How Do You Respond to People Asking for a Handout?

I live in a city with a rather large number of homeless people, and it’s inevitable that you will be approached by someone asking for a handout, often in a parking lot in my experience. Several years ago in a church Sunday school class, the teacher/leader asked us the question in the title of this post. He asked us to share stories of panhandlers that we had encountered. As the stories were told, what emerged was that no one had a plan–including the teacher! What usually happened was that the person being asked for money would feel guilty and thus hand over some money. The other typical response was to ignore the panhandler.

Early on in our marriage, my wife and I talked over what we would do when encountering people requesting a handout and came to some decisions. I’ll relate some encounters that we’ve had which should illustrate those decisions, at least for the most part. The first two happened in other cities, while the others happened in ours.

  • My wife and I encounter a poor-looking man in a touristy area. We have a friendly conversation, and it becomes apparent that he hasn’t had any food or drink yet that day. He indirectly asks us if we would buy him something to drink, so we take him into a nearby cafe and buy him some coffee, then continue the conversation.
  • My son and I have just had lunch, and as we’re walking, we encounter a guy who says he’s hungry. Since I’m carrying a box with leftovers, I hand it over while telling him that the food has my germs. He’s glad to take it anyway.
  • My wife encounters a woman who needs some food. After a conversation, my wife tells her that she will go to a nearby grocery store and get her a few things. When my wife returns with food, the woman says with surprise, “You came back!” (She had had previous conversations with other people who had promised to buy her some food, but who had not returned.) The woman thanks my wife and goes home.
  • A woman comes up to me in a parking lot and asks for money. I’m in a hurry, so I take out a few bucks and say, “So, you’re going to use this for food, right?” (She nods her head.) “You’re not going to spend this on cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, right?” (She shakes her head.) I give her the cash and say, “Remember, God is watching you.” She looks very startled, and we part.
  • My family and I are in the parking lot of a restaurant. A woman calls out to us. I tell my wife and kids to wait while I talk to her. She says she’s hungry, so I offer to walk over to a nearby fast-food restaurant with her and get her something to eat. She says she would like to eat at the sit-down restaurant that my family and I are about to enter. I shake my head, shrug, and turn around. She leaves the area.
  • My wife encounters a man at a gas station. He says that he needs some money to buy gas so that he can visit his sister. My wife tells him to pull up his vehicle to the pump, and then she’ll buy him a few bucks’ worth. The man hems and haws, and it becomes apparent that he has no vehicle. He goes to another person who is pumping gas. My wife also realizes that she had seen the same man in a nearby parking lot a bit earlier.

I admit that there have been times when I have completely ignored people asking for a handout, but I trust that there are a couple of principles that have emerged from these encounters. First of all, my wife and I always talk to the person. Second, with the exception of the fourth story (I was in a hurry, but I made it clear that I expected her to use the cash to buy food), we don’t hand out money, but we do sometimes buy food for them. My wife usually has a couple of granola bars in her purse as well. We also know people who usually carry a gift card from a fast-food restaurant for such encounters. Third, we don’t give to people who are demanding or lying.

I’m not saying that what my wife and I do (and don’t do) is the “correct” or “best” way, or that we always follow it, but the point is, we have a plan. I met a sister in my early Christian walk who was always willing to give money to people who ask for a handout, no questions asked; while I don’t follow her practice, at least she had a plan! Let’s look at what Scripture has to say in relation to this. In Deuteronomy 15:11, we read, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” While this command was given to the Old Testament Israelites, I have no doubt that it applies to us as well. It also goes beyond giving handouts to people we encounter on the street; let’s be wisely generous in giving to organizations as well.

Trusting the Lord When You Have No Control

I think it’s safe to assume that everyone has been in situations where you have no control, some more significant than others. When we who are Christians find ourselves in such circumstances, we have a choice: we can succumb to fear, anxiety, worry, and the like–or we can pray in the Lord’s will and trust Him for the outcome, no matter what it may be. I will give two examples from my own life, but first, let’s look at some Bible verses having to do with trust.

