Does God Favor the Poor?

“God does not show favoritism.”

Romans 2:11

A friend of mine posted on his Facebook page that he often tells his kids, “If you want to find God, find the person with the least amount of power in the room and stand next to them.” This statement got me thinking about whether God shows favoritism, especially to those who are powerless and marginalized. This seems to be a popular notion going around the church right now.

After some contemplating over that statement, I’ve made some observations. First, I think that statement comes from a place in my friend’s heart that is good and compassionate. He is a guy who cares about the marginalized and has lived a life that cares for the poor (who are all too often overlooked). Secondly, however, I think the statement isn’t exactly true, or at least it is a misleading half-truth.

The statement is a claim about power, specifically socio-economic power, and that God seems to favor those who society counts as powerless. If you want to find God, He’ll be among the marginalized, the outcasts, and the forgotten. And there is a lot of truth in that. But again, it’s a half-truth. In the Gospels, we do often find Jesus among the outcasts, the powerless, and the marginalized of His day. But that’s only part of the story of scripture.

I am reminded that God also regularly partnered with the powerful in scripture (Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Samson, David, Solomon, Daniel, Matthew the tax-collector, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lydia [Acts 16:13-15], the centurion who showed great faith [Matthew 8:5-13], etc). All of these people either had great wealth, power, position, or some combination of the three. And they were the ones of their day to stand next to if you wanted to find God.

Think about it. Abraham was extremely wealthy. God used Moses to confront Pharaoh using the power of God, power unlike we’ve ever seen. And Moses led an entire nation of people for many years. Joseph was the right-hand man to Pharaoh and was extremely wealthy. Samson wielded incredible physical power. David and Solomon were wealthy, powerful kings. Daniel was the number one advisor to the king of a massive empire. Matthew accrued great wealth as a trusted employee of the Roman empire. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were members of the most powerful religious groups in the first century. Lydia was likely a wealthy business owner dealing in the expensive and fashionable Tyrian purple fabrics. She likely had a large house that was used to hosting people of upper-class society. A centurion wielded the sword of Rome to occupy and oppress weaker people groups.

Can we really look at the biographies of these people and say that if you want to find God you have to look among the powerless? If you only had these stories from the Bible, would that be your slogan about finding God? I don’t think so.

Instead, your slogan might sound something like: “If you want to find God, stand next to the MOST powerful person in the room who hasn’t let their wealth and power destroy their dependency on God.” Or maybe it would be: “If you want to find God, stand next to the one who wields tremendous power but does so for the sake of the Kingdom of God rather than for their own selfish gains.” Or possibly: “If you want to find God, stand next to the person who humbled themselves (or who was humbled by God) to the point where God then raised them up to power.”

This last slogan strikes at the heart of the matter. One of God’s promises in scripture is this: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up“(James 4:10). What this means is that, when we see someone who has power, sometimes we are looking at a person who unjustly clawed and climbed their way to the top, and yet other times we are looking at someone who humbled themselves and God raised into power. Just the mention of this idea is scandalous to our culture today, and yet we see God do this over and over in scripture.

Let’s look at the life of Joseph as an example. If we believe that God favors the poor and powerless, that if we really want to find God we will find Him primarily among the marginalized, then we will cheer at the middle of Joseph’s life. That’s when we find God with Joseph through hardship, false imprisonment, and pain.

But what do we do with the beginning of his life when he was the favored son of wealthy Jacob? And what do we do with the end of his life? What do we do with the Joseph who was second only to Pharaoh in power and wealth in Egypt? Do we declare that God can’t be favoring Joseph in that moment? Do we stick to the modern narrative that God isn’t among the wealthy and elevated, that He doesn’t bless the powerful and privileged?

Or, could it be that the picture of God’s favor is a bit more nuanced than our popular slogans admit?

What about the life of Daniel? We may feel good about the popular truism that God will be found among the outcasts when Daniel is down in the lion’s den. But what happens to our theory when Daniel gets elevated to King Nebuchadnezzar’s most trusted advisor?

