There’s Abundance in Poverty
God’s free gifts are all around us, if we would just see them and learn how to use them.
A wise friend once told me, God provides for the sparrow, but He doesn’t put the worm in the nest. The lesson is that He gave us minds, hands and ingenuity to find the resources all around us and learn how to use them. Each individual is expected to work at providing for himself and not be a burden to others. Nobody has an excuse to be lazy, or waste time and complain.
The Apostle Paul wanted his converts to follow his example of hard work. He said in I Thessalonians 2:9, “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” On that basis, he urged each individual “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.“
When he learned that some in the church he founded were being lazy, he rebuked them strongly:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies [i.e., people who meddle in others’ affairs]. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (II Thessalonians 3:6-12).
These passages do not preclude charity to the helpless, but presuppose something important: God has provided the resources for people to earn their own living. But is that always possible? What about in a flat desert environment with no soil and little water? How would people packed into refugee camps be expected to get by?
Prepare to watch one of the most inspiring stories the BBC has reported recently. It’s about science, ingenuity, and how an abundance of hidden natural resources and trash come together to promote health and happiness. Watch the video in Victoria Gill’s report, “Mattresses going from old bed to vegetable bed,”
Refugees at Za’atari camp in Jordan and a team of scientists from Sheffield in the UK are working together to create a way to grow fresh food in old mattress foam.
The foam works as a substrate in place of soil in a system called hydroponics, solving two problems in one: recycling the old mattresses piling up in the camp and creating a way to grow fresh food in a place where the soil is too poor and salty for any agriculture.
You have to see this to believe it. The expressions on the people’s faces tell the result: from despair, anger and hunger to smiles all around. One man featured near the end of the story has discovered new purpose and meaning in his ability to work. He now uses most of his waking hours to tend his garden and feed his family, he says, as his boy smiles cheerfully beside him. And yet all around the rag-tag refugee shantytown is flat, harsh desert!
The scientist, chemist Tony Ryan from the University of Sheffield, can hardly hold back tears when he considers the help he has given to these people. It started when a spark of insight gave him an idea: how to use old mattress foam to grow plants. Rather than hand them food, and making them dependent, he gave them something more valuable: a way to work and grow food themselves. It became a way to “work with their hands … and be dependent on no one” as Paul had instructed. Paul knew that it is a bad testimony before those outside the church to be lazy, a busybody, or unwilling to work; they needed to “walk [live] properly before outsiders.” Most people look down on bums. Human nature tells us it is unnatural to be lazy.
Water Out of Thin Air
Scientists have also found ways to increase the water supply in drought-stricken areas. Actually, they take advantage of techniques that have been known by wilderness survivalists for years. Some backpackers know how to build a “solar still” that can catch dew out of the air and collect it in a vessel. Expanding on that concept, some scientists have built large nets of mesh that collect due overnight and channel it into collectors (see recent example on Phys.org that imitates how beetles do it).
The oceans have abundant water, but it is undrinkable by humans. This week, Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a new “Simple, solar-powered water desalination” device that uses gravity and solar energy to desalinate water.
A completely passive solar-powered desalination system could provide more than 1.5 gallons of fresh drinking water per hour for every square meter of solar collecting area. Such systems could potentially serve off-grid arid coastal areas to provide an efficient, low-cost water source.
The system requires no electricity, and is self-cleaning. It can be made with inexpensive, readily-available materials.
The water is there; the sunshine is there; seeds can be gathered; abundance is all around. Human ingenuity through science can get the “worm into the nest” where it can be used.
The hero of this story is the Creator. He is the one who provided our privileged planet loaded with resources in terms of minerals, atmosphere, energy from sunlight, seeds and water. Listen to Michael Denton share the remarkable coincidences that make our planet habitable in ID the Future. It’s truly amazing; it’s uncanny how many independent physical parameters had to ‘conspire’ to make complex life possible. You’d almost think it was designed.
Our Maker also knows that idleness is not good for man, so He gave us hands and brains to figure out ways to gather and find ways to use these resources. Isn’t it great to see science applied for human flourishing? Let’s have more of this, and less Darwinian storytelling. Tony Ryan, whose ideas are helping the refugees, did not get his motivation from Darwinism. We don’t know what his beliefs are about origins, but we know British science had a long tradition of science for the good of mankind – a principle elaborated by Francis Bacon, but founded on human conscience and the image of God inherent in man that values helping one another.
This story is also a reminder of Solomon’s caution, “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.” So many times freedom-loving countries have to intervene to keep the poor from starving in dictator-led countries, but then the wicked rulers steal it for themselves. This happened tragically in Haiti after the earthquake; millions of dollars of aid came in, but the poor got little or none of it. It’s a poor strategy to just throw money at a problem. Long term goals for sustainable help should include: (1) fighting corruption to give people liberty, (2) meeting immediate needs to get poor people back on their feet, (3) teaching them effective ways to work and earn their own food with methods like those shown above. This will break the cycle of dependence and empower people to feel the satisfaction of responsible work.
Unfortunately, this plan often falters and fails, not because of the lack of resources, but because of sin. Hunger can be a motivator for work, as Solomon said: “A worker’s appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on” (Proverbs 16:26). Paul reinforced that with his proverb that a man who won’t work shouldn’t eat – a strong motivator to get off the couch. Sin is selfish, though, and can channel worthwhile labor to selfish ends. What people need most of all is the gospel. Let them get their lives right with God first. Then, with proper teaching from the Word of God, the “Protestant work ethic” combined with the Law of Love (loving our neighbors as ourselves) can improve the lives of whole families, communities and nations.
Sometimes missionaries have to treat the body before the soul can hear the message. I hope this story motivates missionaries and their agencies to engage projects for clean water, sanitation, and food along with the preaching of the gospel. Good works create good will from which to share the good news.