How can you help the needy? Are Christians supposed to focus on the material needs and hope the person will ask about the spiritual side? Or are we supposed lead with a verbal gospel presentation and then offer material assistance afterwards?
While I don’t believe the Bible gives us a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all plan on how to help the needy, I do believe the Bible gives us general principles that will help us out a lot as we try to assist those in need. The best place to look, obviously, is at the life of Jesus.
By studying John 5:1-17, we can see at least 4 practical things Christians should do if they want to help the needy.
1. To help the needy, you need to get to know the needy.
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:1-6)
By “the needy” I simply mean anyone who has an earthly need that is more severe than the average citizen within that community. It could be hunger, homelessness, unemployment, mental illness, or like in John 5 a physical disability.
The first thing Jesus does to help the needy is to get to know their needs. John 5:2-3 explains that Jesus intentionally exposed himself to an area that had “a multitude of invalids.” If you never go to serve where a greater number of needy people typically are, you will not be able to serve many needy people.
Likewise, Jesus got to know the man personally. He didn’t just take one look at him and label him. He didn’t assume he knew the man’s story (although since Jesus is God he certainly could have, unlike us.) Before Jesus helped the man in need, he learned what the man needed. Jesus listened to the man’s story.
Likewise, Paul never wrote a letter without first knowing the specific needs and issues going on with the people he was writing to. While he touched on similar themes in his epistles, he differentiated the application of those truths to the actual struggles each specific church or person was dealing with. Thus his letter to the church in Ephesus was different than his letters to Timothy or to the church in Corinth because he knew all of them had different needs and where dealing with different problems.
Therefore, the first step in helping the needy is to get to know the individual so you can better serve him or her. Jesus saw a crowd of people in need, but he focused on the individual and learned that man’s specific story and issues. If you want to help people the best way possible, we need to know their backstory.
2. To help the needy, you have to ask about their desires.
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” (John 5:6-7)
The needy man’s physical problems were rather obvious. But Jesus not only looks at the outer man but the inner desires too. He asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus didn’t ask him if he “needed” to be healed of if he could walk to the pool to get the healing. Jesus asked him do you “want” to be healed.
It seems rather ridiculous to ask an invalid such a question. But I believe Jesus wanted to know the man’s desire. If we want to help people in need, we must recognize their inner desires are a huge part of the equation.
Through my time working with the homeless, I was surprised to learn that not every homeless person wants to be picked up and driven to the local shelter. Some of them refuse help from outside agencies and prefer to live a life of homelessness, seclusion, and street living.
Whenever you want to help the needy, you must get to know what the desires of the individual actually are. If there is a lack of motivation to receive services and help, that is the first barrier you will need to help the person overcome. Secondly, I believe Jesus asked the man this question as a sign of dignity.
God never forces healing on people. He never violates the need for our human participation. Likewise, although many people are in need, they have the right to accept or refuse the help you want to give. We must give people the dignity they deserve by first asking them if we can help before forcing on them what we think is best.
3. To help the needy, you must help them with their practical needs.
Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. (John 5:8-9)
When the man consents (sort of), or at least defines his troubles more clearly, Jesus then moves forward and offers the practical help the man needed.
I think many people might misapply a passage of Scripture like this and go around the hospitals trying to heal people, or feel guilty for not healing people. I’m not discouraging prayers of healing or faith in a miraculous healing. I just think a more appropriate application of this verse is to say that we should help people to the fullest level we are able and willing to help them.
Jesus is God, therefore he could heal the man right on the spot. I’ve personally never healed someone, so I would not attempt this like Jesus did. But I am able to help people in other ways. I know where to help homeless people find shelter, food, clothing, and case management. I know how to call 911 if someone is hurt. I know how to budget if someone wants financial counsel.
My point is that if you want to help the needy, offer them the practical help that you can. Don’t stress about what you can’t help people with. The church’s problem is rarely a lack of knowledge and more a lack of effort and willingness. You may not know how to help everyone, but the greater your willingness the greater your impact will be. As Proverbs 3:27-28 instructs:
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,when it is in your power to act.28 Do not say to your neighbor,“Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”— when you already have it with you.
(For more on this topic, read the article What’s More Important, Preaching or Helping People With Practical Needs? and What Does the Bible Say About Inconvenience? and Who Should We Serve First?)
4. To help the needy, you must address their deepest need.
Now that day was the Sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:9b-17)
It seems Jesus was setting the man up a bit. He healed him on the Sabbath and then added to that religious offense by telling the man to carry his mat, fully knowing the man was going to have to walk by the Pharisees while carrying his mat. Carrying the mat was work that should not be done on the Sabbath in their religious minds.
Jesus tried to help the man with his spiritual needs by challenging his religious practices. He forced the man to confront the legalism of the day. John 5:14 then says, “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). Jesus is very open and clear that although the man had been debilitated for over thirty-eight years, his sin issue was still his greatest problem. Sin is “worse” than everything.
When we seek to serve the needy, we must not be blind to their earthly struggles and practical pain; but we must also not be blinded by their earthly pain, thus ignoring their spiritual pain caused by their sin. Regardless of how terrible someone’s life circumstances are, their greatest problem is still their own personal sin. Jesus and the regeneration he alone offers is still there greatest need.
Jesus brought the man to a point of decision. The man had to choose between the Pharisees or the Christ. We have to infer a bit, but it seems through the details of the story, the man chose religion over a relationship with Jesus Christ (John 5:14-17).
Likewise, if we really want to help the needy, we must bring them to a point of decision regarding Christ. Each situation will call for a slightly different approach of when and how to share the gospel. But every situation and person needs the gospel of Jesus Christ. Regarding Christ and all the needy of the world, Acts 4:12 states, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Like the needy man in John 5 who seems to have chosen against Christ, we are not responsible for the choices people make. Our job is share the truth and to bring them to a point of decision so they can at least have the opportunity to receive Jesus as their savior.
If we help the needy without every telling them, by name, about Jesus Christ and the way to salvation, we are not helping them nearly as much as we are called to by God. Every human’s greatest need is a restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
To help the needy, their soul must be our main aim and the gospel must be our primary gift.