This post is part two in a four-part series. Read part one here.
If the church is going to be effective in addressing poverty, she must first understand it. We want the correct diagnosis of the disease before the surgeon starts cutting!
What is poverty? We usually think of poverty as lack of material things. But those who are materially poor suffer from more than just a lack of stuff. As Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert explain, the materially poor often describe their hardship as social or psychological, using words such as shame, isolation and hopelessness. Poverty doesn’t just mean the lack of things, but the lack of healthy relationships.
Poverty is one of many forms of relational brokenness that results from sin. We tend to think of sin as moral failing. It is rebellion against God’s law. The main word in the New Testament for sin is hamartia - missing the mark. Sin is deviation from a standard established by God. For this reason, sin is deeply relational, or, we should say, anti-relational, because God’s law describes the relationship he intends to have with humans.
Consider Augustine’s account of sin: “For ‘pride is the beginning of all sin.’ And what is pride but an appetite for inordinate exaltation? Now exaltation is inordinate when the soul cuts itself off from the very Source to which it should keep close and somehow makes itself and becomes an end to itself.”
Augustine does not define pride as arrogance, but as deliberate relational disconnection. The branch has decided to be independent and stop receiving life from the vine (which can only result in its death – Rom. 6:23). According to Augustine, this is the essence of sin. We are designed for relationship with God, but we are cut off from him. Sin involves a kind of alienation or isolation.
Cornelius Plantinga describes sin as the vandalism of shalom. Shalom is more than just the absence of conflict, it is the overall harmony and well-being that God’s creatures were intended to have. Sin has disrupted all of these harmonious relationships.
Material poverty is a form of broken relationship resulting from sin and the fall. It is an absence of shalom. Lack of connection to markets fuels global poverty. Unjust laws and social relationships prevent economic growth and opportunity. Shame over their condition causes them to withdraw from others, including potential sources of help. The materially poor are cut off from key relationships and so their well-being is diminished.
The materially poor are not the only ones to fall short of the glory of God. The materially rich may be tempted toward self-reliance or superiority. They can be described as spiritually poor.
In that sense, we are all poor. We all suffer from a lack of shalom. We all have broken relationships with God, with others, with ourselves and with our world.
Salvation consists in restoration of relationship. Our relationship with God is restored through the cross of Christ. Then our other relationships can be healed: with each other, with the world and with ourselves (see, for example, Eph. 2).
Some frame the problem of poverty as a disparity between the haves and have nots. But theologically speaking, we are all needy and ultimately dependent on God for our well-being. Everything we have is gift. We all suffer relational brokenness under sin. This theological perspective provides the essential groundwork for churches and other organizations to improve the material conditions of the world’s poor without harming them. It promotes linking the alleviation of material misery to the other relational domains in which humans are impoverished as a result of sin.
In the next post, I discuss one way the church can alleviate material poverty by fulfilling its mission in relational connection.
- When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself. Moody 2009, 2012.
- City of God, 14.13.
- Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Eerdmans, 1996.