And what about Jesus? Do we identify Him as one of the poor outcasts–a peasant Jewish carpenter of the first century under political and economic oppression from Rome and religious oppression from the Pharisees? Or do we identify Him as a powerful miracle-worker and rabbi who had thousands of people following Him and expecting a revolution? You can’t really look at Jesus walking on water, calming the seas, healing the sick, and casting out demons and call Him “powerless.” Or, further still, do we identify Jesus as God-incarnate, the Son of God, the Almighty God-with-us, now seated at the right hand of the Father wielding all power and all authority?

The thing is, He was (and is) all of these things. He was simultaneously powerless and the most powerful.

This is precisely why I believe my friend’s statement is misleading. God isn’t just among the powerless. God is also quite at home among the powerful (as scandalous as that might be for some). In fact, God loves to take the powerless who are humble and raise them up to be powerful. He often does this in order to use them mightily in His Kingdom and for His glory.

For God, it’s not about your socio-economic status but about your heart. What is the condition of your heart? Regardless of your race, the size of your bank account, or the positions and titles you hold, do you still acknowledge your deep dependence on the Lord and your poverty of soul? Are you still teachable? Are you pursuing humility?

These are not things that can automatically be seen on the outside. These are renovations that happen on the inside. Which is why if you are in a room and you try to stand next to the person who is “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), and you try to base that on appearance, you’ll likely get it wrong. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart“(1 Samuel 16:7).

So before we continue repeating statements about God that fit really well into our current cultural milieu, we need to check to make sure they also hold up to what God has revealed about Himself in scripture. And while saying that God is primarily among the powerless has a compassionate ring to it, in the end it is a well-meaning half-truth that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Instead of my friend’s slogan, I think the truth is something closer to this: “If you want to find God, find the person with a humble heart who deeply loves Jesus, who admits their poverty of soul, and who has experienced great loss from great sacrifice for God.” And I’d add: “You won’t be able to tell who that person is by how they look. You’ll have to speak to them to hear their heart.” 

The Hand of God

And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.

Nehemiah 2:8

Both Ezra and Nehemiah use the same phrase to describe what enabled them to return from exile and rebuild the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem. They both gave credit to “the gracious hand of God” on them.

Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him…Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.

Ezra 7:6-9

What is interesting about this phrase is that in other parts of the Bible, when the hand of the Lord is on a person or a people, it’s not a good thing. When the hand of the Lord was upon the enemies of Israel, it always meant judgment and disaster for them. An example of this is when the ark of the covenant was stolen and taken into Philistine territory. Everywhere it went, the hand of the Lord was upon it and that wasn’t a good thing for the Philistines.

The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors. When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.” 

1 Samuel 5:6-7

So let’s put all of this together. Grace is not just forgiveness and mercy; it is the supernatural enablement of God. God’s grace enables us to do what we otherwise could not do on our own. When we are in covenant relationship to God and His hand is upon us, it means that a special grace is upon us. It means His favor is upon us. The practical results of God’s hand being upon us means that breakthrough happens, doors open, things accelerate, and incredible opportunities arise.

When God sets us apart for a particular calling or mission and we decide to obey–despite the hardship–God will often place His hand upon us. His special grace and favor isn’t just about His love for us, but it is also about accomplishing the mission for which He has sent us.

Yet, if we live separated from God, the same hand of God upon us is terrifying. It’s like the Holy Spirit and the covenant relationship are the support structure that allow God’s hand upon us to be a good thing. But if the Spirit isn’t present, if the covenant relationship isn’t there, the weightiness of the hand of the Lord could crush us. Instead of the intense presence of the Lord feeling like love, peace and joy, the intense presence of the Lord feels like fear because of our unresolved sin.

To use a different word picture, the Lord is a consuming fire. For those in relationship to God through Jesus, the fire of the Lord is a refining fire and empowering fire. But to those who remain at a distance from God, that same fire feels like painful judgement. God’s fire is the same. God’s hand is the same. God doesn’t change. But our experience of Him changes based on our relationship to Him.

As followers of Jesus, when the gracious hand of God is on us, I believe we are accompanied on our mission by the angel of breakthrough assigned to bring breakthrough to whatever obstacle may arise before us. When the gracious hand of God is on us, His favor rests on us. The impossible suddenly becomes possible.