A sage and revered man asked a question in our high priest group meeting: “We believe in helping people. We helped the Jones family when their basement flooded. But it floods every few years. When do we stop helping them?”
In the group were past bishops and stake presidents. For them the question was very real; they had faced the same or similar issues while representing the Lord in their wards and stakes.
There was a lively discussion with very different recommendations. Once again two true principles came into tension. Compassion versus responsibility. Caring versus stretched resources.
One brother asked whether the ward was robbing the family of growth opportunities by jumping in to help with basement repairs. “When will Brother Jones learn to sheetrock if we keep doing it for him?”
This is the clash of the titans. We believe in choice and accountability. The war in heaven was fought over agency. Yet, on the other side, is compassion. Jesus kept surprising and scandalizing His contemporaries by showing compassion where they were inclined to slap sanctions or pile penalties. The woman taken in adultery. The injured man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The woman at the well. The lepers.
I don’t believe that a brutal battle between compassion and responsibility is the way to settle this continuing struggle. I recommend two different solutions.
Making creative use of tension
In the research on marriage, one of the stock recommendations is to make creative (rather than destructive) use of differences. Rather than batter our spouses with their “inadequacies,” we can learn from our different strengths. But this will only happen when our hearts and minds are right.
Curiously absent from most marital battles and many discussions of helping the poor is life-giving creativity. We are tempted to settle challenging issues with petty rule-applying. Sometimes a smallness of soul is evident in our harsh judging of folks who are facing hard times.
Yet God is supremely creative. When we get His spirit, we are too.
In the group discussion about flooded basements, one gentle brother jumped in: “The best way for Brother Jones to learn to sheetrock is to do it with us.” That is one creative solution.
There is still another way creativity might be applied. Rather than periodically repair the Joneses’ basement, maybe we could draw on the resources of the ward to come up with a long-term solution. Rather than complain about the repeated repairs, maybe we could find a way to divert the water that has periodically flooded the basement.
Creativity keeps surprising us. One brother in the group told about an Eskimo woman he knew in Alaska. Her utilities were often shut off. The church would rally to get them turned on again. Yet it wasn’t long before the utilities were again shut off for non-payment. It finally dawned on the ward members that this good woman was used to living without utilities. She was used to chopping wood and hauling water. So they provided different help. They supplemented her wood supply. As she aged and her body began to fail, they provided more wood and helped her haul water.
A young couple in our ward is without regular work. They are trying very hard but keep falling short. So when Kroger’s has a sale on cases of peanut butter, we buy a case for us and a case for them. Food was never better stored than in the soul of one of God’s children.
Like many people, I worry about giving to panhandlers who ask for money because they are hungry. We have all heard stories of money poured into alcohol and scammers who prey on the gullible. I am tempted to ignore my responsibility by issuing a summary judgment on their souls. Yet I have known for years that I am dishonoring Jesus when I do that. So, in an imperfect attempt to be both creative and compassionate, I have started carrying a few jars and cans of food in the car. I do not know if the panhandler is genuinely hungry or merely idle, but I can be prepared to feed those who claim to be hungry.
My second recommendation is to be gracious. We who must repeatedly cross the bridge of mercy should not blow it up for others. We should thank God who built it and we should thank all who maintain it every time we cross it.
Those of us who have lived relatively safe and privileged lives should be very cautious about judging and condescending toward those for whom life has been a relentless struggle. We might become like Pharisees shivering at the sight of a leper. We might start to drink the Calvinist punch that wealth and well-being are signs of God’s approval.
We who are less than the dust of the earth should be constantly grateful for the breath that God lends us, the sacrifice He made to rescue us, the mansions He labors to prepare for us. It is painfully ungracious to judge ourselves as deserving while judging others as undeserving. Is it possible that the Jobs among us are enrolled in spiritual graduate school while God allows many of us to repeat 3rd grade until we are ready to advance a mere grade? We who take untold years to learn the basics ought not to judge harshly those who groan under the demands of advanced training.
Heading toward Zion
And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. (Moses 7:18)
Along with creativity, we need a change of heart. If there are no poor in Zion, it must be because all people work together. We are of one heart and one mind. When a tree falls on any house, it is felt in all souls. When water fills any basement, it calls all neighbors to action.
I remember when Nancy and I suffered another in a series of miscarriages. A family in the ward brought us dinner. We did not really need the food. Yet we wept with joy because of their compassion and graciousness. We were lifted by their love.
If we are to be followers of Jesus, we must lead with compassion. Responsibility is the framework; compassion is the heart and soul of a saint.
I do not believe that we should create dependency; I believe in responsibility. But only an inspired priesthood leader has the right to regulate the flow of church resources. My personal responsibility is to do all I can to help God’s children. My job is to be a messenger of hope and grace—to have a giving heart and ready hands.
God does not expect me to run faster than I am able; all things should be done in wisdom and order. Yet I have learned that, as I am more willing, God makes me more able. How many times would Jesus want me to bail and repair the Joneses’ basement?
Maybe seventy times seven.
Here’s my “amen!” from Texas. I will not give cash to the panhandlers at the train station, but I am thankful to (now) be in a position to use my debit card to fill somebody’s gas can, or to buy them a combo at the drive-through.
I remember what it felt like to be the one in need. I remember the many kindnesses. [I also remember the condescension from some ward members; it helps me to remember to be kind, myself.]
I am still struggling to unlearn some of the less-effective coping skills I picked up when I was poor, but overall those years of poverty have proved to be a blessing. And it is so much fun to finally be in a position to give.