Compassion and Mercy
To love someone means to help them with their true needs. We talk about love (tap here) on another page.
An important word in the above sentence is the word "true." People tend to define many things as "needs." However, there are very few TRUE needs. A true need is something that is essential and a need that the person is unable to meet on their own.
What Does This Imply?
This means we need to be able to evaluate a person's situation to determine if there is a true need.
If someone walks up to you on the street and says, "I need $5 to buy a bus ticket." Can you evaluate that need? No. You know nothing about the person's situation nor who they are -- in other words, are they lying to you and will use the money to buy drugs? (Go to the bus station with them. Buy them a ticket and lunch. Spend some time talking with them about Jesus as they wait for the bus.)
BUT, SOME SAY, Jesus fed 5000 people, and he didn't know any of them. Wasn't he meeting the need of people for food, without knowing their situation? No, He was not.
First, that they needed food was a known, true need:
Now when it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, “This place is secluded and the hour is already past to eat; send the crowds away, so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go; you give them something to eat!” They said to Him, “We have nothing here except five loaves and two fish.” - Matthew 14:15-17
A key question: What was the most critical true need Jesus was addressing? It wasn't food. Jesus had been teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven. Their most urgent need was for a Savior and entrance into His Kingdom.
Jesus could have done as his disciples requested, sent the crowds away so they could buy food. However, by creating food (a supernatural miracle of creation) Jesus was demonstrating that He was God. He did something only God can do. That means God was standing there, right in front of them.
Recognizing that Jesus is God, and His message about the Kingdom was from God, was meeting the people's most important need, a spiritual need. By miraculously feeding all of them Jesus did something only God could do, and my doing that He authenticated His message as being from God. That's why Jesus fed them. Their physical need (food) was secondary to their spiritual need.
There is a hierarchy of needs. Some needs are more important than others. One criteria is that the need be a true need. We may think having a home at the beach is a major need, but food is much higher on the hierarchy of needs. The need for Jesus is at the top of the list. We only spend a short time here on earth. Our greatest need concerns eternity. For example, if someone is hungry, what do they need more... something to eat or Jesus? The answer is, Jesus. Jesus made that clear on the morning following His feeding of the 5000. The crowds had followed Him, and said:
"Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: 'He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.'” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; the one who comes to Me will not be hungry, and the one who believes in Me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have indeed seen Me, and yet you do not believe." - John 6:31-36
A crowd of people is demanding that Jesus feed them breakfast. Jesus had fed them the evening before, so they knew He had the miraculous power to do so... providing food as Moses "had" during the exodus. However, Jesus points out that the food they need is spiritual. They need to believe in Him and have life. Just as bread gives physical life, Jesus is "bread" that gives spiritual life... life eternal. That was their greatest need, not food. They had seen Jesus' miracles (things only God can do). They had proof that what He was saying was true. Yet, they did not believe.
Secondly, discernment is important. Those who are closest to someone in need, are the ones who are called to help that person. They are in the best position to discern whether the need is real. For example, it is a good policy to never give money to someone with a sign at a freeway entrance. It is likely you are not meeting a need for food, but are instead enabling a drug habit. If you want to give them something, give them a coupon for a meal at Subway or Taco Bell. Even then, they may sell that to buy drugs.
An option should be for them to go to a church that provides help. As a pastor, when someone came to the church, or I met someone on the street who was hungry, I would take them to a sandwich shop and buy them a meal... sitting with them and talking during the meal. Where we were located a lot of people stopped and asked for money to buy gas. I kept four two-gallon cans of gas handy. After we had talked, and if they seemed legit, I would pour two gallons into their tank. I never, never gave out cash.
Who Is Best Able To Help Those In Need?
Today we depend on the government to care for and feed the poor. That's not Biblical. Here is what might be called the hierarchy of compassion. It is based on the fact that, the person with the closest relationship to someone in need, is best able to evaluate that need:
Those who best know someone in need are their family. They know, for example, whether uncle Freddy is a freeloader, or is truly in need. In other words, they know if the command, "If he are unwilling to work, then he is not to eat." applies. (2 Thessalonians 3:10). They are also in a position to know unspoken needs. In many cases what is being requested addresses a need that is caused by an underlying condition or problem.
If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. - 1 Timothy 5:8
If the family is unable to help, the next level are friends (aka neighbors). They will know the person in needed better than anyone other than family. In addition, Christians are commanded in scripture to help their brothers and sisters in Christ. We give, sacrificially, to help other Christians with their true needs.
The Bible describes the principle of gleaning. Those who owned fields for growing food where not to harvest everything from the field. They were to leave the corners, edges and other areas unharvested and allow those in need to harvest from them.
Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God. - Leviticus 19:9-10
The principle is that we are to provide opportunities for those in need to work to obtain what they need. Although not from the Bible, this Biblical principle can be summarized as, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish [work] and you feed him for a lifetime."
The church is the final stop. The church should know those who are in the church, and know their needs. This is the principle of Christians helping other Christians.
In addition, the church has the ability to meet the needs of people outside of the church. Every church I've been a part of has helped non-Christians in need, starting with their need for Jesus. Many churches have expertise, or can refer people to places that have the expertise, to address deeper issues. Some needs may be relatively easy to meet, such as the need for transportation to a doctor's appointment. Others may be much more complex. For example, at a church I was attending a young man (early 20's) came to the church asking for food. He had a job, but could not afford food. The church counselor looked into the situation and found that his mother was a drug user who was taking all of her son's money. The real problem was not the need for food, it was a drug problem... which the church counselor was then able to address... as well as addressing the spiritual issues.
Just handing out food, or other assistance, is not Biblical, nor compassionate. There may be times when it is necessary, but the Biblical approach is to accompany compassion for physical needs with compassion for spiritual needs.
Finally, we must never forget those who cannot help themselves. The Bible frequently talks about helping widows and orphans. In the first century these were the people who were unable to help themselves. Our policy today seems to be to dump them on the streets. The government does a terrible job of taking care of people in need, and in many ways enables drug addiction and homelessness. On top of that, government policies, regulations and laws restrict the ways churches and individuals can help people in need. The problem is that we are looking to government to do something that, based on the Bible, government was never designed to do. The government is not supposed to be the source of charity. We are. As individuals and as a church.
Let's Simplify - Here's the Bottom Line
While we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. - Galatians 6:10
This statement is trustworthy; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and beneficial for people. - Titus 3:8
We are to do good for all people. For our Christian brothers and sisters first, but also for all people. The wording of Titus 3 is saying that we are to go out and actively and intentionally look for opportunities to engage in good deeds. Those good deeds authenticate our gospel message.
We are to imitate Jesus. ALWAYS JESUS
Also see our page on the love of money.