Why Should We Help People Who Won’t Help Themselves

I love this story. Fred Craddock, a venerable and popular Methodist preacher of the recent past told a story from his seminary pastorate. The church had an Emergency Fund of about $100 (this dates back several decades). Church leaders told him that, as pastor, he could use the money to help people in need at his own discretion, provided he dispensed the funds according to certain conditions. “What are the conditions,” Fred asked. He was told: “You are not to give the money to anyone who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness, or poor management.” Craddock quipped in retelling the story: “Far as I know, they still have that money.”

I love this story because it’s funny and because it’s true. I do not love the story because it exposes the common attitude of refusing to serve those who are not trying to help themselves or are suffering the consequences of their misbehavior. Because this is such a common attitude, it is worthy of a blog, so here goes.

God helps those who help themselves; it’s in the Bible.

No, it’s not! The Bible says no such thing. This is one of many sayings attributed to the Bible to justify an attitude that is often self-serving.

For sure, there are scriptural references supporting the idea that God expects people to care for themselves and for their families. More than once in his letters found in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul says he supported himself throughout his missionary journeys probably with his skill as a tentmaker.

On the other hand, there are many, many more references that express God’s compassion for people in need and his expectation that His people will do all they can to help them. In one of the appendices of Compassionaries, I have collected many of the biblical references to this expectation—7 pages of them!

How can we know?

When we are asked for help from a stranger in need, how can we know whether he/she is doing anything to help themselves? We can’t. Unless we are willing and able to verify their need, we cannot be certain they are helping themselves. “Able” is the keyword here.

As a pastor for 30+ years, I had hundreds of encounters with people who came to my church asking for help. In a few cases, I attempted to verify their story by calling someone (one of their relatives or someone familiar with their circumstances). Most of these attempts were futile.

What are we to do when we question whether the need presented to us is legitimate?

There surely are people who are the victims of their own bad judgment or addictions. Serving these people is more challenging as the line between helpful and harmful is blurred. So, what are we to do? How do we deal with the destructive behavior we may face in those we work with from time to time? How do we handle our desire to back away from these people?

Here are some suggestions from Compassionaries:

  1. Avoid a blanket policy that treats all people the same. All people are not the same and all circumstances are not the same. Take each person, each situation of need as unique and worthy of careful examination. Within the scope of what is possible, try to discern a person’s needs and how he can be served.
  • Strive to be helpful, not harmful. Saying no to a presenting need may be hard, but it may also be the right thing to do.
  • Err on the side of compassion. It’s not always easy to know what is helpful and what is harmful. Serving is seldom black-and-white; there is a whole lot of grey. In that greyness, I encourage you to err on the side of compassion.

No one gets it right all the time.

Try as we may to do the right thing, the helpful thing, there is still a chance we will not get it right. But that is no reason to feel guilty. Our knowledge and wisdom are limited. We can only act on what we know. Besides, God is more concerned with our sincere desire to help others than with the outcome of the help we give. Maybe this is why Jesus said what he did in Matthew 25 about serving him when we give a cup of water to a thirsty person, or food to a hungry person or clothing to a naked person or presence to a sick or imprisoned person . . . and so forth. In other words, err on the side of compassion and God will be pleased.

What do you think?

The subject of this blog is one that usually stimulates a lot of discussion. So, let me know what you think about it. I am genuinely interested in knowing your response to the attitude Why should be help those who won’t help themselves?

Written by:
David Crocker

David Crocker is the Founder of Operation Inasmuch. He was a pastor for 38 years prior to launching the Inasmuch ministry which has equipped more than 2,100 churches in 25 states and several other countries to mobilize their members in mercy ministry. David’s passion is seeing believers serving as the hands and feet of Jesus as a lifestyle.

One response to “Why Should We Help People Who Won’t Help Themselves”

  1. Jackie says:

    We have seldom ‘needed’ anything we couldn’t provide for ourselves. A generous friend was constantly giving us money. $20, $50, $100 and on one occasion $3,000 because she felt we needed a better car than what we had. (This was when you could buy a new car for about double that amount.) We always protested to no avail and finally decided her Spiritual gift was giving and we had no right to deny her those opportunities. We just stuck it back and watched for opportunities to pass it on to someone else. We sometimes saw a situation and just felt immediately it was legit. Other times we were impressed to check it out. Several times that ‘checking’ revealed a scammer. Once a man asked for money to pay for his grandchildren’s Christmas gifts from layaway at a local store. I said, “I don’t have any cash to give you but if you’ll follow me to the store I’ll pay the balance with a credit card.” He smiled and agreed. I drove with him following. When I turned in at the store he sped away on down the road.

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