In my time as a pastor I regularly encountered people who were in dire straits—unemployed, homeless, struggling with addiction, and the like. I feel sorry for people when they suffer and always did what I could to render assistance. Our church always reserved funds, for example, to purchase people food if they were struggling to make ends meet. But at the same time, an experienced ruling elder made an important observation that has stuck with me. When people came knocking on the church door, more often than not, they were typically at the end of a long series of broken authority structures in life.

This elder reminded me that people seldom have calamity randomly fall upon them. There are certainly times when this does occur and so in each case, you have to ask a lot of questions and do your best to evaluate the specific nature of a person’s problems. But God places numerous authority structures in our lives to assist us along the way: parents, extended family, school teachers, local authorities (government and police, e.g.), and for Christians, the church (pastors and elders). Along these lines, when you talk to someone who’s been unemployed for a long period of time and regularly struggles to make ends meet, ask a lot of questions. You ask questions not to accuse or find reasons to dismiss a person’s needs, but rather so you can do your best to help them. You can toss money at a problem and provide for a person’s rent for one month, but will that actually solve anything? Have you only treated the symptom rather than the root cause?

For example, if you have a person who ignored his parents’ and teachers’ advice and dropped out of high school, and who has regular run-ins with the local authorities, if you give this person money, you will fix the problem for the short-term but leave the underlying cause untreated. Namely, this person does not want to submit to authority, and a failure to repent of this attitude will only continue to birth problems in his life. Along these lines, for someone who needs financial help, you need to ask: Where is your family? Do you have extended family that can help? Have you tried government assistance? Are you a member of a church, and have you approached your deacons? Again, you’re not looking for a reason to say, No, but rather trying to figure out why this person has problems to begin with. Perhaps they’re estranged from their family? Perhaps they have been disciplined by their church? Regardless of the scenarios, don’t just throw money at people. It may make you feel better if you toss money at a problem, but, in the end, you may have done more harm than good.

We should always seek to help the needy, but we must be wise in how we assist people. It could be that by failing to do your due diligence and ask questions, you give money to someone and make their life worse, and then you run out of money and can’t help the person who genuinely needs it. Take note of when people cross lines. Seek to treat the causes of a person’s problems, not merely the symptoms.