"What Do You Mean by Fault?" On Helping the Poor Who Seem to be Making Bad Decisions

Sometimes people argue that we should not help those in need when the need is a result of “their own fault.”

This is a deadly view. For example, imagine if Christ had said that about us? “I will not go help them and deliver them from their sins — they brought their misery upon themselves by their own disobedience. I will give to the good angels instead.” To refuse to help someone on the grounds that they “did this to themselves” is a denial of the gospel itself.

This view, however, is not just deadly; often, it has just plain misunderstood the situation.

Sometimes a person’s situation is indeed a result of their own sin or poor choices. But very often when we think the person has brought their difficult situation upon themselves, our assessment is actually incorrect. What looks like “their own fault” is, in fact, nothing of the sort.

The great 18th century pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards brings this out very well in his sermon “The Christian Duty of Charity to the Poor.” In answering a set of “objections to giving to the poor,” one of the objections Edwards takes up is the objection that “he has brought himself to want by his own fault.” Edwards’ response is incredibly insightful:

In reply, it must be considered what you mean by his fault. If you mean want [lack] of a natural faculty to manage affairs to his advantage, that is to be considered as his calamity. Such a faculty is a gift that God bestows on some, and not on others; and it is not owing to themselves.

You ought to be thankful that God has given you such a gift, which he has denied to the person in question. And it will be a very suitable way for you to show your thankfulness, to help those to whom that gift is denied, and let them share the benefit of it with you.

This is as reasonable as that he to whom Providence has imparted sight, should be willing to help him to whom sight is denied, and that he should have the benefit of the sight of others, who has none of his own….

Edwards’ point here is deepened by modern research, which now has found that “being broke saps mental bandwidth.” A recent study has found that “just being broke, in and of itself, damages abilities to make good decisions in a way roughly equivalent to losing 13 IQ points — or constantly losing a night of sleep.”

In other words, in many cases “rather than the poor being poor because they make bad decisions, they make bad decisions because they are poor.”

This shows us just how important it is that we take Edwards’ counsel here. If some of those who are poor seem to be making bad decisions and we refuse to help lest we fear that we will be “aiding and abetting” their “bad decisions,” we will actually be making the problem worse. Hence, the solution is to get off the high-horse of our superiority complex and actually help tangibly, financially, and concretely. Counterintuitively, giving financial help in spite of the appearance of some bad decisions is often the way to help restore good decision-making.

This study also helps guard us from one mistake we could make in applying Edwards’ point. Though it would be totally contrary to what Edward’s is saying, one mis-application we could make is to begin setting ourselves up as judges of people who are in need who continually begin to stereotype the poor by too quickly saying to themselves “this person must intrinsically lack the ability to manage their finances well.” As Edwards’ points out, of course, there are some people that simply have less ability in this area. However, as this study helps us see, there are some people who are suffering not a permanent lack of ability in that area, but a temporary lack, simply because that can be the very effect that poverty has on a person.

What is the solution? The solution is not to set yourself up as the person’s superior, because you are “wise” and they are “unwise” and clearly in need of your superior understanding and guidance. The solution is not to begin giving the person advice. The solution is to stop being afraid of actually giving money to the poor, and to stop tying so many conditions to it. The solution is to have an approach to helping the poor that is based on respect for the individual, dignity, and empowerment. It means we need to see those who are in poverty as capable individuals. This means being willing to give money, among many other things, to help those who are poor get out of the condition of their poverty and, among those who may be experiencing this phenomenon, thereby enabling their decision-making faculties to heal back to normal.

In other words, sometimes the solution to poverty is not to seek to educate the person so that they can then get themselves out of poverty, but rather help them get out of poverty first, in which case we will find that the problem the whole time was not lack of decision-making skills at all, but simply the nature of poverty itself.