What I have Learned from the “Poor”

I used to have many misconceptions about the poor. I’ve also had prejudices against the “rich” for that matter. For example, I used to think it was wrong to be wealthy and that all poor people were miserable. I’ve since realized that there are rich people who are very generous and humble (and that it’s not evil to be wealthy!) as there are many poor people who have more contentment, peace, joy and hope than many rich people!

In this blog article I’d like to touch on a few things I have learned from the poor (especially poor believers in Christ). But first let me state that I define “poor” as those lacking basic essentials/needs and the “rich” as those who have more than their basic essential and needs. Most people in the U.S. for example don’t see themselves as rich, but if we are honest with ourselves, the majority of us are “rich” not only compared to most of the world but by definition of having more than we truly “need” to survive and relatively comfortably. We often compare ourselves to those who are “richer” to wiggle out of the label “rich” but consider that more than a third of the world lives on $2 a day. Other statistics show that the average worldwide yearly income is $10,000 a year (that is including those without jobs and also involves some children). The International Labor Union says that as far as those actually employed are concerned, the average wages are the equivalent of $18,000 a year or $75 a day. (That’s not factoring in those who are jobless, self-employed, receiving pensions, etc). Most of those who will read this, at least in the US, therefore would qualify as being “rich.”

That established, here are some things I have learned from the “poor.”

  • The poor believers I have met are far from being weak in faith but are strong and rich in faith; sometimes or perhaps even oftentimes, more than those not “poor.

This is in complete agreement with James 2:5-6 which says: “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” I have found this to be true time and time again. And contrary to what the false “prosperity gospel” teaches, poverty is not evidence of “lack of faith” nor is wealth evidence of being truly rich in faith.  Many of the “poor” people I have been with have put me and most people I know to shame in regard to being strong and rich in faith/trust in God. I have repeatedly been challenged and strengthened in my faith because of being around “poor” believers who are rich in faith. We may possess what they lack financially or materially but they seem to possess what we lack spiritually. I have learned therefore, that they often have more to “give” than I do; in fact often I wonder if I am the one going away more blessed due to being with them than them being with me! And often when I am asked to pray for them…it is I who feels they should pray for me!

I have also witnessed a greater degree of passion and fervency for God and in prayer among the poor than most “rich” people. Lukewarmness seems to be a particular problem and sin among those of us who have more than what we truly need. It’s as if we lose our sense of our true need and dependency upon God and seeking after Him the more we have. We tend to deceive ourselves and become distracted by other things. This was the problem with the Laodicean church. They confused physical prosperity with spiritual riches. Revelation 3:17 records Jesus saying to them: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” The first thing he then went on to say was: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich…”

  • The poor believers I have met have actually shown more contentment, joy and less complaining than many of us in “better” circumstances.

As I stated earlier I used to think “poverty” equals misery and joylessness. While poverty often equals suffering and hardship it doesn’t necessarily mean the poor have no joy. On the contrary, I’ve witnessed an amazing degree of simple joy and contentment among many poor believers. I’ve also noticed the more we (I) seem to have the more we (I) tend to complain and being discontent! This is because of a mistaken notion that contentment is a result of comfort, convenience and “things.” It’s a lie. It’s also a “rat race” that never ends. One year we “have” to have an I-phone 5 the next year or two we “have” to have the next one. It never ends. 1 Timothy 6:6-8 however reminds us: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

Contentment is an art that it seems the poor actually master better than the “rich.” It is something they can teach a lot of us, because contentment is something that has to be “learned.” The apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11-13: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Joy on the other hand is both a choice and part of the fruit of the Spirit. That is to say we are commanded to “be joyful always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) but also reminded that joy is a by-product of the Holy Spirit residing in us. It is something the Spirit produces in us regardless of circumstances as we yield too are led by and filled with the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). Joy is not to be confused with “happiness.” As others have put it happiness is based on what “happens” to me (it can come and go); joy however is something much deeper and not dependent on circumstances. It is rooted in Christ who never changes!

Perhaps the poor often have more joy and contentment because they are not focused on and distracted by all the materially and physical things of things world as those of us who have access and can afford these things are. They are focused on the things of the Spirit and the bi-product is true contentment and joy, which is something money and possessions cannot buy or sustain.

  • The poor believers I have been with are not resigned to “hopelessness” but have a tremendous sense of hope.