One of the more well-known pair of verses about trust is Proverbs 3:5-6, which says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” Notice especially the phrase “lean not on your own understanding;” in other words, we need wisdom, which the Lord invites us to ask Him for in James 1:5.

Here is another verse that I came across many years ago, tucked into the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 5:20; I’ll quote just the second sentence of it: “He answered their prayers, because they trusted in him.” Even though the context is the Israelites’ asking the Lord for help in battle, I believe this applies to us as well. On the other hand, when we read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3, we notice these important words in what they say to the king before they are thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:18): “But even if He does not [rescue us], we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Now there is trust! Those three young men knew that even if the Lord chose to let them die in the fiery furnace, they would be with Him in heaven. (As it turned out, they were not even harmed.)

Finally, here’s another verse that’s tucked away, this time in the book of Nahum. Chapter 1 verse 7 says: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.” Yes, the Lord is a refuge and takes care of those who trust Him!

Many years ago, when I was working in a Third World country, I got a letter from the head of a missions organization who wanted to visit me; he would be accompanied by an interpreter. (A little background: I was in the country partly under this organization’s auspices, but as an English teacher, not a missionary; this country did not even allow missionaries. However, we could talk to our students and others about the Lord, church, and the like if they raised such questions; that didn’t happen during class, but sometimes did when they visited me in my dorm room.) I replied that was fine, but that we should not meet on my college campus; the reason was that everyone would notice, and then I would have to explain to my college leaders who the visitors were.

When the visitors arrived in my city, it became apparent that our taxi was on the way to my college campus. I reminded them that we should not go there, but they brushed it off; they wanted to get a look at my surroundings and meet my fellow American teachers, who were also believers.

After my visitors left, my fellow believing friends and I prayed for protection because we all knew that I would be called in to meet with the college officials, and I was determined not to lie to them. Admittedly, the worst that could happen to me was that I would be kicked out of the country, but I had longer-term plans to teach there; my fellow believers would also then face “grilling.” Sure enough, a couple days later, I was called in, and after some pleasantries over tea, the conversation went like this:

  • Official: Mr. Petersen, we noticed you had visitors recently. How do you know them?
  • Me: One of them is a friend of my father’s.
  • Official: And what does your father do?
  • Me: He’s retired.

In case you’re wondering, yes, one of the visitors was someone my father knew, and yes, my father was retired; he had been a pastor. Notice they did not ask what my father had done before retirement, which would have also raised suspicion; much more significantly, they did not ask me what my visitors did for a living! You can imagine the celebration and praise to God that erupted when I told my believing friends what had happened!

There are other stories that I could tell about the Lord’s provision for me in that country as well, but let me illustrate with another situation that was out of my control in the U.S. One afternoon when my daughter (now 27) was in kindergarten, I got a confusing call from her; she sounded very happy, but she asked why I hadn’t picked her up; I asked her if she was in the school office, and she said that she was “playing with a girl.” To my horror, I realized that it was a minimum day, meaning she had gotten out of school an hour early. I asked my daughter where she and the other girl were, but she giggled, and when I asked her to put her friend or her friend’s mom on the phone, she hung up. Now I was really concerned because we did not have caller ID on our landline; if I had been thinking more clearly, I could have dialed *69. Anyway, as I got in the car, I thanked the Lord that my daughter had remembered our phone number and asked Him to help me find her. I figured she would be playing in a neighborhood near her school, and sure enough, it didn’t take long; I saw her, her friend, and a cop in a yard. (I’m not sure who called the cop; there was no other adult there.) My daughter laughed, said “Daddyyyy,” and ran into my arms, while the cop gently chewed me out a bit. You can imagine the praise to the Lord that erupted in my heart!

I can certainly recall other times when the Lord didn’t answer my prayer as I would have liked, but here’s another aspect of trust, perhaps the most fundamental one: I need to trust Him to always do what is best, even if I don’t understand it at the time; for me, this is the hardest part of trust, and I certainly don’t always do it immediately. However, there have been plenty of times where He has blessed me with understanding later; I have seen how much better the Lord’s plans are than mine. I believe He will do the same for you if you trust Him.

Creator God and Created Universe: Personal vs. Impersonal

For several years, I’ve noticed comments that begin something like, “I think the universe is telling me…” This has always struck me as bizarre because the universe is, in fact, very cold (in more ways than one!), uncaring, and impersonal. However, I have come to understand that these comments are a reflection of the deep desire that people have to give their lives meaning and purpose.

Over the past three months, I have been gathering examples of this kind of comment; I’ll start with this group of four:

  • Phoenix University TV commercial: “Ever get a sign the universe is trying to tell you something?”  
  • Gary to Maggie on the TV show A Million Little Things: “It just feels like maybe the universe is trying to tell us something.” 
  • Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Just After Midnight: “It’s like something in the universe would see that it was just too wrong for us [teen girl and horse] to be apart, and make sure it didn’t end that way.”
  • My neighbor: “I’m considering the pandemic over until the universe tells me otherwise.”

The first two are essentially the same in that they are said in a rather general sense. The next two are very specific–one regarding a girl and her horse, the other regarding the pandemic. Now, if you substitute “God” for “universe” into those statements, what do they sound like? Here’s the first one: “Ever get a sign God is trying to tell you something?” That sounds pretty Biblical if you’re a believer!

Here are two more comments by two actors, each with their own brand of uniqueness:

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor: “Human beings can love and laugh and enjoy each other’s company because we are afforded this space and luxury by a planet that cares for us.”
  • Jabari Banks: “I always say, if you ask the universe or God for something, they’re gonna send it your way.” 

In the comment by Chiwetel Ejiofor, he uses the word “planet” rather than “universe.” Much more significantly, however, notice the phrase “that cares for us.” That’s taking it to another level, to put it mildly. Now, if you substitute “God” for “planet,” the last phrase reads: “by a God that cares for us.” Now, that is very Scriptural! In the other comment, Jabari Banks tries to have it both ways by “ask[ing] the universe or God for something,” in addition to making an assertion which is not necessarily true even if you remove “the universe.”

All of these comments are sad because they are reflections of people who are looking to the universe, which is very impersonal, for meaning and direction. They’re also ironic in that these people are looking to the creation rather than the Creator, Who they have rejected, at least until now. In sharp contrast, there are many passages in the Bible which speak of God in a very personal way. One passage that comes to mind is Isaiah 43:1-7. The second part of verse 1 says: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” The Creator of the universe knows each of His people and has called each one by name. In the second part of verse 6 and on into verse 7, we read: “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth–everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Each person who has trusted Jesus Christ for salvation is a son or daughter of God. And in fact, when Jesus taught His disciples what we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer, He taught us, God’s sons and daughters, to begin with “Our Father.” It’s amazing that we can actually address the Creator of the universe in this way!

Which makes more sense: to look to the impersonal universe (albeit created by God) for purpose and guidance, or to a God who invites His children to call Him their Father? For me, the choice is simple. If you are not a follower of Jesus Christ, I pray that will change, even today.

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Within the last three weeks, there have been two more horrific mass shootings: one (killing ten) at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, and the other (killing 21, including 19 children) at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that many of my posts are in response to current events. Last year, I wrote a post about a Biblical response to mass-death events; click here if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2021/04/07/how-should-we-respond-to-mass-death-events/

Responses to the Supreme Court Abortion Decision Leak

Earlier this month, the initial draft majority opinion of the Supreme Court decision regarding the overturning of Roe v. Wade (the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion) was leaked. The leak was the first of its kind in that the entire document was made available; in other words, it wasn’t simply someone “whispering” that Roe v. Wade had been overturned. Following the leak, something else was made very public: the addresses of the six Supreme Court justices that are expected to overturn Roe v. Wade. Since then, there have been protesters in front of at least three of these homes, in a blatant attempt to intimidate them into “changing their minds” before the final decision is made. Listening to all the posturing and screaming from those who are opposed to this decision, one would think that abortion is about to become illegal, which is not true; it just means that the issue of abortion will be turned over to the states. In other words, instead of nine judges making the decision, voters and state legislatures will be able to decide.

The leak of the Supreme Court decision was clearly a felony, and prayerfully, the leaker will be identified and brought to justice. There has been some question of whether protests in front of the justices’ homes are also illegal, but it appears that they are. Even apart from that, the purpose–intimidation–is clear. One would hope that the Biden administration would speak out against these protests, or at least against the leak. However, here is what Jen Psaki, former White House Press Secretary, said: “We certainly continue to encourage protests outside of judges’ homes.” She added, “We want it, of course, to be peaceful, and certainly the president would want people’s privacy to be respected.” Right; as if the protesters are respecting conservative justices’ privacy. And while those protesters have not resorted to violence yet, some of their language has been extremely vitriolic–certainly things that you would not want your children to hear or read. And how about the coat hanger images; would you want to explain that to your child? On the other hand, protesters have already resorted to violence elsewhere; there was an arson attack on a Wisconsin pro-life group’s offices, and how ironic that it happened on Mother’s Day.

Here are some other notable responses. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called her city an “oasis” for women seeking an abortion, “a safe haven for all who are unjustly denied the rights, privileges, immunities, resources & opportunities they deserve.” And Michelle Obama, former First Lady, couldn’t resist getting in her two cents, either: “If it [reversal of Roe v. Wade] comes to pass, we may soon live in a country where millions of women — not to mention our children and grandchildren — lose the right to make decisions about their bodies and their health.” Notice the irony that she’s not even aware of–even double irony–speaking of “our children and grandchildren.” Well, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, we will indeed have more children and grandchildren; one early estimate is that legal abortions would be reduced by at least 13%. That may not seem like much, but that’s ~82,000 more babies being born over the next year. 13 states already have “trigger laws” which would go into effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned, banning abortions in most cases.

Another response comes from U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib, who said that she “welcomes” church protesting “in many ways,” although of course (?) not including violence. Some of the protests have indeed been outside churches, particularly Catholic ones. In that regard, I suppose one might expect that President Joe Biden or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both avowed Catholics, might speak out against the pro-abortion protests, at least in some contexts. Instead, Nancy Pelosi praised the protesters, saying that they have “channeled their righteous anger into meaningful action.” Notice the word “righteous” in her statement. She also referred to even late-term abortion as “sacred ground.” Other politicians have also used rhetoric which is strangely religious in nature. John Fetterman, who just won the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary, called abortion a “sacred right,” and he is not the only politician to do so. Even protesters have gotten into the act; one protester’s sign even said, “Thank God for Abortion.” The use of these kinds of religious words in an attempt to justify abortion makes me shudder.

This brings us to the most important question: What does the Lord God think of abortion? Scripture makes it very clear; for example, here’s what Psalm 139: 13 says: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Abortion is the killing of an unborn baby. This is not to condemn those who have had abortions, those who have encouraged them to do so, or those who have performed the abortions; the Lord will forgive those who repent of their sin, including this one. I have written about this elsewhere, including a story of repentance; click here if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2021/09/23/abortion-and-vaccination-your-body-your-choice/.

The first word in the title of this post is “Responses.” I have already mentioned my response to the leak; it is a felony, and I hope that the leaker is punished. However, now that we know the Supreme Court’s decision (which prayerfully will not change before being finalized), here’s my response to it, which I hope would be echoed by Christians everywhere: Thank you, Lord, for the lives that will be saved as a result! Many years ago, my wife volunteered in a pregnancy center; there are still such places and people (not just at pregnancy centers) who demonstrate God’s love, including giving options other than abortion, to those women who are experiencing an unwanted pregnancy.

Is There Such a Thing As Deconversion?

A couple of years ago, someone recommended a book to me called The Anatomy of Deconversion by John Marriott. A deconvert is defined as a person who used to be a Christian. Marriott’s book is based on extensive interviews with 24 deconverts, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-50s. 15 of them are men, 9 female. 6 of them come from fundamentalist backgrounds; 9 were “conservative evangelicals with fundamentalist tendencies;” and 9 were conservative evangelicals.

Before I started reading the book (which I just finished), my main interest was why people deconvert, and to his credit, Marriott devotes an entire chapter to that question. I was not surprised to find that there were two broad categories of reasons why people deconverted: emotional and cognitive. Under the first category (emotional), Marriott wrote only about disappointments with fellow Christians; under the second category (cognitive), he wrote about three subcategories: problems with the Bible, Darwinian evolution, and the influence of atheists. What surprised me was that deconversion seemed to happen primarily for cognitive reasons, not emotional ones; on the other hand, it’s obvious that they were intertwined.

