• Should I give $4 to a homeless man at my church’s weekly food bank?
  • Should my daughter participate in a short-term missions trip with a church group to provide relief to the poor in Mexico?
  • Do I accept a needs-based scholarship, when my husband is unemployed, so my children can continue attending a private Christian school?

These are all real questions that I have faced in the past month. Not so coincidentally, because God has a way of timing things, I have also been reading Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself. This book has helped me to rethink how to answer these questions and many more.

As the Gospels proclaim, the poor will always be with us (Mt. 26:11) and we are called to help those in need (Mt. 25:31-46). The problem is—how do we do that without causing more harm than good? Anyone who has served in charities in a long-term capacity can recognize a common pattern that author Bob Lupton points out in Toxic Charity:

  • Give once, elicit appreciation
  • Give twice, generate anticipation
  • Give thrice, create expectation
  • Give four times, encourage entitlement
  • Give five times, establish dependence

Corbett and Fikkert’s book seeks to help break this progression, by equipping Christians, particularly the local church, to effectively fulfill the biblical call to care for the poor without doing harm. The book opens with the weighty passage in 1 Jn. 3:17 “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” It is clear that we should help the poor, but the question remains-How should we help the poor?

Is it really loving to give a homeless man $4? Are the poor in Mexico truly helped by a short-term missionary team? Who (including myself) should receive financial assistance? This book provides resources for answering these questions and many more by mapping out who are the poor, general principles for poverty alleviation, and providing practical strategies for effectively helping people.

While there is far more in this book than I can unpack at present, here are some of the noteworthy points that challenged me:

  • Rethinking How to Define Poverty: Poverty is not simply a lack of material possessions, but a result of our broken relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. Our poverty alleviation efforts, therefore, should be holistic approaches that seek to address reconciliation.
  • Embracing Mutual Brokenness: We are likely to do more harm than good unless we acknowledge our mutual poverty and dependence upon God. We all share in a “poverty of being”—an improper view of ourselves in light of God. Poverty-alleviation efforts often exacerbate the god-complexes of the economically rich or the inferiority complexes of the materially poor.
  • Poverty Alleviation is Rooted in the Ministry of Reconciliation: The church is to be Christ’s agent of reconciliation—helping empower people to fulfill their call to glorify God by working and supporting themselves and their families.
  • Discerning the Situation: Not all poverty is equal. To truly help, we must consider whether relief, rehabilitation, or development is called for. Participation of the affected population and assessing the situation are essential to discerning what approach to take.
  • Working in Participation: Participation is not just a means to an end, but rather a legitimate end in and of itself. It is vital to avoid paternalism—doing things for people that they can do for themselves. By participating, the materially poor are able to more fully enjoy their God-given dominion over their individual lives and over creation.
  • The Ultimate Goal: Our ultimate goal in helping is not just to increase the material well being of the poor, but also to glorify God through the church’s witness to the transforming power of the kingdom of God.

Each of these points is very convicting and to be honest, a bit overwhelming. By three-quarters of the way through the book, I became well aware of the damage that Christians can do through imprudent poverty relief. I began to wonder if it is possible to help without causing further harm? Fortunately, the last quarter of the book addresses this very question. The authors encourage Christians to not be paralyzed by fear and “GET MOVING.” We need to recognize that “the coexistence of agonizing poverty and unprecedented wealth ... is an affront to the gospel” (p. 16). We are to help the poor not only for their sake, but also to be a witness to the transforming power of the kingdom. Their practical suggestions help put feet to their words—providing the tools we need to get started in being part of Christ’s work of reconciliation.