F.A.Q.: The Age of the Scam

A friend recently approached me with an idea for a post. His question was a good one, and a fairly common one. Well, common in that we all address it at some point, not so much in the “I get asked this every day” sort of way. Simply put, today’s topic is this: how are we to give to those in need at a time when everyone seems to be running a scam?

I think there are a few underlying assumptions to the question. First of all, no one should argue we simply tighten the pursestrings and stop giving completely. As long as there’s need in the world, Christians should give — and (spoilers!) there will always be need. As Christ says in Mark 14:7 (referencing Deuteronomy 15:11), “The poor you will always have with you.” Our broken, sin-ridden world will always contain poverty, always have the “have nots.” We, as followers of the Way, must do kingdom work, things which help usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Part of that work is sacrificially giving to anyone who asks, including our enemies: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:40-42). That’s sacrificial giving; this is the command of Christ to all who give.

But the question is about more than just recognizing we need to give, isn’t it? There are two other key elements at play here. One is the recognition of a depraved world, and the other is a matter of stewardship, or, to put it another way, how I share and store my resources in ways that honor God.

Taking these two in order, then, presents us with the reality of sin. As I said before, sin is directly responsible for poverty; it is an evil condition which would not exist were it not for the fall of our first parents. (In case anyone misread that, let me repeat: poor people aren’t evil just because they’re poor; poverty itself is a societal evil resulting from systemic sin [and probably the personal sins of other people, too].) The real sins being addressed by a question about scams, though, are greed and deceit. Human beings can be so greedy, so selfish, so full of avarice, they lie and cheat their way into wealth. Some people asking for money are professional panhandlers. I distinctly remember one woman in Wichita who stood at her place every day, cardboard sign in hand, smoking cigarettes and wearing various rather fashionable outfits, any one of which would have taken me a while to pay for on a pastor’s salary. People play on the pity of others to rob their peers to support themselves. It happens.

That leads us to the final point, the heart of the question itself: if we are to give, but if some people wanting help are schmucks, how should I take care of the resources God has given me? The concept of stewardship appears as early as the creation mandates of Genesis 1-2. Humans were tasked with ruling the rest of the created order, to tend the garden and take care of the earth. We can’t do that if we destroy it all (one basis of the Christian argument for environmentalism and conservation). We instead care for these natural resources and use them wisely. Our wealth is no different and is subject to the same stewardship concerns. We must use wealth properly, both rightly (for the proper causes) and wisely (for the proper reasons). To that end, many churches have established set processess to manage their giving. Some have lengthy applications which are then checked against a database to see if someone has regularly requested aid and thus might be trying to bilk yet another church. Others have committees who meet with people at a specified time, utilizing group discernment in the process. Both are good models, and so are many others out there. In this way, the church protects herself and acts as a good steward of the treasure given by her members.

Individuals rarely have access to this kind of thing. Sometimes we have time to sit down with the person, hear his/her story, and listen to the Holy Spirit. If we can invest this kind of effort, we should. It enables us to check the story for consistency, ask appropriate questions, and pray over the person and the situation. With facts in hand, it’s easier to decide if they genuinely need help or if they’re trying to take advantage of you. Unfortunately, most of these requests don’t allow us that much time. People on off-ramps and at red lights require us to make snap judgments about them. Here are my personal guidelines for these situations (but if you know of a better way, let me know — I’m always open to suggestions).

  1. Don’t give money; directly address the need. If the person says they’re hungry, either take them out for a meal or buy food to bring back to them. If they need a place to stay, pay for a room for a night or give them a lift to a shelter. This way you can control how you money is spent and ensure it goes where it’s needed.
  2. Know the aid organizations in your area. For most things, aid programs exist to help specifically with that need. Familiarize yourself with what is available in your area and connect the person with those organizations. If a person says the program refused to help them — or if they’re unwilling to go there to seek aid — it should be a red flag for you.
  3. Try to get a read of the person. If you have to decide whether or not to help immediately, make sure you know who you’re dealing with as best you can. Is the person in obvious need given their general state (appearance, attitude, etc.), or do they give a different impression (like the woman in Wichita)? Trust your gut.
  4. Always pray. Always. The Holy Spirit will direct you, whether you have two seconds or two hours. Always ask God about what to do in each circumstance.
  5. When in doubt, give anyway. If I personally can’t discern what to do, I give and pray God will move them to use the gift properly. Some will call me naive or a “soft touch” for this, but I ultimately place my faith in God that if I give both shirt and coat, He can handle it from there.

Again, if you know of better approaches, please let me know!

Those guidelines apply more to people than organizations. If a group sends you a letter wanting money, laugh all the way to the paper shredder. Wait. No. Do your research first. Check out their website. Read their profile at Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau, or a similar watchdog site. Ask others if they know anything about them. Pray. Then do what you believe God wants you to do.

Sadly, even the most cautious of us will get burned eventually, whether we ever know it or not. That doesn’t mean we stop our charity, though. It means we resolve to give even though people cheat us. That gives me my final rule about giving in the age of the scam:

Love them like Jesus.

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