“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” – Isaiah 61:1
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” – Matthew 25:37-40
Scriptures such as these are frequently quoted by Christians who interpret our mission on earth to be one primarily of charity. But in emphasizing one dimension of our faith, they flatten and dilute all of it.
To be sure, giving is a central part of the Christian life, but we must be careful not to confuse the greater ends of the gospel with the material ends attainable through charity. A ministry of comfort tends to strip the gospel of its true power until all that remains is a semblance of materialistic humanism. In other words, if we reduce the preaching of “freedom to the captives” down to merely a get-out-of-jail card, we have lost the point entirely.
Sadly, this is what many have done by advocating state-commissioned charity as a moral imperative. Through this, the material needs of the poor are met not through voluntary altruism, but by legal obligation—or, phrased more gently, by collective altruism.
Jamie Whyte of the Adam Smith Institute in London recently offered a searing critique of the church on this point for the Wall Street Journal:
Alas, as lovely as it is to be respected for your compassion, actually helping people is costly. Hence the temptation to demand that the government—that is to say, taxpayers—spend more on the poor. You can display your compassion while suffering none of the costs of actually looking after anyone.
Whyte’s cynical view analyzes problem through an economist’s lens: people vote for social programs because it costs less to them directly. I do not doubt this is often the case, and a strong critique is due. However, it is also true that many people simply believe the state should take care of the poor, not in lieu of, but in addition to individual assistance. They believe that society as a sovereign entity has its own moral responsibilities, and is accountable to God for the way it treats those under its protection.
We must address this more sincere view before we can claim to have won the debate. First, we should note that as government assistance increases, private charity tends to decrease, so the “both/and” approach is specious. But there is a more important aspect to this. The key question to ask is why God cares about charity in the first place. As Whyte notes:
According to standard Christian theology, God is omniscient. So He knows about … the grinding poverty of Somali refugees, of street children in Brazil, of almost every human who lived before 1800 and, hence, survived on less than £1,000 a year (in today’s money). And what does God do about all this suffering? Nothing. He lets it go on, century after century.
The pain and suffering among even the most devout followers of Christ is a sign not of His abandonment, but of a greater story at work. At the end of the day, our material comforts are of little consequence to this story. Why, then, does the New Testament appear to make charity a fundamental aspect of the Christian life?
We might forget that good deeds benefit both parties, and it is likely that Christian charity has much more to do with the giver than the receiver. When we give, we display love and sacrifice. Charity is a way for us to practice these virtues and constantly lay ourselves down for another as Christ has done for us. We give not merely because someone is in need—anyone can do that—we give because we are in need.
Furthermore, it offers an opportunity to share the gospel alongside the act of giving. Jesus did not heal simply to heal. Miracles always preceded a commandment of some kind, whether to “go and sin no more” or to “follow me.” Charity enables us to become a witness in both word and deed.
Once we understand the true function of charity, it becomes clear why it can be nothing other than personal and voluntary. A state welfare program cannot serve as a proxy to Christian witness in faith and love. It will never be viewed as such by either the contributors or beneficiaries. Taxes and entitlements are soulless statutes. When we politicize charity it becomes a political issue and a political instrument—not an act of virtue.
There is wisdom in the old saying, “’tis better to give than to receive.” The absurdity is evident in what might be the modern variant: “’tis better to be taxed by a majority than to be granted public benefits by a federal bureaucrat.”