Robert Lupton is the founder and president of Focused Community Strategies Urban Ministries, which works with underserved neighbourhoods in the United States. In Toxic Charity he points out that well-intentioned efforts to help those living in poverty can in fact harm them. He learned this the hard way when, after years of living in the suburbs, he moved to the inner-city. His neighbours, who were a very financially disadvantaged family, invited him to share Christmas Eve with them. During the evening there was knock on the door. When the door was opened it revealed a small group of volunteers from Robert Lupton’s own church holding Christmas gifts for the children. The children received the gifts with excited squeals of joy. As the visitors watched the children unwrap the presents they were deeply moved at the opportunity to bring such joy into the children’s lives. But not everyone was moved with joy. Soon after the visitors arrived the children’s father slipped out the door. In all the excitement no one noticed him leave, embarrassed and humiliated at not being able to provide the gifts himself.

Lupton made sure that was the last year the church handed out gifts at Christmas time. The following Christmas wrapped toys were not delivered to the homes of those who were poor, but were sent, unwrapped, to the local family store. A bargain price was placed on the toys and parents from the neighbourhood were invited to buy gifts for their children. Those who were unable to afford even the bargain prices were offered the opportunity to work in the store to earn what they needed for the purchase. It was a win-win outcome. The children received Christmas gifts, the dignity of parents was nurtured and family relationships were strengthened. The only “downside” was for the church members who no longer got the feel-good satisfaction of seeing a disadvantaged child open a gift that they had provided. However, they did experience the “upside”: knowing they were doing good.

Good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes. Rather, good intentions must be matched with wisdom. The Old Testament book of Proverbs can help us understand the role of wisdom. Commenting on Proverbs and the other examples of wisdom literature in the Old
Testament (Job and Ecclesiastes), Derek Kidner points out that:

the blunt ‘thou shalt’ or ‘shalt not’ of the Law, and the urgent ‘thus saith
the Lord’ of the Prophets, are joined now by the cooler comments of the
teacher and the often anguished questions of the learner. Where the bulk of
the Old Testament calls are simply to obey and to believe, this part of it
(chiefly the books we have mentioned, although wisdom is a thread that
runs through every part) summons us to think hard as well as humbly; to
keep our eyes open, to use our conscience and our common sense, and not
to shirk the most disturbing questions.

Wisdom writers believed that we could get insight into how we should behave by simply reflecting carefully upon what we were doing. This is a skill that we need in order to love well. We should form the habit of considering the consequences of our actions, both intended and unintended, of asking “is this the best way to achieve the goal of helping people move towards fullness of life?”

Looking to become more wise in your generosity? It’s not too late to join The 60/40 Challenge – 60 simple actions to end poverty in 40 days. Download the ‘End Poverty’ App now on Google Play and The App Store and register for the challenge!