Sob-Stories, Guilt, and a Freed Conscience

A Long Con on the Streets of Raleigh, NC

The other night I was out talking to folks on the cold downtown streets, and a homeless man approached me. Let’s call him, “Pierre.” I’ve met Pierre before, even buying him groceries late one night a few years back.

And I’ve seen him around town since then, growing out his beard and wandering aimlessly. Pierre has learned over time to use his weepy eyes, his sob story about his long lost family, and his quavering voice to get cash out of well-meaning urbanites. The other night he was at it again.

Pierre ingratiated himself by offering to help me with whatever I might need, sitting to talk and acting like he wanted to listen. For a solid half-hour, he seemed humble and ready to listen. So much so that I forgot the three years of data that shows otherwise.

As I packed up to leave, Pierre asked for a sandwich. Since I had already given him a snack, I didn’t think this was necessary, but he persisted. There I felt that old feeling – and this is yet another reason we can’t trust our wayward “feelings” – guilt. I felt guilty for not wanting to help him, as though I were responsible to feed every homeless person in my city.

I felt guilty because I’ve heard so many lying, cheating, stealing sob-stories and become hardened to them. I felt guilty because I thought Jesus would just help the guy.

So I bought him the sandwich (which prompted this resolution based on what I’ve learned). But then I felt worse. How’s that?

How and Why Evil Sob-Stories Grip the Conscience
The reason we feel so bad is because those stories are so bad – but not in the way we think. Those sob-stories, affected with all the facial and vocal contortions of a stage actor, are evil not because of what the person claims to have experienced, but because of their hidden motives.

In many cases (to leave out exceptions), the storyteller just wants to steal. He wants to steal your hard-earned cash, your dignity as an image-bearer, and your responsibility to love. He does all this by lying to you.

A lie? That seems harsh. Here’s how it works: the storyteller turns your desire to love on its head by hiding the truth – he is likely too lazy to work and has been for some time. He just wants money for nothing. He’ll say anything he thinks you’ll believe just because he wants a handout.

We could make obvious connections to the current handout system in our beloved US of A, but we’ll hold off for now. The point here is this: the truth is hard to tell when you’re dealing with a professional liar. And handing him money only prolongs and multiplies the problem.

Many, many homeless (and not homeless) people lie for a living to get a quick buck, and as Christians we ought not be bound to their lies. We ought not be bound to even prove them wrong. We ought not let our conscience be held to their standard of handing out money. That’s a lie, and I need to stop believing it.

Then How Should We Love?

When approached and asked for a handout, how do we thus proceed? What else can we do besides offering cash and going along our way? Here are four options:

  1. Talk: If you have the time and want to talk to the person, by all means do so. Get to know them, explain Jesus’ life-changing work in your heart, explain how all of us have broken every one of His commandments and deserve judgment, connect this sin to our current struggles and hardships – yours and the other person’s. But don’t feel like you have to end by giving them a ten-spot.
  2. Direct: In many cities, there are multiplicities of ministries that put the poor into work-stay programs, job training, and the like. If your new acquaintance says she doesn’t want to go, it at least shows you where her heart is.
  3. Jobs: If you know of someone who would like to hire an entry-level worker (though often the reply is predictably, “I don’t have my papers”) or you would like to extend the offer yourself for lawn-mowing or shed-building employment, offer the poor person a chance to work. Imagine that! Work!
  4. Local Church: Should a poor person genuinely feel his need for deeper change, suggest attending a Christ-centered worship service in the area. Give specific details of name, place, and time. If you will be there, meet him promptly before service or offer a pick-up.

But What If She Says She’s Still Hungry?
It might seem “mean” to refuse money to a hungry person, but hunger is biblically a motive for work. “If he will not work, let him not eat.” Christians need to be willing to bear along God’s harder consequences in grace, too. Fear not, little flock: it is a gracious thing to relate this truth to a lazy person.

Of course, if we “feel led” to give money or food (I often give small servings of food, rarely money), we shouldn’t think we’ve necessarily sinned, either. If the poor woman lied to ensnare you, she bears the brunt of that responsibility, not you. But I write so as not to burden you with guilt and instead free you to love.

Conclusion: To Grow in Love
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a “harden-your-heart-in-the-name-of-materialism” approach. Just the opposite: we need to grow in love for the poor precisely by being more careful in the way we love the poor.

Notice that none of these ways removes the dignity of the poor person and his need to work. Think this through with your local church and remember that, in God’s law, the poor could glean off of landowners’ fields, but the owners didn’t do it for them.

Again, this is a love-thing, not a guilt-thing. How are we promoting the gleaning of work for the good of the poor and the glory of God?

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About B Treece
loved by God before I ever loved Him, saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone by the authority of the Bible alone to the glory of God alone, made to enjoy Him forever, happily married with wonder-filled children.

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