Should We Count the Cost?

Due to the generosity of several people, my congregation has a small fund that I have discretionary control over.  The fund is used to assist those in need.  Over the past seven months, at least one family, one couple, and several individuals have benefited from this fund in various ways and to various degrees.  And each time that I receive a call for assistance, I try to determine what the best form of help might be in a given situation. 

And this is a struggle for me.

Not the helping part – I don’t have any qualms about helping folks.  But how to balance the limited resources with a desire to provide the maximum assistance…that’s the challenge that I take upon myself.

It’s not a Biblical challenge.  We’re called to help others.  Period.  Matthew 5:42 has always been very instructive to me on this.  Luke 6:30 is a good corollary verse.  Christians in fellowship and community are held to a higher degree of accountability, in that one isn’t supposed to mooch off of another.  But the general, overall principle seems to be that, if you can help, you should do it.

So I struggle with whether my desire to do the most good with limited resources is pleasing to God, and fulfills the essence of these Gospel verses.  With this policy, it means that we have some money sitting in a bank account that could be distributed probably immediately, and could help people’s lives.  I wait for people to call or to show up at the church, that’s the first stage of filtering that goes on between money that is intended to help people, and the people that need help.  I don’t have too much problem with this filter though.  The verses above deal with someone who approaches you for help – they aren’t injunctions to go out and look for someone to help.  Although I believe that we ought to be doing the latter as well, that seems to be less of a clear injunction than helping the people that do cross your path on a given day.

The next thing I do is listen to the person’s story.  I try not to make judgments, but I will ask for clarification and detail on things that they tell me.  I don’t care how messed up a persons’ situation is, I’m far more inclined to help them if they tell me the truth than if they try to tell me a story that doesn’t hold up.  This is the first layer of filtering that begins to feel uncomfortable.

Once I’ve heard their story, I try to clarify what the immediate need is.  Do they need a place to stay?  Food?  Gas money?  I try to boil things down to tangible specifics for both of us.  Then, I try to evaluate whether or not what they need most is a good use of our small resources.  And this is where it gets really uncomfortable.

I’ll give gas money out of my own pocket.  I’ve bought food cards to grocery stores for people with my money or the fund’s money.  I’ve gotten a car out of hock and bought hotel rooms for people.  And over time I’ve tried to decide at what point it becomes pointless to offer assistance.  Is there a point of diminishing returns, in other words, for the act of helping someone in need?

I had to tell one couple our church was helping that, after several months of assisting with their rent, that we weren’t going to be able to contribute any more.  The couple has relational issues and money management problems that – despite my counseling efforts – weren’t going to be solved any time soon.  Eventually I had to make the call that while their need remained very valid, it was a need that our congregation could no longer meet.

A woman called today needing to keep some sort of roof over her head.  I weighed the need – would this be a good use of our money?  She’s starting a job in a couple of weeks, and has enough food – but no money for a hotel or other sort of accommodation.  I feel bad evaluating need.  Need is need.  And yet we also have learned to draw distinctions in terms of how need came to be, or how it remains.  There’s the need that comes from losing a job or suffering an illness, and there’s the need that comes from an addiction problem.  There’s the need that comes from catastrophic loss, and the need that comes from poor decision making.  Culturally we assign values to these distinctions.  Those that were blindsided by something in life and are in need are deemed worthier than those who are blindsided by addictions or poor choices or any number of other matters that we deem within their control.  We’re more willing to open our hearts and wallets to those left bereft through no fault of their own, but not as willing to help those we suspect are abusing the help.

Is there such a thing as abusing help?  And if there is, is it our responsibility as the giver to avoid helping someone that abuses that help, or is it a responsibility that the abuser bears – before God if not before anyone else? 

I end up with a flow chart of whether to help someone or not that basically says that if they lie about things or if I don’t think that our donation will have any long-term effect on the person’s situation, I’m not very willing to extend help beyond the $20 mark.  However, if someone appears to be telling the truth and I think that the assistance can really help them get through a rough spot and into greener pastures, I’m willing to pony up bigger bucks.  I’m just not convinced that I should have this sort of flow chart.  While we’re not called to be stupid about things, I believe that my flow chart is mostly informed by our cultural values of independence and self-sufficiency and a good work-ethic and self-control – values that have their place, to be certain, but perhaps have been blown out of proportion. 

