One night we ran out of food and therefore Kaden was not able to have his typical forth helping. He looked up at me with horror in his eyes and asked in a trembling, hushed voice, “Mom, are we…poor?”
Maybe you have had a similar experience in your home where your child comes home from school, buries his head in the sofa and cries because his family too “poor” to buy him the $100 shoes that all the other kids are wearing.
Living like Kings
If you are like us, you remind your kids that compared to the majority of people living in the world today, we live like kings. When there are thunder storms we sleep soundly. Why? Because we have a roof over our heads. We have never known hunger and we have always had clothes to wear. Not only that, but we have the “extras” like DVD players, blankets hand-made by grandma, and even dress-up clothes. When we lived in the States, we had the category of “the poor” with whom we compared ourselves, but these people remained as concepts who were “out there” rather than unique individuals. This, however, for us, is no longer the case.
The “Poor” are now my Neighbors
I was never bothered by owning a car in the States, even though I knew that most of the world was not as fortunate as I was in this way. But now, I drive a car that costs more than the net worth of everyone in our entire neighborhood combined. Nor was I bothered by buying fruit juice. Now, I buy some and come home to look in the eyes of my housemates who spent the same amount of money that I just spent on a liter of juice on a few days worth of food. When in the States, I used a washing machine and dryer without shame even though I knew that I was in the “privileged minority.” Here, I put a load of laundry in our washing machine, sit down to read a linguistic book and then calmly get up to get the laundry out when it is finished. I then go outside to hang it to dry and see all the women in the neighborhood who have spent half the day scrubbing their clothes with a bar of soap. And then there are the prayer meetings like the one I went to the other night where I heard prayer after prayer of people crying out to God to provide money for their kid’s school fees, money for medications, and for daily needs. Now, have these people become poorer since we moved into the neighborhood? No, but now they have names and faces and are becoming my friends.
So, Now What?
Honestly my knee-jerk reaction is to reject the “rich” status that I now have. I hate it. My skin color already automatically puts me “on the outside.” And then there is my accent and country of origin. All these things I cannot change, but as far as our economic status, this is something I could change, thereby eliminating one difference. So, why not give away the washing machine and sit on the porch with the ladies and a bar of soap? Why have a refrigerator and only go to the market once a week? Why not go every day with everyone else? Why have a car when everyone else walks? That is what it means to “become all things to all men”…right?
But the thing that I keep coming back to is that we are here to translate the Bible and adopting this way of life would make this work impossible.
For example, in our temporary housing, we went without running water for over a week. This meant that Dave had to spend an entire day hauling water from the local well. This water lasted us 2 days. As for me, I used this water to spend hours scrubbing a couple articles of clothing. Today I spent an hour picking all the rocks out of our dried beans so that they will be ready to eat tomorrow. Between “just living” and homeschooling our children, we often go to bed sore and tired. And we have realized over and over again that there is no way that we could live just like the people and ever learn the language or translate the Bible. So, as of now, we are convinced that it is more loving to use the conveniences that we have to free ourselves up to do what we are here to do: translate the Word of God.
But honestly, in the day-to-day when people see us “sitting around” in our house it does not feel more loving. It feels awful. It does not feel like love when we will be the only ones in our neighborhood who are able to turn the lights on at night and do not have to hand carry our purchases home from the market. Although we are seeking to be generous with what we have and share “along the way” I do not know if our neighbors will ever see that our motivation for living differently than them is not because we love comfort, but it is because we love them and want them to have the Word of God.
In spite of all these tensions that regularly swirl through my mind, there are a couple truths that bring a bit of clarity:
My understanding of glorifying God as a “have” is a process. I have never had to ask the question “how can I please the Lord as a ‘have’ in a ‘have-not’ society?” Nor have I been faced with people regularly asking for money. I think that is why Scripture both calls us to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” while also reminding us that God is a generous giver of wisdom to those that ask. Instead of having a polished, documented philosophy on giving while living in a 3rd world country, I am content to ask God for wisdom in every circumstance while continuing to search the Scriptures as to how to be pleasing to God in these kinds of situations.
Love is the goal. Poverty is not the goal of the Christian. Nor is giving out of guilt or a felt need to level out the economic classes. No, love is the goal. As Paul tells us, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” So, in the face of a pretty dramatic different standard of living, the knee-jerk reaction of “what can I do so that I do not have more than this person?” is not the right question to ask. The right question is rather, “how can I use what God has given me (whether that be time, money, giftedness, etc) to best love this person?” Paul gently reminds us not to act out of guilt, but instead to let all that we do to be done in love.
My economic status is not what saves. We share in Paul’s desire to “becoming all things to all people, that by all means we might save some.” We want to be servants of the people among whom we live and we do not want to put any stumbling blocks in the way of the Gospel. But at the end of the day, God does not only save the kids who had perfect parents and in the same way God does not only save the people who hear the Gospel from the lips of the perfect missionary. If this were the case, no one would be saved. We acknowledge that the Gospel is powerful to save even when it is preached by missionaries who are still trying to figure things out.
Well, here are the tensions that we face on a daily basis. And yet, even in a season full of more questions than answers, the Word of God once again proves a source of wisdom and comfort, a Word that we are here to share.