Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Biblical View of Poverty: Causes

Quite a bit of debate has been generated from my recent op-ed "What Would Jesus Cut?" In fact I received a blistering response just today. An earlier reader voiced displeasure at my statement that "Like it or not, institutional entitlement payments to the poor encourages idleness, one of the primary reasons that many households earn low incomes." That reader thought I was unkindly blaming the victim. In order to make sense of the issue, it is important to have a clear understanding on what God teaches us in His Word about poverty.
Sunday, I discussed the nature of poverty as defined in Scripture, explaining that the Bible characterizes poverty as an absolute lack of the bare necessities of life. This is a far cry from the relative lack of what most people have that often is what moderns think of as poverty.

In his book, Prosperity and Poverty, E. Calvin Beisner has done excellent work in documenting the nature and various causes of poverty mentioned in the Bible. On the basis of those causes, he divides poverty into two categories: self-caused and imposed. There are many passages in Scripture that teach that often poverty is the result of unwise personal decisions. Sometimes people are poor because of laziness. Another reason for poverty is greed; not on the part of an oppressor, but on the part of the poor person himself. Another source of poverty, according to Scripture is foolishness. Finally, shortsightedness is identified as a generator of self-caused poverty. I will discuss each of these over a series of blog posts. Today I will only focus on the first source of self-caused poverty.

One reason some people are poor are because they are indeed lazy. The Bible makes clear that people are responsible to be productive in order to support themselves. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6–12, or example, the Apostle Paul tells his readers:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
Paul's line of reasoning is if an able body person does not work, then he should not eat. Instead, he is encouraged to work and earn his own living.

In Proverbs there is a passage that more straightforwardly teaches that laziness causes poverty.
Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man (Prov. 6:6-11).

In this passage, the ant is held up as a positive example who voluntarily engages in labor and production with “diligent foresight” in summer and harvest, so she has food for winter, as noted by commentator Charles Bridges. Labor and productive activity is a virtue. The willingness to put off present consumption and endure toil in the summer allows for consumption in winter. This points to lower time preference and thrift being economic virtues. Bridges also emphasizes that the ant is not hoarding as if a miser, but wisely saving for future provision.

The sluggard or lazy person, on the other hand, cares only for, in Bridges words “present ease.” He does not want to work. (Whether he just wants to bang on the drum all day is unknown). The passage in Proverbs is clear that, because he does not work, instead slumbers in his laziness, poverty comes swift and hard.

The link between slothfulness and poverty is affirmed in many other passages in the wisdom literature. We find that an idle person will suffer hunger (Prov. 19:15) and have nothing (Prov. 13:4; 20:4). Toil brings prosperity, but mere talk brings poverty (Prov. 14:23). The very house of a lazy person will deteriorate (Eccl. 10:18). Proverbs 10:4 says straight up "a slack hand causes poverty.".

There is no escaping the conclusion that Scripture teaches that laziness results in poverty. This point was not lost even on the producers of the Looney Tunes.

A Christian response to poverty needs to keep these facts in view. It is especially important that we do not develop poverty programs that encourage a person who is poor due to laziness to persist in his laziness. Acknowledging this point is not harsh or cruel, it is part of a biblical view of poverty.

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