Decision to give by validness of decision for almsgiving


Giving of our substance to others (almsgiving) is a complicated issue. One subject that frequently comes up (among those of us that think and talk about these things) is the issue of giving to people begging on the side of the street.

There’s a host of reasons that this particular situation causes problems, though I think most of the reasons articulated are merely justifications for an emotional response. It’s natural to not want to give what we have to others, especially when our knee-jerk reaction places the potential recipient in some sort of “other” category. When we see another human as part of some category that we don’t associate with ourselves (such as nationality, ethnic background, age, socioeconomic status, education level, preference in music, stature, relationship status, dominant hand, hair color, etc.) it’s easy to slip into a less empathetic state.

I suspect that our drop in empathy, rather than well placed logic, spawns most of the reasons people cite for not giving to those who ask. So to test that hypothesis, I tried to look up as many of the scriptures I could that directly addressed giving to the poor (aka almsgiving). Here’s a summary of what I think I found:

Decision to give by validness of decision for almsgiving

Here’s how I came to these conclusions:

Valid Reasons to Give

Here are the reasons I came to with some of the scriptures I figured supported the assertion.

We’re asked to open our hands to the poor

There are lots of scriptures that apply to this, but one of the earliest comes from Deuteronomy 15:7-8:

If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of they gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from they poor brother:

But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.

I think it’s a completely valid reason to give to others for the sole purpose of obeying God’s commandments, and this and other scriptures make it fairly clear that God expects us to make it happen.

Avoid curses and have sufficient

This thought comes primarily from Proverbs 28:27:

He that giveth unto the poor shall not lack: but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse.

I suppose giving out of pure love and charity is probably superior than simply wanting to avoid curses, but the fact that this verse is put in a positive context implies that giving for this reason is acceptable.

Walk guiltless

This principle comes from a chapter in the Book of Mormon that will pop up quite a bit in this post. King Benjamin, a Nephite ruler around 120BC gave an epic parting speech to his subjects designed to bring his people closer to God. He talks extensively about caring for others, and includes this point in Mosiah 4:26:

…that ye may walk guiltless before God–I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.

Our number 1 goal in this life should be to walk guiltless before God, and imparting to the poor here appears to be a necessary step toward success.

Recognition that we’re unprofitable to our God anyway

This may seem like an odd reason to give, but it operates as an anti-negative. It seems to be a common tendency for people to think that others should earn what they receive, but if we can recognize that we don’t do the same, perhaps we can have a bit more empathy for others and treat the beggar like our brother. As stated in Mosiah 4:17-19:

Perhaps thou shalt say: This man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand…

But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent…

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

Once we realize that we are also beggars it makes a bit more sense to give to others. After all, we haven’t really earned what we have ourselves, so it’s a bit odd to hold others to higher expectations.

Invalid Reasons to Give

There’s only one invalid reason to give that I could find, and it has to do with where your heart is while you are giving.

To be seen of men

If you’re giving just so you can get the satisfaction of other people thinking you’re a great person, you’re doing it wrong. As Matthew 6:1 says:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

The verses that follow in the chapter expound on this point, emphasizing the importance of doing good for the right reasons.

Valid Reasons Not to Give

As with the invalid reasons to give, there wasn’t as much here. However, the two reasons I could identify are fairly significant.

Having nothing to give

Fortunately, if you have nothing to give, you seem to be off the hook from giving physical items. You’re not off the hook spiritually though, as King Benjamin pointed out in Mosiah 4:24-25:

…all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give.

And now, if ye say this in your hearts ye remain guiltless, otherwise ye are condemned; and your condemnation is just for ye covet that which ye have not received.

Coveting is still a sin, even when you’re poor. God is more concerned about where our hearts go than where our money does, so having this sort of charity for others is important, even in destitution.

Having a better, wiser system

This idea also comes from King Benjamin in Mosiah 4:27:

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.

This can have multiple relevant interpretations, such as not giving more than are capable of giving without putting yourself at risk. It also suggests working hard at providing for others in the most efficacious ways possible. To be clear, this isn’t a valid reason to not give at all, but a valid reason to not give to a random person who meet on the street. To avoid giving to a street beggar in a valid way under this scripture, it requires giving substantially to well vetted systems to provide for others.

This may be in the form of giving to charities, or paying fast offerings (as we do in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)). It may come by helping the recipient overcome their obstacles to self-reliance. Whatever the form, it is clear that it necessarily means an active involvement in such practices, or you would be better off giving to the street beggar.

I suspect that many people that worry about “enabling” the beggar’s behavior will fixate on this point. If you got some sort of emotional response while reading this, or feel that you’re not justified or validated in your decisions to avoid giving, then you should probably know that you’re feeling the “confirmation bias” right now. This part said what you wanted to hear–the thing that protects you from needing to change–but doing so would ignore the bigger picture. Hopefully this will become abundantly clear in the next section.

Invalid Reasons Not to Give

Scriptures were a bit heavier on this subject again, further suggesting that we should err on the side of giving.

