Caring for the Poor and Needy

Poor Needy

In the modern LDS church, we often talk of caring for the poor and needy and the importance of serving others. The LDS church itself is certainly known for its welfare square, which is a dedicated facility to help serve others, and its various humanitarian efforts. In the church, serving others is known as a core principle of the gospel however in many ways it is totally misunderstood. Many also fail to understand how truly vital helping the poor and needy is to our spiritual development and our relationship to God.

Knowing the Lord

In order to understand caring for the poor and needy from a gospel perspective it is important to understand how God feels about this. In Jeremiah 22, God is speaking to Shallum who was a wicked king of Judah. Shallum had not reigned righteously like his father had and God rebuked him through the prophet Jeremiah.

Did not thy father eat and drink, and do judgment and justice, and then it was well with him? He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him; was not this to know me? Saith the LORD.

Jeremiah 22:15-16

From those verses it seems that a central aspect of knowing God then is to execute righteous judgment with others and to serve the cause of the poor and the needy. Knowing God is of such central importance that Joseph Smith, while making changes to his inspired version of the Bible, changed Matthew 7:22-23 to indicate that even if someone does miracles in the name of Christ if they don’t know Christ, they won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This change was also made by Joseph Smith in Matthew 25:11 where we have the parable of the ten virgins recorded. The 5 virgins that were excluded were told they didn’t know the bridegroom, who represents Christ, and thus were not allowed to enter. This is also echoed in the parable of the sheep and goats at the end of Matthew 25 where Christ says that serving the least among us is the same as serving him directly. Therefore, it appears clear that knowing God is a requirement and serving the poor and needy is a critical piece of knowing God.

Judging the Cause of the Poor

Moses while speaking to Israel in what must have been a very large conference said:

For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying, “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.”

Deuteronomy 15:11

Moses was clear that certain people don’t have as much as others, and we should help them. I don’t think this means we should enable them however it certainly does mean that basic requirements should be provided for whether we agree with their lifestyle or not.

One of my favorite passages from the scriptures is found in James 1 which sums up the entire purpose of religion and the changing of our hearts and minds towards God.

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the vices of the world.

James 1:27

I think if Christ was here today, he wouldn’t be in the stadiums speaking to the adoring masses, but in the soup kitchens of the world. Imagine the message it would send if at the start of a 2-hour general conference session President Nelson got up and simply said, for the next one hour and 59 minutes we are going to serve the poor as that is more important than anything anyone could say today.

I saw poverty first-hand while growing up. My parents had 8 children and for a time were dirt poor. When I was very young my father was a police officer until he realized that his salary and his growing family were simply not compatible. He sought God’s help in trying to figure things out and received the answer that he should become an attorney. Therefore, he quit his job and immediately applied for law school at BYU. He was accepted after the cutoff date and we moved to Provo, Utah. During that time my parents had no money, and everything was a sacrifice. I honestly don’t remember much however I will never forget one thing. I remember spending hour after hour, day after day stuffing envelopes, with a sales flyer of some kind, where we were paid 1 cent each. Even as a young child I must have stuffed 1000’s of envelopes just so we could have a few dollars for food. My oldest brother also had a paper route that my parents would use the money from to support the family.

Being poor is a suffocating weight and a seemingly endless burden that feels impossible to escape from. God looks very kindly on the less fortunate and smiles upon those that help ease their burdens according to Psalms 41. In too many cases a person is poor simply because their parents were poor also, and they just didn’t receive the same opportunities as others. In too many cases people also feel that the only way to escape poverty is through death and that is unbelievably sad to me.

Stealing From the Poor

I think if there was a direct survey done and people were asked if they would steal from the poor then almost everyone would say no. However, we steal from the poor in many ways today without even realizing it. One immediate way that we steal from the poor is to spend our money on things that we ultimately don’t need. Nephi in speaking about the gentiles of the last days says:

Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up. They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up. 

2 Nephi 28:12-13

Of course, we don’t want to think Nephi was talking to us and want to think he was talking to someone else. However what other group of gentiles would actually read his words? A few verses later Nephi wrote, “wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!”. What other groups are there that would read his words and think they are in Zion? Of course, Nephi is talking to the various Mormon groups, the largest and most dominate would be the LDS church.

Earlier, in 2 Nephi 13, Nephi quotes Isaiah and mentions:

O my people, they who lead thee cause thee to err and destroy the way of thy paths. … For ye have eaten up the vineyard and the spoil of the poor in your houses. “What mean ye? Ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor,” saith the Lord God of Hosts.

2 Nephi 13:12-15

A valid question would of course be, how is the church stealing from the poor? Do we need chapels or stake centers? No, we don’t. Do we need 100’s of hugely expensive temples? No, we don’t. Do we need hugely expensive things like the conference center? No, we don’t. Do we need shopping malls. No, we don’t. Do we need 150+ billion-dollar investments? No, we don’t. Should President Nelson be saying the way out of poverty is to pay tithing? No, he shouldn’t. Joseph taught several times that tithing is on your surplus and poor people certainly don’t have surplus. I am not saying no expense in the church is justified. However, I am saying that spending a few million dollars on a building used a couple of hours once a week is certainly robbing the poor who need help every day. This disparity is even multiplied by building temples in 3rd world countries. The cost to build the temple alone could permanently improve the lives of a significant number of people.


In the church we spend a lot of effort and resources on the concept of self-reliance with workshops and seminars. This is admirable and certainly makes a lot of sense. For instance, you can assist someone in getting a valuable skill which can then reward them and others for their entire life. Why would you not try to do this as it clearly is quite advantageous. However, what about the people who are generationally poor and helping them get a skill is the least of their worries? What about the people who have been impacted by poverty through malnutrition, and thus physically disabled, and likely will never be able to be financially independent? What about the people who live in a society where opportunities for independence are almost non-existent? Certainly, these people are worthy of our help even if it is not immediately beneficial.

