Giving to Beggars: Changing Them or Changing Me?

Begging handsA nameless, drunken pan-handler changed my heart. (God certainly does work in mysterious ways.) I used to think that giving money to beggars on the street was harmful and unwise. I have many good-hearted friends who believe this, and in some circumstances, it probably is harmful and unwise. But God, CS Lewis and a challenge from an unexpected  source gave me a different perspective.

My thoughts about the poor and homeless have evolved quite a bit over the years. First, there was my selfish, unregenerate phase: “I’m not giving them my money.” Pure and simple. They don’t deserve it; I worked hard for it. Get a job.

My child-like phase came next: “Sure. Whatever!” There is something innocent and wonderful about giving indiscriminately that must surely please God. But this was not a conscious strategy on my part, not even obedience to some particular Scripture, just an emotional, knee-jerk reaction which was mostly about guilt. They ask, I give, I feel better about me.

A wise friend later taught me that my help ought to really be helpful: “Do something constructive for the poor.” So I donated to charitable organizations that provide housing, job training and mentoring for the ambitious unfortunate. Money for drugs or alcohol could actually be destructive, but putting that same cash to work in development programs is practical and positive. I felt pretty good about strategy number three and even promoted it to others.

That’s where the nameless, old pan-handler comes in. One day I rolled down my window to hand a $5 bill to a dirty octogenarian who failed my breath alcohol test, along with the admonition, “Promise me you won’t drink this.” He looked me straight in the eye – something I hadn’t the courage to do for him – and replied, “If that’s how you feel, you had better keep it.” I was stunned. I had only asked him to lie to me (the low, low price for his fiver), and he had refused. His righteousness surpassed mine. I gave him the cash and went home to ponder my muddy, mixed-up heart.

In praying and reading about what I was feeling, I came across this gem told by both C.S. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, and his assistant, Walter Hooper.  As Hooper recounts it, “On the way to an Inklings meeting, he [Lewis] gave some money to a street beggar, and I made the usual objection: ‘Won’t he just spend it on drink?’

Lewis answered, ‘Yes, but if I kept it, so would I.’”

JoblessAnd so would I in some fashion or another. This story reminds me that I am the beggar. God didn’t ask me to clean up my act before He started giving me things, things like His only begotten Son, things like forgiveness, a new heart and a whole new life. He didn’t even ask me to lie to Him and tell Him I’d stop sinning.

And when He talked about these things, Jesus never asked me to judge what the recipient would do with my gift. He just asked me to give (Luke 6:30-38). Is that because it’s the best way to change the world and eliminate poverty? Probably not. But it is certainly the best way to change me.

In the end, I landed on the place I’d missed all along. None of the first three iterations of my mendicant worldview were about my own heart. The first was about my wallet. The second was about my worthiness. The third was about my judgment. I am not trying to tell you how to handle giving yourself. I am only saying that I think I missed the point for a long time. The only place I can really change the world is inside me, and in each and every encounter, that is what the Lord is after.

Related Articles:

An apology for strategy number three, The Guardian
More of the same, The Atlantic
When Met With a Beggar, The Gospel Coalition
A Lively Debate on the Subject, Christianity Today

Those of you with a practical bent might wonder what I do now. I still give to programs which help transform the lives of the poor both here and abroad, like this one. In personal encounters, I try to remember their dignity and my humility. I want to be led by the Spirit. Keeping McDonald’s gift certificates in my car is a useful tactic. The stores are ubiquitous, and I’ve never had anyone refuse them. It’s a bit of trouble to keep them stocked up, but that’s good for me, too. What do you do?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.