Is It Right to Teach Poor Christians in Developing Countries That They Should Give?

Question from a reader:

Have you ever presented some of you the material that makes up The Treasure Principle to Christians living in poor countries? Some of the things you write in the book remind me of some thoughts I had as a new Christian, as I pondered the motivation behind our giving. I finally concluded that the best giving is when you cannot articulate any specific motivation other than, “Christ is in me and He is a giver!”

I wonder if people in poor countries would just “tune me out” if I spoke on a topic like that one. For example, pastors don’t really expect many people to tithe because some people in their congregations only make between $4 and $9 per month. Is it in any way cruel to preach to them on material giving? Or, is it in any way cruel not to encourage them into a more giving life, and the joy and blessings that brings? Perhaps the answer is that it is a topic a “wealthy” American cannot effectively communicate; it has to come from someone who lives among them.

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

(All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the individual)

I’ve spoken on Matthew 6 in Kenya and Cambodia, but I change illustrations, while still focusing on the importance of giving. I believe giving is universal, a timeless principle, which God taught to and expected of the poorest Israelite. It brings not only reward but dignity to a person, as you know. It’s ironic that many extremely poor Christians in developing countries will gladly give a week’s ration of food to feed the visiting Americans (who can barely gag it down), while the average American Christian thinks tithing would be a huge imposition that he cannot afford.

You say:

“I finally concluded that the best giving is when you cannot articulate any specific motivation other than, “Christ is in me and He is a giver!”

Scripture gives us different motivations for giving and nearly everything else, including the glory of God, the good of others, and our own good. Giving is properly motivated by love for God, love for people, hope of reward and fear of consequence (e.g. “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, the too will cry out and not be answered.” Prov. 21:13).

We tend to overspiritualize obedience, acting as if there’s only one good motive, when in fact God gives us many. (Including, to be a good example to our children and church members.)

I don’t think believers in poor countries would tune you out, any more than they would concerning any other principles God has given them in His Word. What God teaches about money and possessions was not written for wealthy Christians in North America, but for all people in all times in all places. Jesus doesn’t just speak of the rich fool but the poor widow, setting her up as a model for giving. 2 Cor. 8-9, the longest and perhaps most significant passage on giving in Scripture, starts with focusing on the Macedonians who lived in “extreme poverty” and who gave not simply according to but “beyond their ability.” And Paul speaks of the “overflowing joy” connected with their generosity. They “urgently pleaded with us for the privilege” of giving. I think this has direct application to your teaching, Steve. Don’t deprive poor believers of the privilege of giving by withholding from them giving principles intended for poor Christians just as much as for rich ones.

You ask if it is cruel to preach on giving to these poor people. I believe it is cruel to not preach on giving, because it is part of the whole counsel of God given to his people. If we withhold it, we act as God’s editors/censors rather than his messengers. Remember, it is not poor people who are the anomaly. It is rich people--it is we, not the poor in other countries, who are the exceptional readers of Scripture throughout history. They join ranks with God’s poor people, including many persecuted people, of all times and countless places.

Also, remember that the tithe, for instance, is proportional. You say someone may only make between $4 and $9 a month. Then the tithe is only 40 to 90 cents. Yes, that may seem a lot, but God promises his blessing and provision. God blesses giving, and when we hang on to what is his, it’s never in our best interests. We have it backwards. The poor are not helped by their not giving. They are helped by their giving. God says “Test me in this, and watch me provide.” By not telling people about giving, we can end up robbing them of what God would have provided if they’d given.

I think if a wealthy American is working long-term with people, he has to communicate this. But if you can only address a limited number of subjects, a national pastor with a biblical understanding of giving should address it. However, you may be able to help pastors understand these principles and introduce them to a basic area of Christian discipleship: giving. In the same way that we wouldn’t say “I won’t teach American CEOs about prayer because they don’t have much time” I wouldn’t say “I won’t teach Cambodian/Cuban/Sudanese peasants about giving because they don’t have much money.” God has entrusted to us his teaching about giving just as he has about prayer, and it is never in people’s best interest to not hear what God has to say to them, even if it makes us uncomfortable because we’re wealthy Americans. We should be communicating it not for our sake, but for theirs.

Of course, you’ll want to divorce this from health and wealth gospel and make sure that illustrations are commensurate to their means and opportunity. But God has called them to give just as he has called all his children of all times to give. If God uses the poor widow who had only two coins and gave them away, and the Macedonians who gave out of “extreme poverty,” it seems to me that forever answers the question of whether we should teach poor people to give. If we don’t, they’ll be robbed of what isn’t merely a duty, but a privilege. Jesus spoke to the poor as much as anyone when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries