Darrow Miller and Friends

Social Justice Requires Both a Warm Heart and a Clear Head

Social justice (aka compassion) arises from a warm heart and matures in a clear head.

In a recent post we highlighted two of seven principles of compassion (Affiliation and Bonding) identified by Marvin Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion. This post is the second of the series.

Olasky’s third principle is Categorization. This term is used to capture an important, if politically incorrect, aspect of Biblical compassion: it discriminates. Yahweh is a God of mercy and justice. True compassion is both warm-hearted and clear-headed. This relationship between love and discipline, sometimes called “tough love,” is right out of the Bible.

Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:3-8 ESV).

Notice the three categories of widows. Those with extended family are to be cared for by their offspring. Those identified as “truly widows” (translated “really in need” in the NIV) have no extended family. These are the responsibility of the church. The third category is self-indulgent widows (in the NIV, those who “live for pleasure.”) This group is to receive no help from the church.

At one time, people who worked in the arena of compassion practiced categorization. That is, they discriminated between three kinds of poverty: the deserving poor, the laboring poor, and the undeserving poor. Today, we have lost these important distinctions. We create impersonal institutions in which these differences dissolve. As a result, we treat everybody the same and justice is corrupted.

Deserving poor included orphans, the elderly, the incurably ill, accident victims. The second group—the laboring poor—were those who worked but didn’t earn enough to care for their family. Or perhaps they were willing to work but unable to secure employment. The third category was the undeserving poor. They might be intemperate, substance abusers, shiftless, anti-social, or criminals. Poverty workers distinguished between the latter two categories by giving those able to work an opportunity to work. When someone applied for charity they might be asked to chop wood or sew garments. The fuel or clothing was then made available to the deserving poor. Those who agreed to chop or sew received dignity by working, and were given further opportunity to work.  Those unwilling to work would be sent away without help.

The deserving poor were served freely. Others welcomed them into their homes to live as part of the household. Or, if housing were not the need, they would be visited and cared for in other ways.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians,

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. … For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:6,10-13 NIV)

Notice the balance. Never tire of doing what is right; always be involved. But distinguish between the laboring poor and the undeserving poor.

The fourth principle is Discernment. Jeremiah 17:9 says, The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? The human heart is wicked. John wrote, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. … If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:8,10 NIV) Humans deceive themselves. They create worlds of illusion. We need discernment, the means of categorization. We must think in terms of categories, we must be discerning because many people manipulate the system. Welfare fraud and manipulation need to be recognized and exposed.

Years ago, Marilyn and I were returning from Europe, laying over in Luxembourg. We were having dinner at a table with a man on his way to New York to collect his welfare payments. He had been on welfare for years. His checks simply piled up until he traveled back to the U.S., picked them up, and returned to Europe to play. The heart is deceitful above all things! Discernment prevents the sort of foolish compassion that rewards people who cheat the system.

Walter Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University, put it this way, “…if you’re going to be compassionate to a person, in the long run, you have to be dispassionate in your analysis.”[1] He gives a hypothetical example. Suppose a doctor had friends whose eleven-year-old daughter was an aspiring ballerina. If they brought her to him with cancer in her leg, and he said, “I will be compassionate. I will not cut off her leg,” the girl would die. True compassion requires dispassionate analysis. “If you want your daughter to live, I have to do the surgery. She may not be able to dance, but she will live.” It is the dispassionate analysis that allows for the most compassionate response.

Williams continues, “We have to think with our brains instead of our hearts when we approach the problems of poverty.”[2] Our heart can stir us to the need, but if our heart designs the program, we will probably disempower people. If we don’t keep a balance between a tender heart and a clear head, we’ll probably increase the poverty.

Discernment, and dispassionate analysis, will also help us realize that not all who are physically poor are truly poor.

One time we took a group of trainees for the private Hunger Corps program  to a village in Mexico that had no running water or electricity. On the first night we were debriefing the day’s activities a few yards away from a house made of trash. A dozen people gathered outside the house singing hymns, accompanied by a 16-year-old boy playing guitar. We joined them. A mother would call out a child’s name and a Scripture reference. The child would stand and recite the verses and they would sing another hymn. This was repeated several times. Then we went back to our tents and sat down. For some time we conversed together around the question, “What did we see here?” We agreed that in our busy U.S. lives this would never have happened. We have so many things to protect—our fancy houses and our fancy cars. We need to be discerning. People who are materially poor by Western standards may in fact be much wealthier than we are.

– Darrow Miller

[1] From an interview with E. Calvin Beisner in Christian Perspectives, Liberty University, Winter 1990, p. 6.

[2] Ibid.

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Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and a featured author and teacher. For over 30 years, Darrow has been a popular conference speaker on topics that include Christianity and culture, apologetics, worldview, poverty, and the dignity of women. From 1981 to 2007 Darrow served with Food for the Hungry International (now FH association), and from 1994 as Vice President. Before joining FH, Darrow spent three years on staff at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland where he was discipled by Francis Schaeffer. He also served as a student pastor at Northern Arizona University and two years as a pastor of Sherman Street Fellowship in urban Denver, CO. In addition to earning his Master’s degree in Adult Education from Arizona State University, Darrow pursued graduate studies in philosophy, theology, Christian apologetics, biblical studies, and missions in the United States, Israel, and Switzerland. Darrow has authored numerous studies, articles, Bible studies and books, including Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture (YWAM Publishing, 1998), Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women for Building Healthy Cultures (InterVarsity Press, 2008), LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day (YWAM, 2009), Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion (YWAM, 2015), and more. These resources along with links to free e-books, podcasts, online training programs and more can be found at Disciple Nations Alliance (https://disciplenations.org).


  1. Jannie Van Noppen

    February 9, 2013 - 10:14 am

    Very thought provoking. I am Board chair of Ottawa Innercity Ministries and I do foot care weekly at the drop-in centre. I found this article very helpful, thank you.

    • admin

      February 9, 2013 - 3:33 pm

      Jannie, we are grateful to hear from you, and praise God that you have found our blog helpful.

      Gary Brumbelow