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I don’t know about your “Christian to-do list,” but mine’s getting long. I’m supposed to pray and read my Bible and be in a small group and serve and be a well-informed voter and protest abortion and lead family devotions and understand culture and read the latest Christian books and evangelize my neighbors and help the poor and grow some cool facial hair and…you get the idea.
So we throw our hands up and say, “I just can’t do all this.” That’s when we realize we need to prioritize.
Do You Prioritize the Poor?
I’m not writing to give you the official, canonized Christian priority list. It probably varies for each of us depending on our calling and gifting. But one item has been climbing my priority list lately: helping the poor.
If someone asked you to list the items I mentioned in the opening paragraph in priority order, where would helping the poor be? For most of us, my guess is that it would be toward the bottom. We know it’s a good thing to help the poor, but something’s got to give, right?
I recently read a sermon by Jonathan Edwards that challenges this mentality. Edwards has gotten a bad rap because he’s known for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, but he equally preached about love. In one sermon called Christian Charity, Edwards spoke about the priority of helping the poor:
Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms and in a more peremptory urgent manner than the command of giving to the poor? It is mentioned in Scripture, not only as a duty, but a great duty. Indeed, it is generally acknowledged to be a duty to be kind to the needy. But by many it seems not to be looked upon as a duty of great importance. However, it is mentioned in Scripture as one of the greater and more essential duties of religion:
“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8)
Here to love mercy is mentioned as one of the three great things that are the sum of all religion.
So, it is mentioned by the apostle James as one of the two things wherein pure and undefiled religion consists:
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27)
So, Christ tells us, it is one of the weightier matters of the law:
“Ye…have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
I know of scarce any duty which is so much insisted on, so pressed and urged upon us, both in the Old Testament and New as this duty of charity to the poor.
Six Ways to Prioritize the Poor
In Bible language, mercy is a loving and compassionate response to those in need, and it deserves to be a priority on our to-do list. But how? How can we add compassion for the poor without upending the apple cart?
1. Start with the gospel.
First of all, begin with the gospel. That makes helping the poor a joy rather than a burden. As we reflect on how Christ stooped down to help us when we were helpless, undeserving, and in great spiritual need, we will be spurred on to reach out to others who are also in great need.
2. Get the right perspective.
Make sure you’re adding the right thing to your to-do list. God is not asking us to solve world poverty or restore creation to its original order. He can take care of that. He’s simply asking us to respond with compassion when we encounter the poor.
3. Prioritize Christians.
Give Christians priority. Scripture gives clear priority to helping Christian brothers and sisters in need:
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
4. Look around you.
Keep your eyes open. People in need are all around you. You don’t need to make a trip to the inner city. Watch for people in your normal routines who might need some encouragement and assistance.
5. Give the gospel.
Compassion ministry opens opportunities for the gospel. We’re not just here to give people a smoother ride to spiritual disaster. John Piper said at the 2010 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, “Could the evangelical church say, ‘We Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering?’” We’re called to alleviate suffering both in this world and eternity. So give the gospel, too.
6. Sponsor a child.
Children often take the brunt of the evil in this world. When parents die of AIDS, the children are orphaned. When the sex trade flourishes, children are the victims. We know that our Lord has a soft spot in his heart for children. So when we care for them, we are expressing the heart of Christ.
We’ll probably continue to wrestle with proper priorities until the Lord’s return—but may we wrestle with Scripture in our hands. If we do, I suspect helping the poor will rise on the to-do list for us all.