When is it appropriate to give to beggars?

“When is it appropriate to give to beggars?” Ensign, Apr. 1988, 54

In visiting a country where there are many beggars, I felt torn between Christ’s teachings to give to the poor and the idea that I might be doing them more a disservice than a service. When is it appropriate to give to beggars?

John F. O’Donnal, president of the Guatemala City Temple, Guatemala. Having lived and traveled for many years in countries where there is a great deal of poverty, I, too, have sometimes pondered the scriptures’ admonishments to give to the poor and the needy. Some beggars truly are needy—poor, sick, or destitute. Others, however, belong to organized groups—some of whom even pay for the exclusive right to beg in certain lucrative locations.

For some of these people, begging is a way of life; they prey upon the susceptibility of tourists or newcomers to an area. If we give to such people, we encourage them to continue in their activity, which in many instances leads to crime and which in no way encourages them to become self-sufficient. In giving to beggars, we may not necessarily be helping them; giving without teaching is destructive. The Lord’s way is to teach them to look after themselves and to help them learn to become self-sufficient.

How, then, do we reconcile the idea of teaching people to be self-sufficient with the Savior’s counsel to give to the poor?

This is an important question—one which will eventually confront us as population increases throughout the world, nations’ economies worsen, and the number of beggars increases. The Old Testament tells us that “the poor shall never cease out of the land.” (Deut. 15:11.)

In the Book of Mormon, we read King Benjamin’s words to his people: “Ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.” (Mosiah 4:16.)

King Benjamin says that we should refrain from judging others who may need our help: “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent. …

“I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.” (Mosiah 4:17–26.)

In this dispensation, the Lord has given instructions that the Saints’ “properties” should “be laid before the bishop of [the] church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint for the relief of the poor.” (See D&C 42:30–31.) Thus, in our own day, fast offerings and the Church welfare program have been established as an institutional way to help members—and, in some circumstances, nonmembers—in times of need, disability, or unemployment. We do indeed “administer to the relief” of the poor through giving generous fast offerings and donating labor to the welfare program. If we love the Lord and wish to follow him, we will also give generously when called upon by our leaders to give more—even at great sacrifice—and we will rejoice in that giving.

The Church does much as an organization to help the needy. But what about the individuals who may approach us? How can we know the difference between the truly needy, the professional beggars, and the frivolous begging that also exists in many places in the world?

Based on the scriptures and on my experiences, I have determined that giving is a personal matter to be decided by each individual as guided by the Spirit. What makes the decision so difficult is that it is impossible for us to help all the needy with whom we are confronted. Most travelers have had the experience of being surrounded by so many beggars that it would be impossible to give even a pittance to each. In such situations, daily prayer for wisdom in all that we do can guide us to know in our hearts by the whisperings of the Spirit when and to whom we might give.

With the Spirit’s promptings, we can be assured that when we do give, we will do so as the Apostle Paul counseled—“Not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7.)