CHARITY
 versus DISCERNMENT


“Excuse me, sir, will you please help me,” the young lady pleaded. She sounded desperate and look pathetic. “I was beaten up by my husband and chased out of the house with my baby. We have no food and no money. I don’t know what to do.”


We had just moved from Wales to London to take up the pastorate in New Life BPC, (London). We were parked in front of the entrance of the church building and Elder Khoo was there to help us. But we had many boxes of books, and the distance from the front of the church to the manse was at least 300 metres (I think). Elder Khoo started carrying the boxes. He was strong for his age. But I felt bad, and was afraid that he might hurt his back. But here was a young mother desperate for help, and Elder Khoo had started the long trek down the aisle of the worship hall. I wanted to invite her in, but I had heard enough about the crime rate in London to be cautious.


“Where’s your baby?” I queried.

“I left her with my sister.”

“Can’t your sister help?”

“No, she has nothing too. You see, she was living with me and we both had to leave. Will you please help us?”

“How may we help?”

“Well, could you give me some money to buy food…?”


Having encountered beggars before, I was very wary when someone asks for money. I did not want to give, and so I suggested that we give her some food: a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk and some canned food, which we brought down from Wales. She took them and was about to leave when she said, “Could you please give me some money to buy a can of infant milk as my daughter is allergic to cow’s milk.” I wanted to turn her off. But what if she’s genuine? It was getting dark and cold, and I had no time to talk further since I did not want Elder Khoo to carry all the boxes to the manse. I asked her to write down her address and made her promise to come to the church on the Lord’s Day. She scribbled something reluctantly, mumbling as she did, that she did not know how long she would be there. I gave her £5 and watched as she walked off to the convenience store.


She did not turn up on the Sabbath. And her address was non-existent. A couple of weeks later, my wife and I were coming out of the tube station when we noticed a pregnant lady begging for used day-travel tickets (either for sale or for illegal re-use). My wife immediate recognised her to be the same woman who had begged us for help earlier. She was certainly not pregnant when we met her a couple of weeks ago, now she looked like she was 6 or 7 months pregnant!


We were later to confirm with the students in the church that she has been begging around the area for some time. We resolved then never to give a single cent to those who come begging, whom we perceive to be simply refusing to work.


And this was not the last case of con-begging we encountered in our stay. One family came with stories of being chased by Irish Mafia. Elder Khoo and I, despite being cautious, were taken in because they brought a small child along and even brought us to where they stayed. We offered to buy their provisions, and soon discovered at the convenience store that they were not really in poverty, but were out to cheat. The storeowner seemed to know, but said nothing as Elder Khoo and I were busily taking out from their basket luxury items that they had put in. Yet another man claimed he had not eaten for days, and demanded that it was his right to be given food and money by the church. But when offered some food, he chose what he liked to eat and left everything else. Yet another man came regularly pretending to seek counsel, but in a round about way asked for money. We learned, through our numerous encounters with this man especially, that we must never give money or offer to buy their provision or loan them any money, because they would never repay loans, and they would use the money to buy cigarettes and beer, and would trade food we gave them for these things.


These encounters hardened our hearts against believing the stories of strangers too easily. Never had we encountered so many beggars and downright liars.


When we left London, we thought it would be the end of these encounters. But no. Here, we encountered an elderly Australian man with an Indonesian wife, who claimed to have lost his wallet and needed some money. His story was so convincing we gave him a small sum, of which he promised to return when he got home. Well, a year has passed since we met him. Then we are told of a man who goes about churches to borrow money and uses the money to visit prostitutes. Then there was a supposed East German refugee who speaks perfect English with plenty of profanity. He claimed he was robbed in Malaysia, of all his belongings, and came down to Singapore by bus because his visa expired. He claimed to be a believer, but was sorely disappointed because many churches had turned him away when he approached them for help. He had a fantastic story which was almost consistent, but who would believe him when he smelled like he had been drinking. Well, he claimed that he hated beer and cannot afford beer. Perhaps it was body odour because he had not changed for a few days. What do we do? What if he was genuinely in need and we did not show hospitality?


Charity and its Pitfalls


The Lord teaches us: “freely ye have received, freely give” (Mt 10:8), and He teaches us in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30–37) that we ought to show compassion to those in need. Indeed, in the parable of the Sheep and Goats (Mt 25:31–46), He teaches us that when we help a stranger who is naked, hungry and thirsty, that we do it to Him; and when we fail to help, we fail to do good to Him. Then again, Paul teaches us to “[distribute] to the necessity of saints; [and to be] given to hospitality” (Rom 12:13); and Peter reminds us, to “use hospitality one to another without grudging” (1 Pet 4:9); and the writer of Hebrew exhorts us: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).


