In the kind of work I did at a charitable organization, I often struggled with the concept of giving to the poor versus enabling someone who is caught in a cycle of dependence through their own choice. I looked up the definition of mercy in Wikipedia. Here’s what I found: “Mercy is compassion or relief given to an undeserving recipient.” When I think of the undeserving recipient, I think of myself as the recipient of God’s mercy in my undeserving state of sinfulness. Jesus died for me, whether or not I would accept Him, it was not conditional on my treating Him right. In fact, those that crucified Him spat in His face, beat, whipped and insulted Him. He still had compassion and mercy for them when He said: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Story from my employment at Love INC of Treasure Valley, July 2001-December 2013

So how am I to treat the person who calls for money, who has been round all the churches that day demanding for their car insurance to be paid or they will go to jail, who keeps changing their story and whose husband is in jail, when I know that 90% of those jailed in our area are meth addicts? We don’t pay bills as a policy, but what is our response to be? We offer a life-changing relational budget program in which she can get out of debt permanently – she is not interested. We offer clothing and other material goods if these are needed – she just wants us to pay her bill. We pray with her and hope that we have sowed a spiritual seed.

Is it compassionate to feed someone and send them away with no hope of changing their circumstances? Is it merciful to give them money that will most likely pay for the next drug fix? I think that what Jesus did was provide for a need we all have – forgiveness of our sin and the gift of eternal life in heaven. He did not rain down dollar bills on the needy. In fact, before healing someone, he often forgave them their sins as the answer to their core problem, then healed them as a visible sign of His power to the unbelieving.

Perhaps the way to distinguish when and who to help is to ask the question of whether we are providing for a real need, or just getting them out of our hair and off our conscience by fulfilling the demands of the moment. If I were to ask this woman “what do you really need?” perhaps she would have to say she needs freedom from addiction, someone to walk alongside her and help manage her finances, someone who will not abandon her like her husband when he is paying for crimes he committed. Until she comes to that realization, it may be detrimental to perpetuate her situation, to keep her out of jail for a while, or worse, to feed her addiction. She will become dependent on the giver and return for more bills to be paid, not learning anything about her intrinsic value in Christ and how He wants to set her free from her problems, self-inflicted or not.

They call this ‘tough love.’ I find it hard to swallow. I am not yet at peace with it, maybe because I was never a parent. I want to solve all this woman’s problems, show her who she can be in Christ, soften her demanding tone of voice, get her off drugs or whatever it is that causes her to ask for money from a perfect stranger and be upset when she doesn’t get it. God’s heart must ache when He offers us the answer to all our problems and we turn away, rejecting Him, thinking we know how to run our own lives. The compassionate heart aches when mercy is rejected, but how many undeserving recipients are eager to accept mercy? It takes a brokenness of spirit, a humble attitude to receive something from the giver with genuine gratitude when you know you can never repay the debt. Jesus’s heart was touched when the one leper returned to thank Him for his healing. The other nine walked away and said nothing, but He did it willingly for all of them – this is unconditional love.