Jonathan Edwards and Helping the Poor

In 1733, aware of growing poverty and increasing social stratification in Northampton, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled, “The Duty of Charity to the Poor.” Tim Keller summarizes:

The heart of the sermon is a set of answers to a series of common objections Edwards always heard whenever he preached or spoke about the duty of sharing money and good with the poor. All of the questions sought to put limits on the Biblical injunction to love their neighbor.

One of the objections was ‘Though they be needy, yet they are not in extremity. [They are not destitute.]’ I remember one of my parishioners responding to one of my sermons in a similar manner. ‘All the poor people in my part of town have nice TV sets. They aren’t starving,’ he said. But Edwards says that this hardheartedness is not in accord with the Biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. We don’t wait until we are in ‘extremity’ before doing something about our condition, he argued, so why should we wait until our neighbor is literally starving before we help? Edwards goes further, and asks if Christians who say this remember that we are to love others as Christ loved us. ‘The Christian spirit will make us apt to sympathize with our neighbor when we see him under any difficulty… we ought to have such a spirit of love to him that we should be afflicted with him in his affliction.’ Christ literally walked in our shoes and entered into our affliction. Those who will not help others until they are destitute reveal that Christ’s love has not yet turned them into sympathetic persons the gospel should make them.

Another objection comes from people who say they ‘have nothing to spare’ and that they barely have enough for their own needs. But one of the main lessons of the Good Samaritan parable is that real love entails risk and sacrifice. Edwards responds that when you say, ‘I can’t help anyone,’ you usually mean, ‘I can’t help anyone without burdening myself, cutting in to how I live my life.’ But, Edwards argues, that’s exactly what Biblical love requires. He writes:

We in many cases may, by the rule of the gospel, be obliged to give to others when we can’t without suffering ourselves…. If our neighbor’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not like to be relieved, we should be willing to suffer withy them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves. Or else how is that rule fulfilled of bearing one another’s burdens? If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?

Two other objections Edwards takes on are that the poor person ‘is of a very ill temper; he is of an ungrateful spirit’ and ‘he has brought himself to his [poverty] by his own fault.’ These are both abiding problems with helping the poor…. We all want to help kind-hearted, upright people, whose poverty came upon them through no foolishness or contribution of their own, and who will respond to our aid with gratitude and joy. However, almost no one like that exists… The causes of poverty are complex and intertwined. And while it is important that our aid to the poor really helps them and doesn’t create dependency, Edwards makes short work of these objections by, again, appealing to the gospel itself.

In dealing with the objection that many of the poor do not have upright, moral characters, he counters that we did not either, and yet Christ put himself out for us:

Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good… so we should be willing to be kind to those who are… very undeserving.

When answering the objection that the poor have often contributed to their condition, Edwards is remarkably balanced yet insistently generous. He points out that it is possible some people simply do not have ‘a natural faculty to manage affairs to advantage.’ In other words, some people persistently make sincere but very bad decisions about money and possessions. Edwards says we should consider the lack of this faculty to be almost like being born with impaired eyesight:

Such a faculty is a gift that God bestows on some, and not on others. And it is not owing to themselves…. This is as reasonable as that he to whom Providence has imparted sight should be willing to help him to whom sight is denied, and that he should have the benefit of the sight of others, who has none of his own….

But what if their economic plight is more directly the result of selfish, indolent, or violent behavior? As Edwards puts it in the language of his time, what if ‘they are come to want by a vicious idleness and prodigality’? He counters that ‘we are not thereby excused from all obligation to relieve them, unless they continue in those vices.’ Then he explains why. Christ found us in the same condition. Our spiritual bankruptcy was due to our own sin, yet he came and gave us what we needed.

The rules of the gospel direct us to forgive them… [for] Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness. We foolishly and perversely threw away those riches with which we were provided, upon which we might have lived and been happy to all eternity.

Tim Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 69-73.


2 Comments to “Jonathan Edwards and Helping the Poor”

  1. Interesting reading. Our Sunday School class is reading “Toxic Charity,” whose premise is that giving freely to the poor can be a toxic situation…rob them of dignity, empower continued destructive behaviors, perpetuate helplessness, and so forth. The author links charity with justice in interesting ways – instead of a free food pantry, the clients pool their resources and pay a minimal fee, supply the volunteer labor, and set the rules. They are able to purchase the food they want and are empowered to take responsibility for this service themselves, thus providing job training, work skills, and self esteem of having contributed to the solution. It is a challenging book and we’re trying to process it.

  2. Laurel, I’ve heard of TOXIC CHARITY, but haven’t read it. I have read WHEN HELPING HURTS: HOW TO ALLEVIATE POVERTY WITHOUT HURTING THE POOR… AND YOURSELF and totally agree with the principles there, which sound similar to Lupton’s. Handouts don’t really help. If we really care it will mean messy involvement. We’re trying to pilot a program right now where a community member in poverty is surrounded by a team of 2 or 3 ‘allies’ from the middle class. The person in poverty is the ‘team leader’. The team meets weekly for at least a year and goes through a process of understanding the poverty mindset and learning skills for coming out of poverty. It’s pretty exciting. I posted the Edwards stuff to combat the idea that we should only be willing to get involved like this with those who are ‘deserving’. Poverty is a complex issue!

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