“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…” Luke 4:18
Jesus uttered these words in the Synagogue one day to announce his ministry to his hometown. Up to that time, he had grown up as the son of a carpenter, been baptized by his cousin John the Baptist (where the Spirit descended upon him like a dove), endured a 40 day fast and temptation in the wilderness, and begun teaching in the Galilee region. But now he was making a bold statement that he was fulfilling the mission of the long-awaited Messiah. Interestingly the first element he mentioned about his mission was that He was there to bring “good news to the poor”. Later in the same conversation, he compares his mission to that of the ancient prophet Elijah who saved the poor widow of Zarephath from starvation by giving her an endless supply of bread. Sadly enough, those who knew him longest were the first to reject him. They were so angry at his words they tried to throw him off of a cliff (read the rest of Luke 4 if you don’t believe that). Jesus clearly states that His mission includes bringing good news to those who are poor. But even today, God’s offer to help the poor is not always accepted. As disciples of Christ we are not destined to be poor. Yet many of God’s people today live in some degree of poverty.
To be poor means to lack, or have genuine basic needs go unmet. We normally think of poverty as pertaining to the material sense. Indeed, in a land of abundant resources it strains the imagination why there are so many in America who struggle to meet their basic needs (food, clothes, shelter). In fact, there are undoubtedly enough resources in the earth to feed, clothe, and shelter every human being alive. So although the problem of poverty is confusing, it definitely can be overcome. The problem of poverty can be overcome personally by recognizing its spiritual dimensions. I promise not to get too deep here but I want to show you that the Bible has a lot to say about overcoming poverty.
Before I go further, let me explain that I am not implying here that anyone who is poor is to blame for being poor. There are many people who have grown up in poverty and who’s only inheritance were bills and a poverty mentality. I’ve heard of people telling there children, “We are poor and we will always be poor”. That’s a horrible thing to say! It doesn’t have to be that way. But I’m certainly not trying to place blame here on anyone who has found themselves struggling to meet their basic needs. I simply invite you to read further and discover what God has to say about overcoming poverty.
The first thing I want to show you is a pitfall that many fall into that the Bible warns us about. In Proverbs 28:19 it reads, “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.” Please catch that last part about chasing fantasies! Many people fall into the trap of trying to get out of poverty through “get-rich-quick” schemes. These are fantasies, things dreamt up by people who watch too much “Yo MTV Cribs” and such. Buying lottery tickets is paying for a fantasy – have you ever really looked at the odds of winning? Chasing fantasies is not the way to overcome poverty. So what is the way? Let me document 4 things the Bible shows us about overcoming poverty through work, learning, temperance, and generosity.
The first key to overcoming poverty is found in the proverb from the previous paragraph. “He who works his land will have abundant food” There are several other verses that cover this simple principle, including Proverbs 6:9 – 11 (which must have inspired my father) which states, “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest–and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. Laziness is a quality you don’t often find in those who are rich. As a matter of fact, even (especially) if you own your own business, you have to put in a lot of effort to make things work. There are 2 quotes that I think are particularly and profoundly appropriate here – the first is by the Apostle Paul “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”2 Thess 3:10. The second quote is from the poet Maya Angelou who once wrote, “Nothing else will work, unless you do”.
The second key to overcoming poverty is found in Proverbs 13:18 “Poverty and shame shall be to him that refuseth instruction”. There are many negative consequences to refusing to learn and one of them is poverty. This is particularly true of our modern society. I can recall growing up in Gary, Indiana (The Steel City) where it was not uncommon for young people to expect to get a well-paying job at one of the steel mills after high school. I also vividly remember how things changed when the economy went bad and the mills began to lay off workers – many of whom were never called back to work. In today’s labor market, unless you learn skills that are in demand in the current service and technology economy, poverty is a very real possibility. Education may not guarantee you a six figure income (although it certainly helps) but it will go a long way to warding off poverty. However, its not simply getting an education that helps to overcome poverty. The most important thing is to learn, and the most important book is the Bible. There is an astonishing promise in the book of Proverbs that sums it up; “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity.” (Proverbs 3:1-2)
One of the more pernicious causes of poverty is a phenomenon that has many other negative consequences. In Proverbs 23: 20-21, the Bible states, “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” Additionally, in Proverbs 28:19 it says “…But he who follows frivolity will have poverty enough!”. Temperance is a virtue that sounds boring but has benefits that includes protection against poverty. Too much partying, drinking, and other frivolous activity saps people of energy and motivation- particularly when it gets to the level of addiction to alcohol and illegal substances. The road to ruin has bright lights, plenty of alcohol, drugs, food, and fun – and at the end of that road is a pit of poverty that too many people have fallen into. Temperance also speaks to the ability to sacrifice momentary pleasures for more lasting things. This virtue goes along way toward making the first 2 effective. Taking the long view of things and making sacrifices is often required to further an education as well as build a career.
The last key that we’ll review here has been talked about in pulpits many times. It is easy to fall into cynicism regarding the issue of giving when you see preachers riding in the finest cars and wearing tailored suits. But giving is a Biblical principle that has a built-in promise for those who use it. The wisdom of Proverbs once again shows the way in chapter 11, verses 24 and 25 where it states “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” Indeed, it is difficult to find one of the many Scriptures that encourages us to be generous to others where that does not also include a statement that attaches a blessing to the obedience in this area. There are also millions of testimonies (including my own) by people who have accepted God’s challenge in Malachi 3:10-11 (“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse. Test me in this…”) and found Him to be faithful. If you really want to get out of poverty (or protect yourself from poverty) then being a generous giver is definitely part of the solution.
These are 4 keys to overcoming poverty that have a solid Biblical basis. But it is important to note also that these don’t just apply to material poverty. There is a poverty of the spirit that may be even worse than not having a place to sleep or anything to eat. For people who cannot find peace of mind this is the best prescription as well. Find some meaningful work to do. Although this is not found in the Bible, there is a wise proverb that says “an idle mind is the playground of the devil”. Also, commit yourself to studying the Word of God, it is food for the soul. Fight the temptation to seek excitement and fulfillment through frivolous pursuits. There is a place in our hearts that can only be filled by God’s presence; too much of anything else distracts us from seeking Him. And finally, be generous. There is few other things that lift the spirit like helping someone else in need.