The Justice of Poverty

By Levi Secord

Central to the social justice movement is the belief that inequality of outcome is a telltale sign of injustice: things like income inequality, education inequality, and social inequality are proof of evil. Of course, this principle is only selectively applied. Higher incarceration rates for men versus women and the rate of police shooting men versus women don’t count because it doesn’t fit the progressive narrative. Nonetheless, social justice is about bringing about equality of outcome, even when this means treating individuals unequally under the law. Traditional and biblical justice demands equal treatment under the law and merit-based results. Such thinking necessitates unequal outcomes. Biblical justice and social justice are incompatible.

Poverty is a good test case to work out this reasoning. Many well-meaning Christians see giving to the poor and lifting them out of poverty as a display of social justice. Biblically speaking, such acts are rooted in mercy, not justice. To be clear, justice is receiving what your due is: what you have earned. Mercy is about not receiving your due and instead receiving good. Social justice confuses this important distinction, especially when it comes to poverty.

Some people are poor as a result of justice. Read that carefully, I said some not all. People can indeed end up poor for a variety of reasons, including oppression and injustice. For example, people can lose their livelihood through oppressive regulations and taxation from the government. Others can end up poor because of tyrannical government lockdowns, their businesses being burned down by lawless rioters, or even having their shops looted. There are many ways to end up in severe financial straits. I grant that these situations exist, but many social justice warriors forget that some individuals end up impoverished as the just result of their own sins. This reality doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show them mercy, but it does highlight the difference between justice and mercy.

The Bible clearly teaches that God is not mocked, we reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). This is a general truth of this world—we get what we put into life. There are exceptions, but it is still generally true. Here are a few examples of the reaping and sowing principle, getting what is your due (justice), as explained in Proverbs:

  • A slack hand causes poverty,but the hand of the diligent makes rich (10:4)
  • Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction,but whoever heeds reproof is honored (13:18)
  • In all toil there is profit,but mere talk tends only to poverty (14:23)
  • Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth,or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty (22:16)
  • For the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,and slumber will clothe them with rags (23:21)
  • A little sleep, a little slumber,a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man (24:33-34)
  • A stingy man hastens after wealthand does not know that poverty will come upon him (28:22)

According to the Bible, here are some of the causes of poverty: laziness, being unteachable, inaction, oppressing the poor, substance abuse, and being stingy. All of these, and many more, can lead someone to poverty as a natural, just consequence. Sometimes, a person is poor because God is expressing his justice upon him. Since justice is sometimes the cause of poverty, income inequality can actually be a sign of justice. Therefore, opposing such inequality can be striving against God’s justice and arguing for injustice.

In many cases, giving to the poor has nothing to do with justice. But even if it isn’t an act of justice, this doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t do it. Instead, such giving reveals the mercy of God through the generous acts of his people. Mercy, while not being justice, is still a Christian virtue.

It would be foolish to say that all poor people are destitute as a result of justice, as the Bible also talks about the righteous poor: “Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool (Prov. 19:1). Those who faithfully read the Bible recognize that poverty is complicated in this world. Just as it is foolish to say all poverty is just, it is also foolish to say all inequalities are the result of injustice. Christians should oppose exploitation and oppression, but we must define these terms biblically.

Why does this matter? There are lots of stats being tossed around claiming that there is proof of systemic injustice. The underlying assumption is that all inequality of outcomes, whether in wealth, education, employment, incarceration, shootings, even COVID-19 infection rates, are all offered as proof of systemic injustice. Such assumptions do not fit within the biblical worldview.

When analyzing such statistics, it is essential to remember that while cultural forces can help or hinder an individual, the Bible does place primary responsibility on individuals, not systems. Life can make it more difficult for us, but we are still accountable before God for how we respond as individuals, even and especially when we are sinned against.

Justice is about getting what we have earned, and this necessitates looking at the merits of a given individual or case. Justice demands unequal outcomes when it is based on merit and truth. Someone better at a job than his neighbor should be paid more, and when this happens, it is good and right.

The problem with many statistical arguments is they paint with such a broad-brush that they remove the concept of merit and personal accountability. When we do that, we show an utter-contempt for the justice of God. He doesn’t judge more severely or generously based on demographics. Instead, true justice uses the same standards for everyone. Employing those standards and considering individual merits, justice inevitably brings unequal outcomes. Some on the final day will go to everlasting life and others to everlasting death. This eternal inequality is rooted in merit—whether you received by grace the merits of Christ or not. Let no one accuse God of injustice simply because the final outcome is an eternal inequality between the saints and the wicked. Rather, the final judgment shows both the justice and mercy of God.



Levi J. Secord serves as a pastor at Riverview Baptist Church in West St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned a Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree. Levi, his wife, and their three boys live in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they spend their time slaying dragons.

Image by Paolo Trabattoni from Pixabay

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