The lights of the city were blinking softly below them as two couples finished their meal at a restaurant. One of them, a successful businessman, had spent much of the conversation recalling the vivid memories of growing up during the Great Depression on a ranch without plumbing or electricity.
Times were hard then for his family, as they were for a great many people. `We were poor, but we didn't know it," he sighed. "We just didn't know any different."How many times have we heard someone say that? Many of us have been poor, and many of us are yet, so we know that the lack of material goods isn't always an indication that people are poor in spirit or understanding.
That is an important point to remember in this day when we are so concerned with the distance between those who have and those who don't. Images of poverty-stricken refugees in other countries fill our news media. Recent statistics show that people who live below the poverty line in the United States account for 15 percent of the population. Even worse, 25 percent of the children are poor. Children, in fact, are the largest segment of the poor.
So when we speak of the poor we're discussing a serious social concern and one that requires our constant attention. Poverty brings with it many unwelcome companions, including concerns over health, safety and the numbing impact of despair. These require the attention of all Christians.
In another light, to be poor doesn't always refer to material goods. We also use the term to mean a lack of something or some quality. It can mean being below average and inferior. It can also mean lacking good moral or mental qualities.
In fact, in an ironic twist of circumstances, it often happens that as people grow richer in material goods they grow poorer in the qualities of character they knew in humbler circumstances - including humility.
President Brigham Young, who led the Saints during periods of extreme poverty and difficulties, often expressed his own fear that things might go too well for the people he was guiding. "When I see this people grow and spread and prosper, I feel that there is more danger than when they are in poverty." What he feared, he said, was ". . . That we will not live our religion, and that we will partially slide a little from the path of rectitude, and go part of the way to meet our friends." (Discourses of Brigham Young 12:272.)
On another occasion he said, "If we are destroyed through the possession of wealth, it will be because we destroy ourselves."
It is a fear that is not without some foundation. Jesus often found Himself preaching to the common people of His day. He told His listeners, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised." (Luke 4:18.)
Thus, it is no accident that the Savior's message appealed so much to the poor, or that many of the early converts to the restored Church came from the ranks of those who had little. Then, as now, people of humility are drawn to the message of Christ. He preached a gospel of hope and fulfillment.
The lesson of the scriptures is that while some people are born poor, others become poor through their own actions. It's a message we should remember when we speak of moral poverty. Those who fail to preserve their resources, whether material or spiritual, are in danger of becoming impoverished.
Maybe we should invent a new word to designate those who have a poverty of the spirit, who are poor in the gospel graces of honesty, integrity, charity and love. That is real poverty.
President Spencer W. Kimball spoke a strong warning on this subject. Painfully aware of the inequities in the world, he wrote: "The ghastly pictures of starving humanity in Europe reveal the emaciated limb, the bloated stomachs, and the pinched faces of those poor unfortunates who suffer for the food which will nourish and build up the body. No less tragic is the sight of those still more unfortunate ones even among us, who have starved themselves for the spirit food which would make them wholesome, virile, and strong spiritually and with a living faith. Far worse, I say, for the former is mortal homicide, the latter spiritual suicide; in the one the victim was brought to that condition through no fault of his own; in the latter it is a self-inflicted curse. (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 142.)
It's quite clear, both from our own experience and from the gospel teachings, that the qualities that make a worthy person are not purchasable. You cannot buy honesty or compassion or integrity. These are learned from caring parents, friends and teachers, and they have nothing to do with being poor.