What we today call “social justice” or “compassionate public policy” toward the poor and needy did not exist before William Wilberforce and his associates lobbied the English Parliament for decades in the early to mid-1840s for programs that would help the destitute. Known mostly as the man who got slavery banned and the slave trade in the English Empire eliminated, he did much more. In those days in the most “Christian nation” in the world at the time, benevolence as a public policy was scarcely known. It was not until the Wilberforce forces prevailed that the “social justice” and government benevolence movement began. However, I think Wilberforce would not recognize nor appreciate the dynamic that has evolved in modern governments. Today, public benevolence in the minds of many is a “right”. The government paying for my food, medical, housing, education, water, and clothing has become a “human right”. It began as charity, but now has become a “right”. This has helped develop in many a “welfare entitlement” mentality in which, in some cases, it has produced multiple generations of those living primarily by public assistance.
It is often thought by most that the “Christian” thing to do is to meet people’s need regardless of the lifestyles and poor decisions that have delivered them to the place of that want and need. So, they are surprised to hear Paul write in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command; If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
In the NT church it was the practice that the church would literally feed those among its number who were lacking food. Chapters 2 and 4 of the book of Acts indicate that in the first church in Jerusalem the believers had “all things common”. That is to say, they willingly gave all they had to be shared commonly among the believers. From this example, it became a common practice in the early church that where great poverty existed, they would feed those in the church who were hungry.
But as time went on, some began to take advantage of this benevolence and became idle busybodies who would not work (read 2 Thes. 2:6-15). These were not those who “could not” work…but who “would not”. Paul said the way to handle those people was to let them starve! Sound harsh? Sound cruel? Sound un-“Jesus like”. On the contrary, Paul knew what our modern politicians and many well-meaning Christians do not seem to know; enabling people in a life of dependency when they are capable of independence is not compassion. It is not mercy. It is cruelty. This is when “helping hurts”.
God designs consequences for bad behavior, sinful living, and bad choices. It seems today that “compassion” equals removing all the negative consequences of those bad decisions and behaviors. That is tantamount to removing the very stimulus God designs to move people away from those behaviors or patterns of life.
Certainly, there are times to come to the “rescue” of people even though they made bad choices. And support to children who are at the mercy of adult/parental malfeasance is always appropriate. But to continually “bail out” and rescue people who simply “will not” work or will not modify sinful lifestyles is not Christian. We must have the wisdom to know the difference. Certainly, we can say God had to bail us out in the gospel to save us. But he only had to do it once. And while he continues to “bail us out” through forgiveness of sin, he also deems that consequences (even for forgiven sins) remain. It is those consequences that we often misguidedly try to eliminate.
God calls Christians to be compassionate and just to the poor and needy. But we must always demand responsibility from those who could work but will not. It is not God’s plan that some of us work hard in order to make a living and then support those who can work hard to make a living, but deem it easier to live off their “rights” to have the great preponderance of their sustenance provided for them by the church, government, or relatives. This may mean they suffer some hard consequences along the way. Consequences are good…even the negative ones.
I think the heart of every genuine Christian is to want to help. But we must make sure that helping does not end up hurting those we are trying to aid. Paul said, “if they will not work, neither should they eat.” This principle needs to be woven into all social justice and compassion programs in order to dismantle any entitlement mentality that might develop that would undermine genuine benevolence.