Poverty. When you hear the word, a predictable series of images probably flicker through your mind: A homeless man living under an overpass in Chicago. A shoeless child on the streets of Mumbai. A jobless widow in a Kenyan slum.
When we think of these people, we rightly want to help. But good intentions are not enough. We often do inadvertent harm in our attempts to help people who are poor. Because we think of poverty as a lack of material things like money, food, or housing, our first instinct is to give those things to people who are poor. While that response is sometimes necessary, it typically addresses only the symptoms of poverty—not the underlying causes. In the long run, handouts can actually create dependency and exacerbate the sense of shame that often accompanies poverty.
We need a different framework for our poverty alleviation efforts if we want to help the materially poor without hurting them.
Here are three key things to remember:
1) We are all “poor” in some way. This principle is rooted in the grand drama of Scripture: God created a perfect world, but the fall marred our relationships with God, ourselves, others, and the rest of creation. Thus, while the materially poor—those who lack adequate food, housing, clothing, and healthcare—experience unique pain and desperation that many of us have never faced, sin made all of us “poor” in that we experience less than the fullness that God intended for us at creation. For the non-materially poor, our poverty often takes the form of materialism, workaholic tendencies, and a desire to “play God” in everyday life.
2) Jesus came to heal the brokenness that leads to poverty. The good news is that part of Christ’s mission on earth was to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, and proclaim liberty to the captives (Luke 4:18). God is reconciling all things through the work of Christ (Colossians 1:16), offering healing for the poverty in all of us. This is why proclaiming the gospel is foundational in poverty alleviation. We can’t talk about what full restoration looks like for any of us without talking about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
3) Our churches and ministries must be marked by humility. When we approach the materially poor with an attitude of superiority or when we treat them like projects to be fixed, we forget our own dependence on Christ’s grace and exacerbate the materially poor’s feelings of shame and helplessness. But once we realize that we are poor, too, we can begin effectively helping low-income people. In ministries built on a biblical understanding of poverty, both the “helpers” and the “helped” will more deeply realize that they are loved by God, they have dignity as people made in the image of God, they are designed for community with one another, and they are called to steward the rest of creation to His glory.
So when we think of poverty, maybe our own faces should come to mind. As we recognize our own dependence on Christ’s restoration in our lives, we no longer think about helping the materially poor as “pulling them out of poverty.” Instead, we realize it is about walking alongside them, saying, “I’m broken, and you’re broken, but I have found Jesus Christ, the only one who can heal us both.”
Adapted from When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . And Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (Moody Publishers).
Are you looking for a way to equip your congregation with a more effective approach to poverty? Check out the Helping Without Hurting Seminar DVD, hosted by Brian Fikkert.
Steve Corbett is the Community Development Specialist for the Chalmers Center and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College.
Brian Fikkert is the Founder and President of the Chalmers Center, as well as a Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College.