So I struggle.  Perhaps the struggle is the point.  Perhaps the struggle highlights to me what sort of person I really am.  Highlights what bias’ and prejudices I harbor in out of the way areas of my heart and mind, that come sulking into the light when faced with these sorts of situations.  Perhaps that’s the purpose – not simply the easing of another person’s situation, but the continual molding and shaping of myself by the Holy Spirit into someone better able and more willing to lend a hand to more and more people. 

In the meantime, I do the best I can.  The woman that called today is getting a week at a hotel and some clothes from our church’s thrift store.  I don’t doubt that this is a good thing to do.  I just question how I make that decision to help or not to help.

Thoughts?  How do you determine when to help and when not to help?  What does your flow chart look like?

2 Responses to “Should We Count the Cost?”

  1. JP Says:

    Paul, this is a very important post. Most of us struggle with this every day, not with discretionary funds, but with our own money, our own hard earned dollars. In Vietnam, literally everyday we have people knock on our doors, asking for money for something or other. This man works with blind people. This man works with lepers. The problem is, it is a known fact that some of these people are phonies. They make up these stories and find pictures and make it look official (well, as official as it gets in Vietnam, anyway), but really some of them are scams. There is no way to tell, short of asking to go to the places where they help (I have been tempted, but they are usually several hours away). I don’t know what the correct answer is, but I share your uncomfortableness. When I do ask probing questions, when I do evaluate need and make sure I are using my money wisely, I feel bad doing it. What makes me uncomfortable is the way it puts us in complete control. But God calls us to help even when we cannot hold all the cards, or a few even. He calls us to help even when we cannot control. Because if we can control it, then it is no longer selfless. It is service MY WAY. Help MY WAY. Help should be given even when it is not convenient or comfortable. Moreover, by probing and evaluating their needs, and sometimes deciding whether or not they are worthy, I wonder if we are, in a way, demeaning that person. Pretending that we know what is best for them, instead of giving them the dignity to decide for themselves, even if we disagree. This is, however, a very simple argument that will not extend to all situations and contexts. Certainly there are times when we should refuse help if we know it will be used in destructive ways. Good question, Paul. One we need to struggle with, even if we do not arrive at an answer, like being in a pitch black room. We may not ever know what is in the room, or the way out, but we can at least feel around to know the parameters.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    You bring up excellent points here, as always.  And as you say, the correct answer is likely to remain elusive, and I don’t think that’s necessarily accidental.In the end, as I see the Biblical focus on helping the less fortunate and the marginalized, I think we’re wrong to see this from our typical, Western, utilitarian point of view.  Is the Bible continually upbraiding the people of God for their callousness towards the marginalized because God expects that through better social service and giving practices, poverty and hunger and sickness and disease and addictive behaviors will be eliminated?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think God is calling His people to lives of giving and sharing simply as a means to solving the problem of a sin-soaked world.  Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:11 seem instructive here.I believe more and more that God’s insistence that we open our hands to those around us is very much for our own good, our own development, our own process towards becoming more Christ-like.  Nothing we can do of our own will, that’s for sure – hence the struggle.  But in allowing the Spirit to open our hands, our hearts open as well.  Or at least they should.  We quit seeing people as problems to be solved, and begin to see them as neighbors to be loved.  Prayed for.  Welcomed.  Or at least we should.That’s a hard process in our culture.  We have so many expectations of self-sufficiency.  And we so closely associate need with some sort of moral shortcoming or other personal failing that the urge not to help is almost overwhelming.  And yet, whether I’ve given from my own pocket or my church’s, I’ve never had a second thought after the fact.  I’ve never said to myself man, I wish I hadn’t given that person $5, or $20, or whatever.  Never.  Not even when I suspected that the need was not due to the situation they described to me.  Even when I felt as though I was probably being taken.  I begin to suspect that, if you give when you are asked, regardless of the validity of the need, it probably isn’t possible to be taken.  And then I begin to wonder if that’s not the second stage of the problem, in some ways.  If I can just hand a few dollars to anyone, without taking the time to see that person, I’m not really doing what I’m supposed to be doing, either.  I’m fulfilling the letter of the law, but not the Spirit.  Which drives me back to prayer, back to the Word, back to seeking God’s forgiveness and heart, and being willing to open myself up to other people, to risk part of me in order to acknowledge part of them.  And that’s really about the last thing I want to do on many days.Which is probably why it’s so important to God.

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