See also: Short 2-minute video “What is a beggar?”
This blog post may be an uncomfortable perspective so let me clarify the intent of tackling this. Charity is sublime and one of the most important qualities we are to gain as a saint. The following post does not suggest holding back on good works, ministering, nor promptings of kindness and generosity. Rather, this post is meant to focus on a frequently misunderstood admonition involving beggars found in both Mosiah and Alma’s sermons.
I’ve seen this confusion lead to entitlement and enabling first-hand. This misunderstanding can lead to both the giver and receiver feeling there is an obligation which sometimes isn’t all that healthy for either. Professional panhandling would be a great example of this principle.
A powerful, oft-quoted verse from Mosiah, chapter four (from the Book of Mormon) reads:
Three key words in this verse get overlooked: “beggar,” “petition,” and “perish.” Both Mosiah and Alma identify a beggar with descriptive details as well as the specific conditions we are not to turn away. At some point I realized their idea of a beggar (and his/ her petition) is significantly, culturally different than our modern-day use of the word.
Unfortunately, sometimes we might feel pressured to comply to a “beggar’s petition” in ways Mosiah and Alma didn’t intend nor teach.
In the same chapter, Mosiah lists the conditions of the petition we are to agree to. It reads, “…such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick.” (Mosiah 4:26)
Alma reinforces the same list (Alma 1:30)
“…they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished;
Last, but also an essential part of the warning – is the word perish. If by denying the petition of food or clothes, we then turn them out to “perish”; we have greatly erred and failed in Mosiah’s eyes. Perish is not a common word but it means: to suffer death in a sudden or untimely way, cease to exist.
The obligation to a beggar refers to the truly hungry, the truly cold and exposed and the sick in desperate circumstances. If someone crosses your path and you can save a life or grave misery but don’t, then Mosiah’s warning is directed at you.
Even more interesting and eye-opening – in Mosiah’s time, not even the very poor qualified as beggars because they were not about to perish. Verse 24 clearly demonstrates “perish” is the dividing line between what makes someone a beggar rather than poor.
If we are not about to perish from hunger, sickness, or exposure – we have a different directive which is empowering and calls on our divine nature of creativity and problem-solving. Once we are fed and clothed, we are encouraged to act, rather than ask. In other words, either on our own or with the help of others, we begin the process of establishing solid habits and making improved choices in our lives. Even better, we also get innovative, try new paths and brainstorm. What is it that we need to stand solid on our own feet either now or in the future? Is it education, vocational training, help with a resume, job-interview practice, budgeting, counseling, healthier lifestyles, or keeping the Sabbath holy? In true love and concern, we also encourage others to act rather than ask whenever possible.
This principle is reinforced in the church manual titled, “Providing the Lord’s Way, A Leader’s Guide to Welfare.”
Provide for Self and Family
“Church members are responsible for their own spiritual and temporal well-being. Blessed with the gift of agency, they have the privilege of setting their own course, solving their own problems, and striving to become self-reliant. Members do this under the inspiration of the Lord and with the labor of their own hands.”
Elements of Self-Reliance
“Self-reliance is the ability, commitment, and effort to provide the necessities of life for self and family. As members become self-reliant, they are also better able to serve and care for others.”
The heavens love when we learn new skills and become self-reliant in any way – including new careers or new hobbies. Every year, I try to upgrade “the product” (myself). I seek a new skill set out of my comfort zone, take a class, get certified in something, somehow add to my résumé. It has become a satisfying, uplifting lifestyle choice.
Timshel (Hebrew for “thou mayest rise and accomplish anything).