God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things. ()Acts 17:24-25)
Since we are mere creatures we must humbly accept the limitations of creaturehood. God alone is uncreated and unlimited and as such He is the only Being that never has and never will know inability or deficiency. Even if sin had never entered into the picture, man would still be a dependent and finite creature. Limitations are not inherently bad. The Garden of Eden was a place of bounty; but that bounty was not unlimited. It was possible for Adam to pick all the pears off of the pear tree or to dig all the carrots and thus run out. God was teaching Adam a lesson. If Adam wished to increase the things upon which he lived he would have to invest labor. And let us note that human labor, which is holy, only became “toil” after The Fall as part of the Curse. After that Adam and his posterity must learn to prosper in accordance with the physical laws that are inherent within the created cosmos.
This is a lesson which mankind is still learning; many thousands of years later. There are many people who do not believe that man has any inherent limitations and they lay out their plans accordingly. Many Christians act in disregard of this order and believe the “first lie” which is that they can be “as God;” that is, without limit. Some even think that limitations are only the effect of sin and that the spiritual rejuvenation connected with saving faith should eliminate them.
But what does the Bible say? There are many case studies and examples that could be given. Several different lines of thought could be pursued in order to shed the light of God’s Word upon the topic. So out of the myriad of options, let us look more closely at charity, benevolence, and alms giving.
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The limitation of resources is a fact of living. Ever try to write a check for a million dollars? Doesn’t work too well, does it? Every day has but so many minutes, and then it is finished. Every heart has a certain number of beats before it wears out and stops working. Only so many meals can be prepared from a bushel of corn. Whatever endeavor man may turn to he is confronted with the reality of limitations and scarcity.
With reality pushed aside, man often pursues lifestyles and constructs ideologies which assume that resources, whether they be physical and tangible or ethereal, are unlimited.
Denying the reality of scarcity has many serious ramifications. The idea of “boundless plenty” is known as “Universalism”. Universalism has an immediate appeal to most people. After all, we want to see everyone be treated in an equal manner and get the same opportunities right? At first glance it seems like a good thing to place no boundaries or limitations on our cares and concerns; but we must give further thought to the out-workings and demands of Universalism.
Champions of Universalism, and those who deny the reality of scarcity, daily bind heavy burdens upon the back of modern man by means of guilt manipulation. We are to contribute money to care for the poor, to take seriously the conservation of our environment, to shed a tear for the cancer patient, to donate time to Habitat for Humanity, and watch infomercials about abused dogs or dolphins with deformed tails. Once all these tasks are accomplished he is still supposed to empathize with the tales of woe and hardship spun by this year’s top contestants on America’s Got Talent.
There is nothing inherently wrong in any of these cares and concerns. In fact, individually considered, many of them are good things. But there is a problem, a problem which has the potential to use man up and to wear him out. To overburden his limited resources in an impossible attempt to universalize his beneficence.
In the Universalist paradigm, caring for the poor often means giving money or taking missions trips to charities in a third world nation while the single mother down the street is neglected in her struggle to teach her two fatherless sons how to mature into men. “Thoughts and prayers” accompany every pleading Facebook post and a GoFundMe page can raise millions of dollars but elderly family members go uncared for in their old age and a young father struggles to come up with gas money. What is the answer?
Very simply the answer is to have the bible dictate our priorities. The Apostle Paul, writing to his young disciple Timothy nearly two thousand years ago about the necessity of prioritization had some things to say. He knew that for Timothy to prosper in the commission which had been given him he would have to learn how to establish boundaries. Paul writes to him in 1 Timothy 5:8
But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Understanding the Christian spirit to be a spirit of charity and love, Paul knew that Timothy would have to curb the attempt to “universalize” the commitments andundertakings of this young church. The tendency to over reach and thereby end up neglecting the things closer to home was not unfamiliar to Paul. In 1Thes 4:10-12 The Apostle exhorted the Thessalonian church to be faithful in caring for their own poor:
10For indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, 12so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
The “outsiders”, mentioned in verse twelve, are those looking on from outside the Church. Paul does not want for the poor Christians of Thessalonica to be in need of seeking charity from outside the Church. So he exhorts the Thessalonian Christians to maintain, and even improve upon, their labors to provide for their poor. His message is not one of Universality. It is a defined and limited duty which he places upon them. This is the same message he gave to Timothy: But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Paul,writing to the Corinthian church at approximately the same time as he wrote to the Thessalonians, instructed them to collect funds which he would take to Jerusalem to aid the poor there. Apparently the Corinthians were in a more sure-footed place concerning their own backyard to the point where Paul felt comfortable that this would not leave other things undone. But this was an ad hoc temporary measure in accord with their voluntary stated desire to help their brethren in troubled regions. Its inclusion in Scripture was to provide an example of how pledges are made, administered and executed with witnesses and oversight and all without compulsion.
In contrast to this his instruction to the Thessalonians was to attend to your own businessby caring fortheir own poor first. It is important to note that Paul would not permit the Christian poor of Thessalonica to be neglected while the church there attempted to give succor to causes abroad.
The consistent theme inall this is an important one. The earthly resources, time, money, and emotional sympathy [their bowels of compassion] which were available to Timothy and the flock at Ephesus, as well as the church in Thessalonica, were limited. They couldn’t do it all. In the face oftheir very real scarcity, the biblical solution is to maintain established boundaries and priorities as the answer to the temptation of “universal obligation”.
In the midst of the missionary zeal which consumed England during the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon, that prince of preachers, found it necessary to remind his brethren of the essential boundaries which are a prerequisite to any successful endeavor. He said:
Piety must begin at home as well as charity. Conversion should begin with those who are nearest to us in ties of relationship. I stir you up, not to be attempting missionary labors for India, not to be casting eyes of pity across to Africa, not to be occupied so much with tears for popish and heathen lands, as for your own children, your own flesh and blood, your own neighbors, your own acquaintance. Lift up your cry to heaven for them, and then afterwards you shall preach among the nations. Andrew goes to Cappadocia in his after-life, but he begins with his brother (Peter); and you shall labor where you please in years to come, but FIRST of all YOUR OWN HOUSEHOLD, first of all those who are under your own shadow must receive your guardian care. Be wise in this thing; use the ability you have, and use it amongst those who are NEAR AT HAND. ~~Charles Spurgeon; Words of Counsel for Christian Workers; pp 5-6
Spurgeon understood that the man who cares not first for his own household has denied the faith. Casting the eye to a foreign land while one’s own brother languishes is sin. And it is sin which today’s attitude of “universal commitment” plunges man further and further into. But those who are truly of the household of faith must not deny the faith. They must not give in to the “messianic ambitions” of this world but instead be faithful to the Bible’s clear word of instruction regarding the boundaries, limits and priorities to which man is subject.