Biblical teaching about dependence on donations from others

From the standpoint of the Bible, it is not surprising that nations cannot become prosperous by means of aid from other countries. Dependence on donations is not God’s ideal for human life on the earth. God’s purpose from the beginning has been for human beings to work and create their own goods and services, not simply to receive donations.

God put Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and told them to work and develop it: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28). Then we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (2:15).

In the history of Israel, when God promised multiple economic blessings to his people, it was clear that these blessings would not come to inactive Israelites simply living off donations from other people; instead, they would be blessed when their work brought fruitful results:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. (Deut. 8:7-10)

The Israelites would have to harvest the wheat and the barley; they would have to tend and pick the vines and the fig trees; they would have to bake the bread; and they would have to dig copper out of the ground to make tools and implements. God’s blessing came through productive work that created new goods and services. It did not come by dependence on donations.

Far from being the continual recipients of donations from other countries, the people of Israel were to be lenders: “You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow” (Deut. 15:6). (Note the similar blessings that were promised for the people’s work in Deut. 28:6, 11-12).

Even the poor people in Israel were not to become dependent on donations from others, for they had to work to gather their food from the “gleanings” that were left in the fields after the first harvesting (see Deut. 24:19-22).

Another provision for the poor in Israel was that others were to lend to them without charging interest (see Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:37; Deut. 23:19; Prov. 28:8; Neh. 5:7-10). But the fact that God spoke of a loan (even one without interest) assumed that it would be repaid, not that the recipient would depend on donations year after year.[1]

Still another solution for poverty was the provision that a poor person could become an indentured servant to a wealthier person for a specified period of time, after which his debts would be considered repaid and he would obtain his freedom (Lev. 25:39-43; Deut. 15:12-18; compare the story of Jacob serving Laban in Gen. 29:18-27). Indentured servants automatically had their debts paid off in the seventh year of their servitude (see Deut. 15:12-15) or in the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:28, 40).

The important point is this: there is no thought in the Bible that poor people would become permanent recipients of gifts of money, year after year, or would become dependent on such gifts. The only exceptions were people who were completely unable to work due to permanent disabilities, such as a blind beggar (Mark 10:46; Luke 18:35) or a lame beggar (Acts 3:2-10).[2]

In the New Testament, Paul rebuked those who were “idle” (1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:7), stipulating, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

The Bible’s expectations that people must work to earn their living should not be seen as harsh or unkind. The fact that God gave Adam and Eve work to do before there was sin in the world (see Gen. 1:28; 2:15) indicates that we should see work as a blessing, a valuable gift from God. Although God has now added a dimension of pain and difficulty to our work because of the sin of Adam (see Gen. 3:17-19), the ability to work and create useful goods and services is still seen as a positive gift throughout the rest of the Bible and something that God commands his people to do for their good (see Ex. 20:9; Eph. 4:28).

  • [1] However, see Deut. 15:1-3 for debt payments that were temporarily suspended every seven years. Fora discussion of this passage, see E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988),58-62, arguing that the release from payments was temporary, for that year only, and not a permanentcancellation, as in the Year of Jubilee.
  • [2] Modern technology even allows many physically disabled people to provide for themselves throughinformation-processing work or intellectual creativity. One example is Stephen Hawking, a renownedphysicist who is almost completely paralyzed and communicates by means of speech-generatingtechnology.
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