Social justice, mercy ministry, caring for the poor–whatever you want to call it, it is all the rage in Christian circles, especially among young people. Whenever some noble cause becomes popular there is the possibility for a ton of good to get accomplished, and the chance that a lot of harm will be done in the name of good intentions. That’s why every pastor passionate about the poor, every deacon, every missions committee, everyone interested in short-term missions, everyone fired up for “the least of these” should read this book. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is the best book I’ve read on ministering to the poor. Corbett and Fikkert both teach at Covenant College and work with the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.

Here are few things I really like about the book:

• Lots of thought-provoking examples. The book starts by asking what you do to help in the following situation: The tsunamis that hit Indonesia in December 2004 wiped out many small businesses in the city of Meulaboh. These businesses are the primary source of income for many poor people. Most of the shops, equipment, materials, and inventory were destroyed. Four months after the tsunami, your church decides to send a team to help restart these small businesses. Who should go on this trip? What will you do? What should you bring?

• Fikkert (the book’s main author) doesn’t just make us feel bad for not “doing more.” He gives us practical ideas on how we can help the poor (and ideas how not to “help”).

• This book is balanced. Fikkert argues that broken systems contribute to poverty, but so do broken people. Sometimes broken systems are oppressive. Sometimes life just doesn’t give everyone the same advantages. Christians need to be concerned about ministering to the whole person, but we cannot neglect evangelism and discipleship. We should listen to others (more than we do), but truth is not a social construct. We need to show love to others, but faith only comes by hearing.

• Fikkert keeps us focused on actually helping the poor. If the goal is really to help the poor, and not just to make ourselves feel better or “accomplish” something, then good intentions are not enough. In fact, many of our passionate pleas to “show the love of Christ to the needy people in the world” end up hurting the very people we meant to help.

The book is divided into three parts, each with three chapters. Part 1: Foundational Concepts for Helping Without Hurting. Part 2: General Principles for Helping Without Hurting. Part 3: Practical Strategies for Helping Without Hurting. I’ll take a day summarizing each part of the book, starting today with Part 1.

Part 1: Foundational Concepts for Helping Without Hurting

Jesus came to earth to reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:15-20)–that’s the point of Chapter 1. Yes, Jesus died on the cross for our sins so that we can go to heaven. This is a glorious message. But this is the central part of God’s comprehensive plan for the re-creation of the entire cosmos. This means helping the hurting, caring for the needy, and working for reconciliation in the world are not sub-Christians tasks. These things matter to God as well as evangelism.

God not only cares for the poor, he has chosen to reveal his glory chiefly among those who are weak and despised. Fikkert strikes the right balance when he writes, “The claim here is not that the poor are inherently more righteous or sanctified than the rich. There is no place in the Bible that indicates that poverty is a desirable state or that material things are evil. In fact, wealth is viewed as a gift rom God. The point is simply that, for His own glory, God has chosen to reveal His kingdom in the place where the world, in all of its pride, would least expect it, among the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised” (43).

Chapter 2 tries to explain the problem of poverty. The book takes a wide-angle look at the nature and definition of poverty. Borrowing from Bryant Myers, Fikkert argues that “poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meaning” (62). Poverty exists where one of more of the four foundational relationships for each person are broken: a relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation (57). This definition of poverty looms large in the rest of the book. Honestly, I’m not totally convinced that this framework can be exegeted out of Genesis 1-3, but the point is still a good one. Certainly, these four relationships matter and if we are to truly help people we’ll want to pay attention to all four.

Fikkert makes a compelling point in this chapter that many of us miss: poor people tend to describe their condition in more psychological and social terms. That is, most of us see poverty as lack of food, money, medicine, or housing. The poor talk about their poverty in terms of shame, inferiority, fear, hopelessness, isolation, and voicelessness (53). This has profound implications for how we help the poor. “One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich–their god-complexes–and the poverty of being of the economically poor–their feelings of inferiority and shame” (65). In other words, when we march in and give the poor the stuff we think they need, we are only making them feel poorer, as they understand poverty.

From time to time our church has brought Thanksgiving baskets to the poor in our community. My family participated once. We bought some food and helped put a basket together. We called up the recipient and arranged a time to come over. We drove to another part of town, knocked on the door and delivered our expression of love. The family quickly took the basket and shut the door. Since then, I’ve thought a lot (and read some) about what we did. Now, I’m convinced that this was not a good way to help the poor. The whole operation reinforces a sense of shame. In fact, almost everyone notices that you never see the men at these houses or apartments. And it’s not because there are no men (though sometimes that’s the case). It’s because they are profoundly embarrassed to be seen when the strange family comes with smiles on their faces to deliver a turkey. And after time, those who deliver the baskets get tired. They notice that year after year the same people get the baskets. Some of the people don’t even seem very grateful. Some begin calling up the church the next year wondering where the basket is. The whole process, though very well-intentioned in your church and mine, does nothing to actually alleviate poverty. And it can do a lot to reinforce our sense of superiority and their sense of shame.

Poverty alleviation, Chapter 3 argues, does not mean making the poor all over the world into middle-class Americans (a group, Fikkert notes, characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness). The goal is not even to get the poor more money. The goal of poverty alleviation is to work to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can glorify God by working and support themselves and their families (78). Too often, church and governments have resorted to throwing money at the poor, but in most situations money is far from the biggest need. People need to see that Jesus’s death and resurrection changes everything. They–and we!–need to understand who God is, who we are, how we should relate to others, and how we should relate to creation.

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13 thoughts on “When Helping Hurts, Part 1”

  1. Terry says:

    Wow! It sounds like the authors really know what they are writing about. I have also found that broken relationships are foundational to much of the poverty around me. More than my money, the poor need my friendship. They need someone who is involved in their lives and who cares about them. In the process of being friends, we help people to connect with God.

