On a January morning in Wisconsin with temperatures in the single digits, I pull up at 8 a.m. to my work at a community nonprofit that focuses on creating food and housing stability. Across the parking lot, I see a long line of people standing outside, waiting for the doors of the food pantry to open—something that won’t happen until 10 a.m. They’ve arrived two hours early in the bitter cold because they are worried that if they don’t, we might run out of food—food they need to feed their families. We are worried too. Food insecurity is going up across the country. Demand has nearly tripled at our pantry during the past two years—an increase that is hard to keep up with.

Image provided by the author

In my work, I’ve read a lot about the causes of food insecurity in general and these increases specifically. I’ve heard lots of opinions on whose fault hunger is and even some thoughts about the character of those who are experiencing hunger. But of all the points of views I’ve come across, there is one that has shaped my own views the most: King Benjamin’s sermon in Mosiah chapter 4. A discourse, I consider to be one of the most powerful speeches on poverty and how we should respond to it ever given. From it, we can draw a few simple but profound takeaways.

My first takeaway is that God cares about the temporal well-being of his children. Most of us are familiar with the setting of King Benjamin’s address. In Mosiah 1:9, we read that King Benjamin “waxed old, and he saw that he must very soon go the way of all the earth.” He told his son, Mosiah, who would become king after him, to call all the people together. This was his last opportunity to teach his people. He must have carefully selected his words to focus on what he believed God most wanted them to learn—and perhaps what He wanted us to learn also. Over the next few chapters, King Benjamin taught about some of the most important principles in the gospel including the atonement and salvation. Then in chapter 4 verse 16, he turns his focus to poverty and our responsibilities.

I’ve sometimes wondered why King Benjamin thought the subject of responding to poverty was so important. There is the obvious answer that he knew that God loves his children and doesn’t want them to suffer. It seems natural that a parent would care that His children had enough to eat and a warm, safe place to sleep. But I also wonder if King Benjamin believed, as other prophets through the ages have taught, that being temporally fed is a prerequisite to being spiritually fed.

This is illustrated by a story David Burton told about David O. McKay in his 2011 General Conference talk, The Sanctifying Work of Welfare. As a missionary in Stirling, Scotland, Elder McKay knocked on a door that opened to reveal a “haggard women” who was “poorly dressed and had sunken cheeks and unkept hair.” She took the information Elder McKay handed her and asked him, “Will this buy me any bread?” This interaction made a lasting impression on David O. McKay. He later wrote, “From that moment I had a deeper realization that the Church of Christ should be and is interested in the temporal salvation of man. I walked away from the door feeling that that [woman], with … bitterness in [her heart] toward man and God, [was] in no position to receive the message of the gospel. [She was] in need of temporal help, and there was no organization, so far as I could learn, in Stirling that could give it to [her].” In other words, the first step in bringing someone to Christ might be giving them food.

My next takeaway from King Benjamin’s address is that when we see those around us lacking basic necessities, we are expected to do something. Or perhaps more accurately, if we are true followers of Christ, we will do something to relieve their suffering. In chapter 4 verse 11, King Benjamin sets the condition on which the next few verses are built: “As ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love.” Over the next few verses, he tells them what they will do if this condition is met. They (and we –since he is, of course, also addressing us) will grow in the knowledge of the glory of God, not have a mind to injure one another and teach our children to walk in the ways of truth and soberness. Finally, he tells us that if we know of God’s goodness and have tasted of his love, then we will (vs 16): “succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.”

King Benjamin is drawing a powerful conclusion: If we have truly tasted of God’s love, we will administer of our substance to those who need it. Perhaps this is because when we feel so much love, we will more easily be able to love others. Or maybe it’s because as we get to know God more deeply, we will strive more to follow His example. And his example of how to treat “beggars” is clear.

Jesus spent his ministry relieving suffering and, in King Benjamin’s words, administering of his substance. One of the first verses that describes Jesus’s ministry is in Matthew 4:23: “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.” He raised the dead, made the blind to see, and cast out devils. When people were hungry while he taught them, he provided food. When he sent his disciples out, he told them: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils. Freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). And He taught that when we give meat to those who are hungry and drink to those who are thirsty, we are giving it to Him (Matthew 25:34-40).

In Mosiah 4:21, King Benjamin makes it clear how we can follow God’s example. He says: “And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.”

Although we may not be cleansing lepers or casting out devils, we can impart of our substance by sharing the things we have that others don’t have. The Church does this institutionally through fast offerings and through other initiatives around the world that care for those in need. We can and should support these initiatives. But we can also provide help directly and locally. Each of us lives in a community with people who don’t have basic necessities. We can make sure people have enough to eat by providing food to them—which might mean donating food or making a financial contribution to a local food pantry. We can make sure people have somewhere to live by donating to a local homeless shelter or volunteering. In his 2014 General Conference talk, Are We Not all Beggars?, Thomas S. Monson says, in speaking about poverty: “The great Redeemer has issued no more persistent call than for us to join Him in lifting this burden from the people.”

My final takeaway from King Benjamin’s address is that not only does God expect us to help those in poverty, He expects us to do it without judgment. This is where King Benjamin’s words are the strongest. In verses 17-18, he states, “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.”

Our food pantry is supported by the generosity of the community. Many people I talk to recognize the great injustices that exist in our society that lead to food insecurity and have a true desire to make people’s lives better. But I also regularly hear comments that don’t line up with King Benjamin’s teaching—and that are harmful. Community members sometimes want to know if people using the food pantry are lazy or if they are just taking advantage “of the system.” We don’t know all of their circumstances, of course. But we do know that one in five children in the U.S., or 13 million children, experience food insecurity. We know that five million seniors are food insecure. Over half of food insecure households have at least one adult who works full-time. The next two largest categories are households with adults who are disabled and retired. And I can tell you that nobody stands in front of a food pantry for over two hours in temperatures nearing zero if they have any other options.

But, maybe justifying why people are experiencing hunger is missing the point. King Benjamin doesn’t say we should first figure out why people can’t afford to buy their own food so that we can determine if they are worthy of our help. He tells us that if we turn people away saying they have brought on their own misery, then we have great cause to repent. I don’t think this means we shouldn’t explore what causes food insecurity or why the amount of people experiencing food insecurity is increasing so much right now. But maybe we should do it with the purpose of understanding and implementing deeper solutions instead of with the purpose of passing judgment.

“Bread of Life” by Andrei Mironov

In verse 19, King Benjamin asks the soul-searching question that brings this all together: “For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?” This is a question I ponder often. It reminds me that ultimately we may not have as much control over our lives as we’d like to think. People don’t earn their births into privilege or their births into poverty. We had no control over this or many other life circumstances. We depend on God to guide us, to bless us, to protect us, to redeem us. If we must constantly ask for help beyond what we can do for ourselves, do we have the right to condemn others for also asking for help?

My role at the nonprofit I work at is to lead our fundraising team. Every good fundraiser has something that’s called a case for support that lays out the reasons someone should support their cause. Our case for support includes statistics that demonstrate that when kids have enough food and stable housing, their life outcomes improve in large and measurable ways. These statistics are important. But in my heart, I know there are other even more powerful reasons to impart of our substance. We should impart of our substance because we have tasted of God’s love. We should impart of our substance because we have an interest in the kingdom of God. And we should impart of our substance because we are also beggars, relying on God to impart of His substance to us.