It is worrisome to me that leaders in the church have essentially stated that we should only help people if it leads to them being able to help themselves.

Many programs have been set up by well-meaning individuals to aid those who are in need. However, many of these programs are designed with the shortsighted objective of “helping people,” as opposed to “helping people help themselves.” Our efforts must always be directed toward making able-bodied people self-reliant.

Marion G. Romney

Again, I understand what he is saying and don’t disagree, however life is far more complicated than teaching people how to grow their own food, sew their own clothes, build their own homes, and develop the financial infrastructure in order for them to afford to do so. Many people need help today not in 6 months when their crops can be harvested. We are also told that the poor will always be with us, this is even after our efforts to help them.

This concept is even taken one step further by President Oaks in his book, “The Lord’s Way” where he says:

The preeminence of the spiritual over the temporal, which Jesus taught, has many applications in our own day. For example, it explains why our church spends great sums preaching the restored gospel and building temples to perform the ordinances of eternity rather than (as some advocate) devoting these same resources to temporal concerns already being pursued by others such as preserving the environment, researching cures for diseases, or administering to other physical needs that can be accomplished without priesthood power or direction.

Dallin H. Oaks

President Oaks strangely asserts a rather elitest idea that since the LDS church is spiritually more important than other churches and those churches are helping the poor then the LDS church itself doesn’t have to. This would be similar to Christ telling the 4000 that he miraculously fed to instead go back to their own homes because feeding people is beneath him, and others can do it just as well. This makes no sense and Christ would never do it. In addition, how can anyone’s spiritual needs be met if their temporal needs are not met first? Was one of Christ’s primary methods of teaching not helping the poor and needy?


The first scriptural reference we have to tithing is in Genesis 14 which was corrected through Joseph’s Inspired Version of the scriptures. This account relates how Abraham paid his tithing to Melchizedek and this tithing was to be used for the poor. I would imagine there were other purposes as well however the poor was specifically mentioned.

And this Melchizedek, having thus established righteousness, was called the king of heaven by his people, or, in other words, the King of peace. And he lifted up his voice, and he blessed Abram, being the high priest, and the keeper of the storehouse of God; him whom God had appointed to receive tithes for the poor. Wherefore, Abram paid unto him tithes of all that he had, of all the riches which he possessed, which God had given him more than that which he had need.

JST Genesis 14

Today however if you look at the LDS church’s description of tithing then caring for the poor and needy are not found at all. They list building meeting houses, missionary work, church education, and a vague statement about doing God’s work. Of course, the church would say that fast offerings are the way they care for the poor. This is certainly a valid way, however the concept of fast offerings is not scriptural at all. There is literally not a single scripture to support the idea of a fast offering. In addition, the amount received from fast offerings has to be a tiny percentage of the received tithing. I know in my life I was always very generous with fast offerings however it was always a vastly smaller amount than tithing was. Therefore, the church is using a much larger sum for their interests and a much smaller sum to assist the poor. This is not how God intended his church to be. God’s kingdom is bottom up, not top down.

As indicated earlier President Nelson in a meeting in Kenya, which is one of the poorest nations on earth, mentioned the secret to getting out of poverty is to pay tithing.

We preach tithing to the poor people of the world because the poor people of the world have had cycles of poverty, generation after generation … That same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing.

President Nelson

Without a doubt God blesses people for the sacrifices they make so I understand what he is saying. However, according to world statistics, approximately 85% of Kenyans live on less than $5 per day. Kenya is incredibly poor. His flight and all the associated expenses could have easily lifted the attendants out of poverty. Asking them to pay tithing to one of the richest organizations in the world when they are likely barely surviving is incredibly demeaning and almost certainly setting them up for failure. Would you rethink tithing if your children went to bed every night hungry?

D&C 119, which is God’s revelation on tithing which he described as a standing law forever, and Joseph’s own words are clear that tithing is on a person’s surplus which is defined as what remains after paying for necessary expenses. Poor people have no surplus and thus they pay no tithing. This is incredibly just and liberating for the poor and the needy.

If a man gives for the benefit of the Church, it is considered a voluntary offering. Yet the law requires or enjoins a consecration of the overplus, after reserving for himself and family to carry on his business.

Joseph Smith

Tithing was never a requirement if you don’t have enough yourself. Treating it like it is a requirement puts us into bondage which was never the intention of tithing.


Caring for the poor and needy is critical for our understanding of God and making us the people that God wants us to be. When we neglect the poor in order to pursue our own interests, we are angering God and in fact cursing ourselves according to Proverbs 28:27. Christ’s entire life was a condescension in order to show us a better way. When we help the poor and needy then we can be similar to Christ and help raise them to a higher level temporally.

A requirement in order to bring back Zion is for all the poor and the needy to be provided for. This of course will require work and sacrifice from those that have means. It will though enable far more blessings than money can buy.

And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.

Moses 7:18

I long for the days of Zion and if sacrificing a little temporal comforts will enable that great blessing then I would be more than happy to comply. I want to include James 1:27 one more time as it is such a great summary of how we should feel towards others and what changes religion should be working in our personal lives. Religion is a means of helping us change to become more like God and see others as God sees them. If it is not, then we are doing something wrong.

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the vices of the world.

James 1:27

We will be judged not by how many meetings we attended, church programs we implemented or endowment sessions we sacrificed for. We will be judged by how we treated and cared for the poor and the needy. There is no greater judge of a persons character than this.

Author: Patrick