This became so evident to me on my most recent trip to Myanmar while “interviewing” the “orphans” at the home we spent some time at. I was taken aback how time and time again when I asked the kids (irrespective of age) what they wanted to do when they grew up there was not only no hesitation, but no sense of hopelessness. This was all the more amazing when the educational system in Myanmar is very broken. For example, schools in Yangon have 1 teacher per 80-100 kids. The Chin & Christian kids (minority) have to sit in the back as minorities are discriminated against or “true Burmese” children are given preferential treatment. There is not enough material for all of them, so that also compounds matters, especially when they are last to receive things passed out. Also, it is basically a necessity to hire a teacher after school and pay a separate “love gift” (average is $100 a month) to truly “make it.” Kids often fail and have to repeat especially 4th, 8th & 10th grade. Half will fail 10th grade alone because there are only a few colleges so only the “brightest” will go. You also have to go to a public school to go to a state college. But even then, state colleges are not accepted by other countries! And other country degrees are not accepted in Burma! Intermediate kids (which are more expensive) go outside of country to college and often end up getting jobs in other countries.

Yet in the midst of that environment I did not sense despair, but tremendous hope for the future! These “poor” and “orphaned” children also didn’t have “low expectations” but had dreams of being doctors, teachers, a pilot, engineer, designer etc.

True poverty is not necessarily being physically or materially “poor” but having no hope, no purpose, no meaning. To be sure, poverty can indeed breed hopelessness and if you provide hope you can break some people free and out of poverty. But my point is, under that definition of poverty many “rich” people are dangerously poor and in fact many turn to drugs and even suicide due to the emptiness and hopelessness despite having everything financially or materially. Without hope, without purpose one has nothing even if they have everything. On the flip side with hope and with purpose one has everything despite having nothing. While on this trip during some downtime I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” and this was proved true not only in theory but his own experience in Nazi concentration camps.

  • The poor are not stupid or all lazy…many are very shrewd and smart.

This is another common misconception regarding the poor. Many of the poor people I have met are actually very and amazingly resourceful and intelligent (more so than me at least!) even if not “educated.” In fact, they are often more “street” smart than those who are “book” smart. I believe there are different kinds of “intelligence.” That’s beyond the scope of this article but given the opportunities, training and motivation, many “poor” people have proven very successful. Through micro finance programs for example, there are many stories of “poor” people who worked very hard and are shown to be entrepreneurially savvy. Proverbs 28:11 also tells us that: “A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him.” Being rich is not automatic evidence of being “wise” anymore than being poor is automatic evidence of being “lazy.”

The whole “laziness” issue is also sometimes more a “cultural” issue than “person” issue. For example, culturally in a part of Myanmar I was in, the “norm” among government workers was spending more time talking over tea “breaks” than actually working. This is more a problem socially or culturally than individually even though it is individuals participating in this behavior.

Yes, laziness can be and is an issue among a population of the “poor” but so is greed an issue, distraction and vulnerability among the rich. Jesus said in Matthew 19:23: “”I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” He did not say this in regard to the poor. In fact the rich are warned, rebuked and exhorted more in scripture (in some very intense ways) more than they are applauded or commended…and more than the poor are rebuked.

I guess what I am trying to say through these thoughts are that there is much we can learn from the poor. There is much the poor actually can “give” to us. I know many who have gone on mission trips or ministered to the homeless thinking they would go to be a “blessing” but found they ended up coming back realizing they were the one’s “blessed!”

Also sometimes we have this “hero” mentality as if we are “superior” because we are wealthier. But really, if you want to play that “game” what is “better”; to have material wealth that is only temporary or spiritual riches that are eternal? And which carries with it a greater responsibility? In Luke 12:48 Jesus said: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” John, the forerunner to Jesus, when he was baptizing people said in Luke 3:11, that as part of evidence of true repentance: “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” And the apostle John wrote in 1 John 3:17-19: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Here is how I think it is supposed to work. If the rich gave what the poor lacked in the physical sense and the poor gave to the rich what the rich lack in the spiritual sense, no one, rich or poor, would be lacking what each is in need of! Rather than a wide discrepancy between rich and poor materially and often physically, there would be equality. And this is how the kingdom of God and body of Christ is meant to work. We are all to be dependent upon God, while being interdependent on one another. And then, rather than pride or poverty, all praise would go to God and God alone who is worthy!

1 Timothy 6:17-19: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

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