The End of Poverty and the Hope of Glory

If you shouldn’t discuss politics and religion in polite company, no wonder it’s often hard to talk about poverty and social justice, even with other believers. But this isn’t a subject Christians can avoid. The Bible is explicit about our responsibilities to care for those in need. So what do those commands mean in practice, and how do we obey them to the glory of God?

I believe there are things we can do to serve the poor, that God will give us grace to do them, and that he will take pleasure in our efforts—where we succeed and where we fail. It begins with understanding the true nature of poverty.

Subject to Futility

We tend to view poverty as external—a lack of resources, education, or opportunity. But Scripture reveals that these are just symptoms, for poverty is fundamentally a spiritual issue. Indeed, the root cause of poverty is sin—but don’t conclude too quickly what I mean by this; it’s a complicated conversation.

God created the world free from material, relational, or spiritual need. It was a world in which poverty could not exist. Then man rebelled and sin entered the world, destroying our relationships with God, one another, and the world around us.

As a result, all that was intended for our good and God’s glory became subject to futility. Poverty became the world’s default setting—and poverty will persist as long as the heart of man is ruled by sin. We must never lose sight of this truth if we are to effectively serve the poor to the glory of God and understand our motivations for doing so.

Motivations matter. We have a deep desire for significance, to do something important. But just as as at the Tower of Babel, our desire—twisted by sin—is to make a name for ourselves. We pursue our glory, not God’s. We detect this motivation in the words of politicians and movie stars. But is it not also present in the call to “end poverty within this generation”?

From the United Nations and the Millennium Development Goals to more subtle approaches, this call is being used to spur men and women to act on behalf of the world’s poor. Now, just to be clear, the issue is not whether to help the poor; it is the heart’s motivation for pursuing poverty’s eradication. The motivations behind this push are not entirely bad. But unless you believe in the pervasive nature of sin, embracing this goal can introduce serious problems and real danger. God will share his glory with no one.

Check Your Motivations

What then should be our motivation and our goal for caring for those in need?

Scripture commands a radical concern for the poor, whether they live within or outside the covenant community (cf. Deut. 10:8; 15:1-6). This concern stems directly from the heart of God, who “loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

Caring for the poor is therefore a response to the unmerited favor God has shown to us. The Israelites were to care for the sojourners among them because they had sojourned in Egypt. We care for the poor because we too have been on the receiving end of grace. We were the poor in spirit, lost and without hope, separated from God and enslaved to sin. Had God not given us his Son, we would be in bondage still.

The same grace that frees us from guilt and shame, that sustains us in difficulty, and that enables us to consider others as more important than ourselves—this is the grace that motivates and empowers us to care for the poor.

When grace is our motivator, caring for the poor is transformed from an obligation to an act of worship. The rebukes of Isaiah and Amos (Isa. 58:1-12; Amos 4:1-5), and Jesus’ warning of the final judgment (Matt. 25:31-46) all testify that caring for the poor is central to the true worship of God.

This grace also allows us to witness the horrors produced by natural disaster or human dysfunction without despairing or becoming discouraged. We can read “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8) and understand, without disillusionment, why this must be true. Grace reminds us that our hope for a better world in this lifetime lies in Christ. There is a definite role for social action, but our hope is not in social action. “The poor always with us” means we have virtually endless opportunities to practically worship Christ, expressing our love for God through caring for others.

Vision of Hope

Hope in Christ is what drives us in all we do as the church. Our desire to see Christ’s kingdom come in all its glory allows us to persevere in caring for the poor, not expecting that we will end poverty, but that we will be able to minister practically to those who suffer in it. This vision has motivated the church from its earliest days, with believers adopting the abandoned, building hospitals, spreading education and literacy, and fighting for the rights of the oppressed. This is the vision we need to regain as the church today.

A goal like “ending poverty within our generation” cannot create a lasting commitment to serve the needy. It is an empty hope. We need to be captivated once again by the promise that one day Jesus will end all suffering and wipe away every tear from every eye. Without the hope of the coming new creation, we have nothing to offer the poor. It is this hope we must share, whether we’re working for relief, development, or social reform.

So how do we care for the poor in a way that glorifies God? Be captivated by Christ. Long for the new creation. Set aside empty promises and earthly ideas of success, and trust that Christ will do what he has promised as we, with thankful hearts for the mercy that God has shown us, extend mercy in word and deed to those who so desperately need it, whether they’re down the street or across the globe.

  • Benjamin Peltz

    Aaron, I am curious: Do you see a distinction between ending poverty and ending extreme poverty? The is surely not possible until Christ’s return, but what about the second?

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Great question. The whole “extreme” poverty thing strikes me as a debate over semantics. What many organizations are talking about is moving the daily wage from less than $1.50 a day (2011 World Bank figure for what it means to be in extreme poverty) to less than $2 a day (to being so-called “moderately” poor). We’ve also seen that in 2005 $1.25 or less a day was the figure for extreme poverty; since then, that ceiling has been increased to $1.50. So really, the goal is to move this bar that is already shifting, but it doesn’t really solve the problem or truly change things for those suffering in the midst of poverty.

      I hope that’s actually a helpful answer to the question; probably more complicated than necessary, but we’ll see.

  • Joan Walker Page

    My husband and I just left our son, Walker , currently a sophomore at Wheaton College in IL after spending Family Weekend with him. He shared with me about the recent passing of Dr. Arthur Holmes, of who’s Memorial Service he was able to attend, and he also shared with us about The Gospel Coalition.
    I am really glad he did, for I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post. I volunteer at a nearby residential recovery center and one day recently a woman a woman who lives there asked me, “Why do you come here”. My answer to her was simply, because of the way God has loved me and looked after me in my personal life. This made sense to her and I trust this conversation brought her closer to the saving grace that can only be found in Jesus Christ.
    Thank you for sharing your heart today.
    Joan W. Page

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for reading, Joan—and I’m grateful for the story you’ve shared.

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  • Aimee Byrd

    Aaron, I just wanted to tell you that I really loved your book (and I recommended it on my website). Thank you so much for your work of putting this important topic in the right perspective. Your book was both convicting and encouraging in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • Aaron Armstrong

    Thanks Aimee—grateful for how God used it in your life!

  • Roger McKinney

    Very nice article on the roots of poverty. I teach an econ class in college in which I show that everyone on the planet had the same standard of living from Noah to roughly the 17th century. By today’s standards everyone but a small handful of nobility was extremely poor. Huge numbers of people regularly starved to death in famines. No nation was much richer than another, except those with good militaries that could steal from others.
    Then in the 17th century Western Europe began to grow richer even though the rest of the world did not get poorer. That had never happened before in history. What happened? Capitalism came along and people created new wealth instead of stealing from others. The most recent example of the power of capitalism is China: within one generation limited property and markets have lifted over 300 million Chinese from starvation to relative wealth. India has lifted hundreds of millions out of starvation since it abandoned total socialism in the 1990’s.
    Charity is important and it is a test of our love for God. But charity never helped many people escape poverty. Capitalism has.

  • Michael Swart

    I would like to add to Roger McKinney’s comment that the use of appropriate technology (sometimes called intermediate technology) has served to improve the physical circumstances of many people in different parts of the world.

    Missionaries have played an important role in introducing people to better agricultural and building methods, to water purification and to preventative medicine. Appropriate technology, sadly, does not always find favour and does not generate great wealth but has for some, in the providence of God, helped relieve the hardships of poverty.

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