  2. Pete Scribner says:

    This sounds like a book that is well worth reading. Your description of it reminds me in parts of another fine book on the subject, The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky.

    My only worry with these types of books is the danger that those who tend to lean to the right politically might (ab)use them in a way that excuses their own lack of concern for the welfare of others. It sounds like When Helping Hurts has extensive sections that guard against this danger, but we all tend to read and retain rather selectively.

    That being said, thanks for the heads up on this one. I look forward to reading it.

  3. Grace B says:

    Thanks for the great review! I have the honor of working with Brian and Steve at the Chalmers Center, and we appreciate your support and endorsement of the book and our work. Blessings!
    Grace Bateman

  4. atchkingster4426 says:

    Thanks for the thoughts on the book and the review. Perhaps in one of your next posts you might be able to cast some vision for URC or for people like me who are itching to help, yet don't know what might be best. Perhaps that might be more of a one on one thing, but figured I might ask.

  5. Michael Boyd says:

    Kevin, I'd love to hear your take on another new book dealing with human suffering that came out recently called, "The Hole In Our Gospel". It is written by the U.S. president of World Vision, Richard Stearns. I'm almost done with it and have found it to be eye-opening, disturbing, sobering, rebuking, indicting, and informative in a good way. Mercy ministry in relation to the Gospel has taken center stage in my thinking since last December when I started reading books and hearing sermons pertaining to this by men like Francis Chan, John Piper, David Platt (Radical Series sermons), Matt Chandler (sermons from Luke), Russell Moore's "Adopted For Life", Tim Keller (including a paper entitled "The Gospel and the Poor" he wrote this summer and a conversation between him, Carson, and Piper at the Gospel Coalition conference), among other things. I've started reading "When Helping Hurts" and am eager to see what it adds to my thinking on the subject. I've not seen a comment on "The Hole In Our Gospel" from the reformed world and would love to, particularly if Stearns' application of Scripture is correct, which I think it is.

  6. R W S says:

    There are no easy answers. But the bottom line to be doing good should be as natural as breathing for a follower of Christ. Plus any inaction even if its argued would do more harm than good seems to me a cop out . In James 2:15-16 when he speaks about faith without works is dead , if we see a brother or sister of the faith in need and say a pray without addressing their need , James clearly states that faith and prayer is useless. What is the need , its not lavish living or getting a new computer but basic food and clothing . I would extend it to shelter as well. Those three are the felt needs. Another question to be answered is why do people not have enough to sustain themselves. Sometimes it is misuse of money , no question but sometimes its a just not enough of a wage. How many companies profit off of employees by paying low wages , while the shareholders grab a bigger piece of the pie. Is that not also what James tackles as well in chapter 5 when he mentions that the rich become so because they withhold proper wages.
    One of the problems my oldest son mentioned ,he is going into business , is the shift in how wealth is made and how it has shifted away from manufacturing.
    The bottom line as well we are sinners , who's depraved nature screams, take care of number 1 .
    Its a hard road to fix and one that will not be done till Christ comes again . But that is not an excuse for inaction as anyone can see from reading the word .

  7. Melinda says:

    Wow, I need to re-read this book! I got half-way through and so many red flags were raised that I had to put it down. I think that I struggled most with the chapter, Why Did Christ Come To Earth. Don't get me wrong, I so wanted to like this book. My family just got back from a trip to Uganda, and the author's intro was all about Uganda. I must have been reading it with the wrong view. I will have to try again.

  8. Kevin DeYoung says:

    A few thoughts: I haven't read Stearns' book, but I am slated to a review of it for Christian Research Journal. I can understand how the chapter on Why Did Christ Come to Earth can raise some flags. A couple parts made me uncomfortable. But the main point is that Christ's reclamation project is (in the end) for the entire cosmos, though the redemption of humans is the centerpiece of that project from which all else flows. As far as setting a vision for my own church, that does sound like a better one on one discussion.

  9. Dave says:

    I am reading the book right now, largely due to your three-part posting on it. This is a topic of great interest to me.

    There have been parts that made me cringe a little, especially in the "Why Did Christ Come to Earth" chapter, but I would agree that there are many good thoughts by the authors that Christians need to discuss and think about.

    I would be interested if you ever did a more standard review of the book highlighting strengths, weeknesses, important points, concerns, etc.

    Anyway, thanks for doing this series.

  10. Melinda says:

    I tend to be a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water kinda girl. However, I will definitely read this book again. Thank you so much for your review.

  11. Dave Kresta says:

    I particularly like the Relief, Rehabilitation, Development framework that the book provides. It is a really practical way to analyze approaches to dealing with specific situations of poverty. See http://challengingpoverty.blogspot.com/2010/02/right-response-relief-rehabilitation-or.html for a blog post specifically on this topic.

  12. Check out the organization one mission (www.onemission.us) its an organization dedicated to mobilizing people for the long term good. enjoy the experience of short term missions AND support an on going community development program owned and led by local leaders and pastors.

  13. Charlotte Holtry says:

    I am in agreement with RWS. Seldom do those who have never walked in those shoes know the true and whole story.

    I was happily married to a fine Christian man who died just 4 months after my oldest son died. I was financially OK for a time but gradually became dependent on some free programs, From the outside, I’m sure people thought I was just fine and doing well but I will tell you that is not true ! I am just making it today and have no money to provide me with any of life’s pleasures which is the case with so many people. I don’t see where Jesus said “give him your coat but only after you make sure he doesn’t have another one somewhere or can make one for himself” In the meantime people freeze to death. I understand that there are those who take advantage of the system but nowhere does God tell us not to help them and for that matter, unless we know the whole story, who are we to judge?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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