How then can we not be compassionate to strangers? Not only are we commanded to be compassionate, but having been shown compassion by the Lord though we deserve nothing, how could we harden our hearts to those in need? It is perhaps for this reason that Christians are particularly credulous when it comes to the needs of strangers who come to us.


And this is perhaps the reason why Christians are particularly the target of con-beggars, so that many of us have been cheated rather naively over and over again.


Does it really matter that we have been cheated? Well, it does not matter in that they involve temporal losses on our part on account of our good intentions. But it does really matter from another perspective.


In the first place, we ought to be good stewards of the material blessings which God bestows upon us by His providence. The amount that we give to these con-beggars could be better utilised to help those who are really in need, rather than those who would squander them on vices.


In the second place, when we give indiscriminately, we not only encourage liars to continue cheating (contra Ninth Commandment) and persist in laziness (contra Eighth Commandment and 2 Thessalonians 3:10), but feed their sinful habits (cf. Prov 29:12). I remember many years ago being embarrassed, saddened and angered after giving some financial help to a young man whom I saw to be in need, I saw him sitting alone on a bench, staring in blank space, and appearing to be in deep thoughts. I approached him and began to tell him about Christ. As I spoke, he appeared to react rather emotionally as tears brimmed his eyes. He acknowledged that he was a sinner and needed Christ. I prayed with him. Later, as we sat there, he told me that he was sitting on the bench alone because his mother was coughing very badly and he could not afford to bring her to a doctor. Well, to cut the long story short, I was moved by his plight and gave him the money I had in my wallet. He promised to meet me in church on Sunday. He never turned up.


A few weeks passed, and one day, I received a call from the man I met. He wanted to borrow some money from me. He had forgotten the stories he told me. They were all lies. Later, I described the appearance of the man to a friend who was an ex-drug addict, and he confirmed, based on what I told him, that I had probably met a drug addict and that he must have used the money for his next “fix.”


In the third place, the Name of Christ can sometimes be brought into disrepute because of our undiscerning acts of kindness. Several years ago, a Chinese national appeared in a large church in Singapore. He claimed to be a communist cadre member who used to spy on Christians, but was converted after hearing the Gospel through the pulpit ministry in the church here. He was given hospitality accommodation in the church, and his needs were provided for. Joyfully, he claimed to have read the Bible through few times just within a week or so after he professed Christ, and he even asked to be baptised. Shortly after his baptism, he had to go back to China. Many members of the church gave him generous monetary support, and the church also gave him boxes of books and Bibles to distribute when he got home. Well, months later, Chinese nationals begin appearing at the church demanding accommodation. Each of them had paid something like 2,000 Yuan to the man who came earlier because he had promised them free accommodations and job opportunities in Singapore. The police had to be called in on at least one occasion to restrain the angry outbursts of these men when they discovered that they had been cheated and the church would not provide for them. I wonder what these men thought and felt about Christ and His church from then on.


Sometimes, good intentions can backfire. In this case, as with numerous others, it did. I dare not count the number of times when someone came to me with pitiful stories to tug at my heart strings, and I had been taken in despite being wary. I dare say that unless I resolve to deal with each person who comes to me for help with some definite unwavering principles, that I will have many more occasions of being cheated. Con-beggars are getting more and more sophisticated. They know the softness of the hearts of Christians, and they know how to manipulate them.


Principles of Discernment


In considering some principles of discernment when it comes to encounters with strangers who come to us for monetary help, it is important for us to begin by realising that not every person who comes asking for money is necessarily fraudulent. However, experience teaches us that very few who are generally in need of help will ask for money instead of food. Personally, of the numerous cases I have encountered and given help, I have hardly been able to ascertain that any one of them was a genuine need. In some cases, I have discovered, to my sadness, that I had been taken in to lies; while in other cases, I have no way of knowing the truth or falsity of the stories. There was only one instance where I am sure the man who asked was in real need (i.e., not spending on vices, etc.); and this man was not asking for monetary helps, but for the opportunity to work for food. The sincerity of this man was attested by the fact that though he was suffering from some disability in his leg, he was still willing to work for food. More yet, when I offered to give him some financial help, he initially refused and offered to wash my car for me. And not only so, but he began to tell me about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ!