As someone with a scientific background (although I became an ESL teacher), I was struck by statements from deconverts like this: “Evidence of evolution was one of the biggest things.” Here’s another one: “I’m huge on you should only believe in what you actually test.” More than one person referred to Richard Dawkins, a staunch atheist and one of the biggest proponents of evolution. I have written before about evolution, but let me just say this: the “evidence” for evolution is flimsy at best, and frankly, it cannot be “tested” unless by that you mean looking at the fossil record. And if that is the “test” for evolution, it fails miserably. Someone has said that the pictures/drawings of evolution have evolved into the “proof.” How true that is. If you’re interested in more of what I wrote about evolution, click here: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/09/16/is-evolution-a-viable-theory/

As for people who deconverted because of “problems with the Bible:” one of the problems mentioned is the commands that God gave the Israelites to wipe out or drive out the Canaanites and the other “-ites” in the Old Testament. I could devote an entire post to this, but here let me just quote Deuteronomy 9:4-6: “After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Notice two repeated phrases: “the wickedness of these nations” and “not because of your righteousness.” This explains very clearly why the Lord commanded the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites, while at the same time reminding the Israelites that they themselves were sinful, not righteous.

Marriott also writes about two main moral issues that deconverts changed their views on: abortion and homosexuality, including same-sex marriage. When they were believers, they viewed these as sins, but after they deconverted, most of them became pro-choice, and “They all accepted homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle and also supported same-sex marriage.” I was not at all surprised at this; I have known churchgoers who have changed their views on homosexuality because of a friend or relative who came out as gay. I have written elsewhere about this as well, but let me just say here that first of all, the Bible is very clear that homosexuality is a sin; second, if people in the LGBTQ community hear only acceptance from the church, then it would seem to me that their motivation to change is going to be less, which means they are on the fast road to hell. I think we as believers need to figure out what it really means to love those in the LGBTQ community, which is, however, not going to be the same for everybody.

At the end of his book, Marriott writes about four reconverts, meaning people who once identified as Christians; then deconverted; but then reconverted to Christianity. One of those four people is also one of the 24 deconverts that he interviewed.

There is more that could be said about Marriott’s book, but what are we to make of deconversion in the big picture? First of all, let me say that there are some American church practices and even beliefs that have become elevated in some fundamentalist churches. For example, is hair length important? How about Sunday observance? Is becoming a pastor or missionary a vocation that is really somehow more “worshipful” than being a plumber or an electrician? I think that the Bible gives clear answers to these questions, but as a lifelong friend of mine (now a retired pastor) would say, they are non-salvation issues. In other words, we should not elevate them to that level because they can become a needless stumbling block.

Finally, let me answer the question posed in the title of this post: Is there such a thing as deconversion? In other words, is it possible to lose your salvation? Marriott doesn’t answer this question directly, but it’s clear that he thinks it’s possible. Marriott doesn’t mention John 6:66, but I thought of it as I was reading. John 6:66 says: “From this time many of his [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Does that sound like “deconversion?” I can imagine that some might interpret it that way, but remember also how so many of the people in the Palm Sunday crowd turned on Jesus just a few days later, on Good Friday. I think Scripture makes it very clear that it is in fact not possible to lose your salvation. I have written about this in a previous post; here, let me quote John 10:28, which says, “I [Jesus] give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” Philippians 4:6 gives us this assurance: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

“Deconverts,” then, are people who used to have the appearance, including words and actions, of being Christians, but who in fact were not, and are not. Thankfully, however, those who have denied the name of Jesus can repent, just like the apostle Peter did, as well as the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15:11-32. I also mentioned earlier that Marriott writes about four people who had renounced the name of Jesus but who have since come back home. If you, like me, know someone who used to be a churchgoer and was perhaps baptized, but has since denied the name of Jesus, pray for them according to the Lord’s will and trust Him for the results.