When Helping Hurts

Posted on: 
October 20, 2023

The title When Helping Hurts is a bit jarring at first glance. Is it possible to hurt the poor in the process of helping them? Can one even cause harm inadvertently? These questions, among others, are addressed in this book along with many helpful ways that one can help the poor without causing lasting harm.

Chapter 1 looks to Scripture to answer the question of why Jesus came to earth. Jesus, reading from Isaiah, says:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17-21).

This prophetic word was indeed good news for the poor. Jesus showed that the Kingdom of God was not only a future reality, but one which would bring freedom, sight, release, and the Lord’s favor. If Jesus was sent to preach good news for the poor, is that the church’s calling as well? The World Bank conducted a study where they asked sixty thousand people from sixty low-income countries the question “What is poverty?” (p. 49). Some keywords people used to express their situations were: “shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness” (p. 51). While one’s first reaction may be to describe poverty as a lack of financial means, the poor themselves describe poverty in a very different way. Finances alone will not free the poor from their bondage. However, Jesus has good news. He proclaims freedom!

The authors state that God created “four foundational relationships for each person: a relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation” (p. 54). For one to be relationally whole, there needs to be harmony in all of these key relationships. When poverty is assessed by this rubric, it is fair to say that everyone is experiencing some level of poverty. A definition of poverty is: “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” (p. 59). The goal must be to bring people to a place of healing in all of their relationships for change to happen.

But possibly you are still asking, “How can one hurt the poor while trying to help them?” In chapter 4 the authors make a distinction between relief, rehabilitation, and development. In their words, relief is the “urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis” (pp. 99-100). Rehabilitation follows relief with the goal of moving them along in the recovery process. Development is the ongoing process that moves people into the right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. Many times relief is given to people who need development. The result is often chronic dependence on outside resources. The author’s challenge is to carefully assess the situation before quickly handing out aid to people.

The authors are in favor of using “asset-based community development” (ABCD) to help people be reconciled in their relationships (p. 119). This approach recognizes that God has blessed every society with assets. The common approach when arriving in a materially poor area is to see all the needs in that area. In contrast, those doing ABCD assesses the current assets that people already have that can be stewarded better. The ABCD approach focuses on building upon what is already there while not trying to bring in outside resources.

While the answer to poverty may seem complex and years of development are needed for change to happen, there is an answer—Jesus. The authors contrast “Star Trek Jesus” with “Colossians 1 Jesus” (p. 248). They state that Star Trek Jesus is uninterested in this world and takes us out of the world one day. However, we see the beauty of our Savior in Colossians 1. Jesus is portrayed as “the Creator, Sustainer, and Reconciler of all things, the King whose Kingdom is wiping out all of our diseases and all of our poverty” (p. 248). Jesus cares deeply about the physical needs of the poor, and that is why the Gospel truly is good news for the poor.

May the church of God rise up to take on the mission of Jesus by helping the poor without causing harm.

Book review by RW
Book authors: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

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  • “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17
  • “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witness of these things.” Luke 24:47, 48
  • “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew 28:19
  • “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
  • “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the Gospel.” Ephesians 3:6
  • “That they all may be one; as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:21
  • “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” Mark 11:17
  • “Ask of me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance.” Psalm 2:8
  • “Behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes.” Revelation 7:9
  • “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified.” 2 Thessalonians 3:1
  • “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16
  • “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105
  • “As cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a far country.” Proverbs 25:25
  • “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” Psalm 19:10
  • “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You.” Psalm 22:27
  • “Truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Numbers 14:21
  • “Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.” Psalm 96:3, 4
  • “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
  • “That all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” 1 Kings 8:60
  • “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations.” Malachi 1:11
  • “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name.” Psalm 86:9
  • “For as the earth brings forth its bud, as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:11
  • "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" Psalm 46:10
  • "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." 1 Timothy 2:3, 4
  • "You are worthy. . .; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God." Revelation 5:9, 10