In the second place, we should realise that the Scripture does not demand that we help everyone who comes along asking us for help. In the case of the parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as the parable of the Sheep and Goats, the needs of the individuals are unmistakable. We must certainly help without any hesitation when it is within our capacity to help when we see some one in need. Nowhere in the Scriptures are we taught to believe the words of every stranger who comes to us. In fact, I believe that most of us have a higher view of man than does the Word of God. Most of us are very ready to ascribe honesty to strangers who come to us, whereas the Scripture speaks of man as being naturally liars (cf. Ps 58:3, Rom 3:12–13). This fact ought to cause us to be wise as serpent (and harmless as doves) in the midst of wolves (Mt 10:16), rather than being taken in by falsehood because of our credulity.


In the third place, we should note that although the Lord teaches us to be compassionate to all without distinction (Mt 5:43–48), we are not required to render help and hospitality without distinction. Yes, we must always help someone in need even if he be our enemy, but no, we are not called to refrain from distinguishing between believers and unbelievers. When we have opportunity, we are to “do good unto all men,” but “especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). We must especially render assistance to those we know to be believers. Thus, even in the Lord’s parable of Sheep and Goats, the sheep are commended not because of any good works that they had done, but good works done to believers (see Matthew 25:40, note the phrase, “my brethren”). Thus, Paul does not teach us to distribute to the necessity of everyone who comes to us, but only to the saints; and similarly Peter does not require us to show hospitality to everyone, but to one another (1 Pet 4:9). This does not mean that we cannot and should not entertain strangers since the writer of Hebrews teaches us not to be forgetful to entertain strangers (Heb 13:2). But it does mean that it is right and proper for us to ascertain if a man is a brother in Christ in our assessment on whether to render assistance, especially when the assistance needed may be substantial. Indeed, the Apostle John commends only hospitality towards believers and not to all strangers. In 3 John 5, he commends Gaius for his hospitality with the words: “Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers.” Now the phrase “and to strangers” must not be taken to mean any strangers, because verse 7 speaks of them going forth for Christ’s Name’s sake. In other words, the word “and” may also be render “even,” so that John is saying, “Thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, even to strangers” (3 Jn 5). This thought is confirmed in 2 John 9–11 where John suggests that anyone who bids a person, who does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, God speed, is a partaker of his evil deeds. Of course, John was specifically talking about heretics (v. 7), but his instruction teaches us that we are not to offer hospitality indiscriminately.


In the current decadence of society, it is often very difficult to ascertain if someone who comes to us for help is genuinely in need. It appears that more and more con-beggars are realising that churches are easy targets, and so we are likely to encounter more of them. The balance between charity and discernment is a difficult one. But I would propose several guidelines in view of the principles and observations above: Firstly, I would propose we refrain from giving monetary help as far as possible. Consider giving food instead, if necessary. Secondly, I would propose we seek to know if the person is a credible believer: not that we should turn away unbelievers, but that it will help us better ascertain the truth or falsity of the stranger’s claims. And moreover, we should be more ready to help believers, and also make it a point to tell unbelieving strangers of the danger that attends their soul and the importance of seeking salvation in Christ. Thirdly, I would propose that where there is any doubt as to whether a person is genuinely in need, to refer him to a couple of other persons (say the diaconate) for their assessment. Fourthly, always seek to verify any claims, such as having been robbed, etc. Fifthly, in case where it is difficult to ascertain the truth of a person’s claims (and there is little to indicate falsity), and there is no opportunity to verify, that we render help only if after prayer, we do not have peace of conscience for not extending help. I say this only because we must never sin against our conscience. But bear in mind that the modus operandi of con-beggars is to tug at our heart strings and play with our conscience. Thus, I would add that should we refuse to help because the story of a stranger is not verifiable, we need only to commit our decision to the Lord and need not feel guilty for being unhelpful. The Lord knows our hearts and our dilemma.


Conclusion


To help or not to help? That is the question. It may seem unchristian not to extend help when someone comes to us pleading for assistance. But as we have seen, more often than not, in affluent societies, such as London, Singapore or United States, strangers asking for monetary assistance are not genuinely in need. Trying to be helpful to such persons according to their terms may be the most unhelpful thing for them. On the other hand, rebuking them sharply (Tit 1:12–13) may be the most helpful thing we could do for them.


Let us therefore be discerning about whom we help and how we help. One day, all sin shall cease, and we shall no more have to deal with con-beggars. But then, neither will we ever need to help anyone anymore, for all in Christ will be perfected and all pain, sorrow and want will be no more. So let us not cease to be spontaneously helpful to all who need help, and so bear a good testimony in the Name of Christ. But let us ask the Lord for discernment when strangers solicit our help, lest we encourage sin because of our credulity.


J.J. Lim