Worry about enabling beggar behavior

God doesn’t seem to be too concerned with His children enabling beggar habits in others when it comes to almsgiving. This idea seemed to fall under the category of passing judgment on others inappropriately. ¬†Remember the verses listed above for recognizing that we’re unprofitable and that we’re all beggars. King Benjamin also followed this up in Mosiah 4:22 with

And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou has done.

I don’t think God puts us in the position to judge as to whether the recipient will just stay a lazy freeloader if we give him or her some help, I think God just tells us to help, avoid passing judgement, and recognize that we have a similar relationship with our Heavenly Father.

On a related note, many of those that claim that giving to those on the street will just enable their behavior often seem to use this as an excuse to do nothing, rather than to try to provide help in better ways. Very few of us are giving enough to make this justification, so it’s probably best to err on the side of giving.

Concern about criminal history

First, I think this is a weird argument at its face. Some have suggested that having a criminal past disqualifies a street beggar from receiving assistance. Although I don’t think having limited options justifies delinquency, I don’t know why we would expect a person who lives in a system that inherently stacks the deck against that person to adhere to it. I think it’s easy for those of us with sufficient privilege to pursue our greatest dreams with some chance of success to forget that many people are born with capacities and circumstances that will ensure that individual’s failure in certain pursuits. I know that we often think that the “American Dream” of completely fluid social status mobility for all people in all situations is a reality, but I think there’s too much evidence to the contrary.

With that in mind, I would expect that most people that have a decent chance at doing what they most want to do will follow that path. I don’t anticipate that many people grow up dreaming of living on the side of the road or relying on others for their substance, so although the individuals may have made some poor decisions to get there, I think there’s more at work than meets the eye as to their full background, whether or not it involves criminal activity.

So to me, historical criminal activity is not a relevant attribute when it comes to whether or not to give to another. As Mosiah 4:19-20 said:

For behold, are we not all beggars?…

And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy…

It just isn’t really our place to judge another’s worthiness to receive.

They mistreated you

When I talk about mistreatment, I mean multiple things. This could be outright theft such as in Les Miserables when Jean Valjean steals the silverware from the priest and ends up being given the candles as well. It could also be the simple act of deception, where someone is begging on the street and pretending to be poor when they aren’t really. Christ told us in Matthew 5:39:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

It’s not our job to be concerned about whether the recipient is stealing from us, it’s just our place to do our best to be Christlike.

Thoughts Overall

You’ll notice a heavier amount of content in the sectors for “Valid Reasons to Give” and “Invalid Reasons Not to Give.” To me, this suggests that we should err on the side of giving, even if it means giving in an inefficient method.

There’s also a lack of emphasis on the results of the giving. Christ even explicitly states in Mark 14:7 that

…ye have the poor with you always

and in Deuteronomy 15:11 we read

For the poor shall never cease out of the land…

As such, I think God is more concerned with ensuring that our hearts don’t get set on riches and that we concern ourselves more with caring for our brothers and sisters than for ourselves. It may be argued that the scriptures focus on the giver rather than on the receiver simply because the audience will primarily consist of givers, but I still think we should be erring on the giving side. After all, God Himself can care for the needs if necessary. Christ also tells us in Matthew 6:28-30:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Do your best, and leave the results to God.

Keep seeking truth.

Scripture Tree

  • Give to the poor freely
    • Deut 15:7-11; Open your hand to the poor, don’t think evil or be grieved about it
    • Psalm 112:9; the righteous man gives to the poor
    • Mat 5:42; give to them that ask of thee
    • Mat 19:21; Rich man being told to sell all and give to the poor
    • Mosiah 2:17-26 King serves, only in service of God, we are always unprofitable, nothing to boast of, nothing more than the others
    • Mosiah 4:16-23 We are all beggars, wicked to judge them and think they brought the situation on themselves, you and your stuff perish
  • Punishments for not giving
    • Proverbs 28:27; If you give to the poor, you wont lack, but if you don’t you’ll endure many curses
    • Mathew 25:32-46 sheep, goats, doing to the least of the brethren
  • Rewards for giving
    • Proverbs 28:27; If you give to the poor, you wont lack, but if you don’t you’ll endure many curses
    • Matthew 6:28-33 consider the lilies, the Lord will take care of you too
    • Mathew 25:32-46 sheep, goats, doing to the least of the brethren
    • Luke 11: 41; give alms and you can be clean
    • Acts 20:35; more blessed to give than to receive
    • Jacob 2:13-20 blessed with much, but don’t get prideful, before seeking for riches, seek the kingdom of God
    • Mosiah 4:26; every man impart unto the poor according to what you have so you can walk guiltless
    • D&C 112:1; Alms of Thomas B. Marsh were a memorial to him
  • Other giving guidelines
    • Mat 5:39-41; If they sue you, give them more, turn the cheek, go 2 miles rather than 1
    • Mat 6:1; don’t do your alms to be seen of men
    • Mos 4:24-25; If you have nothing to give, your hearts should yearn to give
    • Mos 4:27; Do all things in wisdom and roder
    • Mosiah 18:27; people with more should give more, and those with less need to give less
    • D&C 56:16-17; wo to the rich that aren’t giving, and the poor who are greedy

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