads, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”  Our response to the Creator is to work within His creation.

By the next chapter we see a much different picture however.  Sin had entered thus ravaging and distorting the created, now bringing a curse that made work hard and frustrating.  God’s original design had been marred and twisted.

We further see God’s heart when we look at Abraham as he is called by God in Genesis 12 with the news that he not only would be blessed, but that he was going to be blessed to be a blessing.  God’s intention was not only that we would work, but also that we would share the fruit of our labor with others.  Both choosing not to work as well as working without sharing are signs of an impoverished self that has not quite grabbed hold of God’s image and His intention.

So the call out of “poverty” for all of us brings us to God and His intention for us.  We first have to help others (and ourselves) see how Jesus has made them and is calling them into Himself.  The way out for them is a path of relationship that we offer as we walk alongside of them pointing toward The Creator of All whose desire is to restore His image in them.  I think this is evident in Ephesians 4:28 as Paul writes,  “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.”  Paul was calling on those who were stealing so that they could have something to eat to stop not simply because it was morally wrong, but because if they were working then they would have something to share with those in need.  They were being called to reflect The Master and thereby find true life, blessing and wholeness.

It can mean a long process of steps forward and steps backward, but that is something that we as God’s people understand through and through – Grace is a precious gift which we have received…and we have been granted it to be given away.

This is a part of our call among the poor – to be reconcilers who not only introduce others to Jesus, but also who then help people understand who He has designed them to be.  It means that while they (and us) may still look poor, we are no longer impoverished in our hearts and minds.  We get to call forth dignity while pointing to the only One who rescues.

This became so clear to me in a recent interaction with one of our moms.  She was begging when she started in the project and continued to beg for a few weeks after entering.  She struggled to break out of a habit that had been with her for a long time.  However, over time our staff was able to encourage her and call her to embrace a restoration of dignity.  Now, she has stopped begging and she works hard everyday doing heavy lifting 10 hours per day for a payment of $1.25 USD per day.  But, she recently told  our staff that she sees now that begging was a cancer that was eating away at her soul. She went on to say, “Now I am free!”  as she smiled from ear to ear and bragged about her job.  She is still materially poor, but she no longer impoverished.  She is embracing the person that God has made her to be – one who is made in His image.   And, we get the privilege of walking this journey out alongside of her!

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