How do you distinguish the needy from the wanters?



I came across your site and subsequent Bible studies while trying to research the subject of giving but not in the traditional sense. Since my on-line searches are not producing the answers I am looking for, and since I noted that you are a preacher, I thought I might ask you for a biblical direction.

There's a saying that "Many men cannot walk. Many more can, but choose not to." I'm trying to discover what the Bible has to say about people who can carry their own burdens but purposely or willfully choose not to because, hey, why should they, if they can get us to do it for them? What does the Bible say about discerning the difference between the "truly" poor and in "real" need, and those that are really not in need, but merely in "want?"

I know what the Bible says about charity. What I don't know is what the Bible says about charity toward people who don't really need charity; that is, if the widow or orphan is quite capable of earning for themselves and could become self-sufficient, but refuses to do so. What does the Bible say our obligation is toward then?

Thanks very much.


"Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27).

This verse is not directing Christians to take care of every orphan and widow. It says to see to the needs of orphans and widows in their trouble. The Greek word thlipsis means affliction, anguish, burden, persecution, or trouble. It is not a trouble of their own making, but trouble that comes upon them because they are vulnerable.

"Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need" (Ephesians 4:28).

Notice that "need" is not the same as "wants." In Greek, the word "need" carries the shade of meaning implying destitution. That one person has less than myself does not mean he is destitute.

"For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread" (II Thessalonians 3:10-12).

Troubles can come upon people despite their best efforts. But as you noted, some people invite trouble through their lack of effort. The later are told they must work, the former is helped to get past the difficult days.

You can see this in John 6. When people stayed late into the day in a deserted region to have Jesus heal their sick and to listen to his teachings, Jesus had compassion on them (Mark 6:35; Matthew 14:14). He fed those who came so far. But when some of those same people started following Jesus asking for more free food, Jesus had a different answer. "Jesus answered them and said, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him'" (John 6:26-27). Jesus refused to feed them, and they eventually went away in disgust.

Another example is found in the rules given to churches regarding which widows the church had responsibility for. "Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints' feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work. But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith. And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not. Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully" (I Timothy 5:9-14). The church was only responsible for older widows who had no family to care for them (I Timothy 5:16) and who lived a godly life. The younger widows are specifically told to get married because if they were supported by the church they would learn to be idle.

Laziness is a sin, and neither Christians nor the church is in the business of promoting sin. "The desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor. He covets greedily all day long, but the righteous gives and does not spare" (Proverbs 21:25-26). This isn't saying that the righteous gives to the lazy but that while the lazy never thinks he has enough, the righteous have more than enough for himself and to help those who are truly in need.

In distinguishing the lazy from the truly needy, I use several criteria:

  • Is there a rush? Almost universally the bums out there try to get people to shell out money fast. It's always an emergency. But that is because it limits double-checking whether you are being told the truth or not. When someone gives me the hard sale, red flags go up. Most problems don't have to be solved today. They got by so far, one more day rarely won't be a burden.
  • It the need is real, then there should be ways to verify it. When people call the building asking for handouts, I ask them what church they attend. I then call the church and ask for verification. You would be surprised how many won't give me a congregation and the list is endless for why they don't attend services. I've learned the hard way over the years -- no verification means no help, no matter how much I sympathize with them.
  • Is the problem due to the person's fault or is it out of their hands? In the former, I will make sure they survive the immediate problem, but then I work with them to learn not to repeat the mistakes.
  • Handle the problem directly, not indirectly. Instead of giving someone cash for a problem, pay it directly so you know the money is being spent where it is needed. If someone calls saying they are in need of food, go buy the food to give to them.


Thanks for such a fantastic, clear, and concise reply. Your explanation coupled with Scripture references is a great help!

One question though: If I am not mistaken, what we're discussing here, for the most part, presupposes that the people involved (the givers, the takers, the widows, etc.) are all "Christians," especially from I Timothy 5:9-14. Where do we stand, when one person is a Christian, and the other is not, and the "not a Christian" person feels she is not subject nor required to "lodge strangers, wash saints' feet, relieve the afflicted, ..."

If I Timothy 5:9-14 (or other scripture) is the standard criteria we use for determining if a "Christian" is in need, or merely in "want" - are we to apply the same standard to non-believers?


I quoted I Timothy 5:9-14 to give context to the distinction made between older and younger widows. In particular, I was noting that younger widows were not cared for by the church even if they lived godly and had no relations. The reason given is that they had other means by which to support themselves.

Whether one is a faithful Christian does not decide whether a widow was truly in need. The rules given in I Timothy 5:9-14 were to determine whom the church was responsible to care for. In contrast, Christians were expected to care for their family, without regard as to whether their related widows had lived godly lives. "Honor widows who are really widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God. ... If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows" (I Timothy 5:3-4,16). Anyone receiving direct aid from a church should be showing themselves to be a representative of what the church teaches.

This then leaves the widows who have no family, are too old to support themselves, and who have not lived godly lives. Such would fall under "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). Such is the responsibility of individual Christians and not the church. Such are to be helped as the individual has the opportunity and the ability, though priority is given to believers in need. "And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:9-10).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email