When I was an intern I served at a church that had its building by a main road. This meant that we received our fair share of people who were looking for handouts. Rather than usher the people away, the elders of the church made a genuine effort to help people with diaconal assistance. But they offered this help in a very careful manner. They would talk extensively with the person, ask a lot of questions, and even ask the person to fill out a form. The form asked about a number of different things, nothing too personal mind you. All of this data gathering was an effort to sift through the hucksters and identify the people who were truly in need.

            But one of the things that this data gathering process revealed is that numerous people came to the church for assistance, but when asked about their other relationships, they usually claimed they had none. There were no immediate family members upon whom they could rely, no job, no friends, no church, and no availability of government assistance. One of the ruling elders described this type of scenario to me in the following manner. He told me that God places numerous authority and accountability structures in our lives: parents, government, churches, and the like. Most of the people he encountered, he told me, had brushed off these various structures. One woman told the elder that she was without a permanent home because her husband kicked her out. The elder asked her whether her parents could help, and she responded that they wouldn’t help because they warned her about marrying the wrong man. She refused to listen. When asked whether she could get a job, she replied that she had failed out of high school. She told the elder that she didn’t like the teachers because they were always telling her what to do. When asked whether she had a job, she responded that she had several jobs over the years but always ran into trouble with her bosses who expected unreasonable amounts of work. When asked whether she could go to her church for help, she said she left her church because she didn’t like the preaching. Long story short, this woman ignored or clashed with virtually every authority figure in her life. Is it any wonder that she was now in dire straits?

            When a person reaches the end of the line, there is little you can do to help a person if they’re insistent upon living life the Frank Sinatra way, “I did it my way.” In such cases, without a genuine conversion, or repentance in the case of a Christian, your church will only become one more enabler—one more institution that tries to throw money at a person’s life when only the grace of the gospel can change them. In this type of scenario you might be tempted to give a person money, but then what will you do when someone who is genuinely in need requires that same money but you’ve already given it away.

            Giving financial assistance to people in need is a task that requires great wisdom. You will undoubtedly get taken by some people because they’ll tell you a convincing string of lies. Do your best, however, to vet the people that come to you for assistance. Ask a lot of questions and try to determine whether they’re just trying to work you for money or whether they’re like the prodigal, who was willing to do anything to return to his father’s good graces.