“Questions and Answers,” Tambuli, Nov. 1988, 36–37
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’ teachings 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 make money off of 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 may lead to crime and which in no way encourages them to become self-sufficient. In giving to beggars we may not necessarily be helping them. Rather, 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 the rich young man to “sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (see Mark 10:17–22; Luke 18:18–23) and his statement that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).
This is an important question—one which will eventually confront us as population increases throughout the world, the economies of nations worsen, and the number of beggars increase. The Old Testament tells us that “the poor shall never cease out of the land.” (Deut. 15:11.)
Throughout the ages, the Church has done much to help care for the poor and the needy. In Old Testament times, the Israelites were given the counsel: “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of the gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:
“But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.” (Deut. 15:7–8.)
The Pearl of Great Price tells us that in the city of Enoch, there were “no poor among them,” because the people were “of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness.” (Moses 7:18.)
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.” (See Mosiah 4:17–18, 26.)
In this dispensation, shortly after the Church was restored, the Lord instructed the Prophet Joseph Smith to “remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them … And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me.” (D&C 42:30–31.)
The Lord gave instructions that the Saints’ “properties” should “be laid before the bishop of [the] church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priest, such as he shall appoint.” (D&C 42:31.) The Lord also commanded the Prophet Joseph to “visit the poor and the needy and administer to their relief.” (D&C 44:6.)
In our own day, the Church welfare program and fast offerings 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, professional beggars, and the unnecessary begging that also exists in many places in the world? Based on the scriptures and my experiences, I have determined that giving is a personal matter to be decided by each individual. 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 small amount 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.)