Are you responding to poverty the wrong way?
January 17, 2017
By Matt Morrison
I’ll never forget coming home from my first international mission trip. I was a middle schooler and I had never left the United States before. My dad had been going to Romania for several years and I was thrilled when he invited me to join him.
I thought I had seen true poverty as a child. I thought I knew how bad it could get for someone in the few times I had served in parts of south Dallas. But when I walked into those eastern Romanian villages just a decade after the fall of Communism, I was rendered comatose. I could hardly function as I took in everything going on around me.
The tiny homes made of mud, the unkempt dirt roads that made up the countryside infrastructure, and the malnutrition of the livestock all told the story of a people still recovering from political upheaval and decades of socio-economic disaster.
As nearly anyone who has gone on an overseas mission trip can relate, I struggled to find the right response to my experience. In watching so many others go through similar encounters on mission trips, I’ve seen many Americans gravitate towards one of two extremes in their reactions to the developing world.
When I first came home, I was initially grateful for my house, my safe neighborhood, for air-conditioning, and for the overflowing luxuries in northern Dallas. The experience in Romania had provided a complete contrast to the only life I’ve ever known.
Gratitude is always the right first step towards better understanding our place in the world. It’s important to realize how blessed we are to have the people, resources, and opportunities available to us in the United States. If you make over $30,000 annually or have earned a college education, you automatically belong to the world’s wealthiest 1%.
Experiencing poverty up close on a mission trip helps us understand this and puts our “first world problems” in their proper place. But as we honestly assess God’s blessings in our lives, is gratitude really enough? Does God call for us just to be content with what we have? Or are we responsible to do more?
While we should always be thankful and content with what we’ve been given, this attitude does little to affect real change in the world around us.
Like others, I also dealt with a strong sense of guilt. This hit hardest when I came home from Germany last year. It was a life-changing week of working among Middle Eastern refugees who had recently arrived after their long, dangerous journey across Europe. But afterward, I came home to a country who saw these desperate people as a threat to their existence. I didn’t just feel thankful that God had opened so many doors in my life. I felt guilty.
What would these people think if they saw my life? Could they look at me and truly accept that there was nothing I could do to help them move beyond their refugee status? And how could I possibly demonstrate empathy when I’ve never experienced anywhere near the same loss they have? How is this fair?
I had a hard time reintegrating back into daily life in the United States. We were still in the middle of a bitter election season that now seemed so empty and pointless in the face of the crisis in Europe.
But when we see our material blessings in contrast to the loss others have felt, should we feel guilty? Is it wrong to accept the abundance we experience here at home?
THE BALANCE? STEWARDSHIP
After going through this process many times, I’ve learned that neither gratitude nor guilt, when taken to their extremes, are proper responses to experiencing poverty up close. Since mankind’s fall into sin, inequality and poverty have always been a part of life.
Depending on where you live and how you were born, you will be afforded either more or less opportunities than someone else in another part of the world. You should never feel guilty when God gives you blessings and opportunities of any kind.
Regardless of the size of your bank account or the square footage of your house, it is all given to you by God. At the same time, it’s not enough to just say “thanks” for these blessings and move on.
Between these two responses is another one: stewardship. The concept of stewardship is about how you use the gifts, talents, opportunities, and passions God has given you. It’s not just being thankful for what he provides. It’s about leveraging them for his glory, to advance his Kingdom, promote justice, and spread his Gospel.
This term is usually used by pastors to talk about tithing to the local church. But it’s so much more than money. Stewardship is a spiritual discipline that informs the way we respond to any material blessing.
- If you’re rich, God didn’t just bless you with money so you can enjoy it. With that money, you have an opportunity to financially support others who are serving around the world.
- If you’re educated, how are you using your college or graduate degrees to enrich the lives of others and promote justice?
- If you’re talented or well-skilled, how are you using those skills and talents to help others get ahead and move forward in their lives?
- If you’re well-connected, how are you leveraging those relationships to further God’s calling on your life?
Without this idea of stewardship, both gratitude and guilt convey a sense of ownership. They put the responsibility and honor on you, rather than the Creator who provided those things. But when you begin to see yourself as a steward of the gifts God has given you, it turns everything upside down.
When you realize that all of these things are ultimately his, that he both gives and takes away, it allows you to hold them loosely. It opens the door to leverage these things, rather than just enjoy them. You can be thankful for them while also being willing to sacrifice them. You can use them without feeling guilt.
At the end of the day, your position in the world is an asset that can draw others to Christ. The ultimate question is, how will you use it?