There is a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that I’ve heard repeated quite a lot recently. It says, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” I’m not totally sure that St. Francis had the proper balance in mind, but I think it’s fair to say that our actions communicate to others, as much or more than our words, what is really important to us. Similarly, the Apostle Paul told Timothy that he should watch his life and doctrine closely so that he could save himself and others. No matter where we find ourselves in the world, we as Christians should constantly be asking ourselves if our actions are really communicating to the world around us what God would have us communicate.
Ministering to people in poverty is an extremely complicated issue. Since we have been in Honduras we have seen or been a part of many different approaches to poverty issues. I have become convinced that, for our own sake and for the sake of those to whom we would minister, we cannot stop asking ourselves if the actions and attitudes that we demonstrate to others are really being received in the way that is most beneficial. Are we doing things in a way that glorifies God and points people to Him? When we give things away to the poor, are we sure they are getting the message we want them to get? Or are they receiving a different, unintended message? What message do we give to the members and leaders of a foreign church when we continually send money to sustain their congregation? When our mission group builds a house for a family in need, what do they see as the reason behind what we do? How sure are we that they aren’t reaching some conclusion that we didn’t have in mind?
The truth is, it may be difficult to determine what message the local people actually are taking away from works that are done with the purest of intentions. But just as our church budgets are constantly being reviewed to ensure the good stewardship of all the finances that have been entrusted to us, we must also constantly analyze our methods so that we can be good stewards of the time, resources, and talents that we have at our disposal on the mission field. The people whom God has entrusted to us to serve and to love deserve the very best that we can give. We would be poor stewards indeed if we allowed ourselves to lose sight of our commitment to meet people’s true needs, to magnify God, and to encourage local Christians through our missions efforts.
It’s no secret that, today, a large percentage of our missions efforts in materially poor countries like Honduras involve giving materially and financially to the people to whom we are ministering. Throughout the Bible, God commands his people to give--especially to the poor. The Bible also has much to say about how we give. It’s clear that just the physical act of giving something is not necessarily all God asks of us. Over and over again, we are reminded that what we give and especially how we give is of utmost importance. Our motivation for giving and the attitude of our hearts is shown to be of just as much importance to God as what we give--if not more so. From the very beginning, the Bible shows us that our offerings are pleasing to God when we cheerfully offer the best that we can give with the aim of glorifying Him and not ourselves.
We, along with our brothers and sisters around the world, are equal partners in a global Christian community. The church we read about in the book of Acts shows us a model of such a community. The members all freely shared everything they had with one another, and the Bible says that “there were no needy persons among them.” In 2 Corinthians, Paul makes this even clearer. As he is instructing the Christians in Corinth about giving to those in need, he says, “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality.” From this, we see the church as a community where those in need receive help and, in turn, those who have received give to others in their time of need, and so on. The Bible does not spell out for us when a “receiver” should become a “giver”, but, in Luke 21, Jesus himself says that He is more pleased with the poor widow’s tiny offering of “two very small copper coins” than with all the large donations the rich were making.
Everyone has something to give. Everyone has something to offer. We know that God wants us to give of ourselves--of all that we have been blessed with--not just our money. So, though they may be materially poor, what is it that those to whom we minister have to give? Is it hospitality? Is it encouragement? Could it be a skill like the ability to repair an engine or draw a picture or cultivate crops? Is it great knowledge of the Bible, or a unique insight into the Scriptures? If someone is materially poor, that doesn’t indicate that they have nothing give. Likewise, just because we may be materially rich does not mean that we lack nothing and should therefore always be in the powerful position of “giver”, or “teacher”, or “leader”. As children of God made in His image, we are all rich--in one way or another. Conversely, as human beings who live in a broken, sinful world, we are all lacking something; none of us is perfect. In our relationships with others, then, we should ask ourselves: “What is it that this person has to offer to the people in their life, and to God?” When we help others who are in need, we should strive to give in such a way that will empower and inspire the recipient to, in turn, give to others from what they, themselves, possess.