In their best selling book, When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett reminded us that sometimes our best intentions to help don’t quite achieve the results we desire. In fact, sometimes our efforts to help can actually hurt. For some it caused a pause—what do we do? The Bible doesn’t allow us the option of doing nothing. Isaiah 58, the story of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), and James 1:26-27 make it extremely clear—we are to help. So, we are left in limbo. Commanded to help, yet not wanting to hurt.
It’s not a simple problem, and to even propose a solution in a brief blog post isn’t sane. So throwing caution to the wind, I’m going to make a suggestion anyway.
Take a year off ‘helping the poor.’
I know we just spent a month talking about loving your neighbour, we loaded our twitter feed with quotes on why we need to love our neighbour, how we need to be radical. And now I’m suggesting we dial it back. Except I’m not. We are commanded to LOVE our NEIGHBOUR. It’s different from ‘helping the poor.’
Much of the pain of what it means to be poor is in the feelings of a lack of self worth, dignity and feeling like you have less value. The phrase ‘helping the poor’ underscores two core lies that so often lead to helping that hurts. The words, ‘the poor’ are isolating and distancing. It’s us and them language. It’s devoid of relationship but rather forms ‘the poor’ into a largely anonymous group that’s, well, not us. It fails to grasp the basic truth that we are all poor, maybe not materially but socially, emotionally, spiritually or mentally.
The phrase ‘helping’ isn’t much better. It lends to the idea that you, the helper are a hero, and they, those that need helping, are the victims. Now naturally most of us don’t actually consciously think that way. Or do we? Is there part of us that likes feeling we made a sacrifice and did a good deed because it affirms our identity as a basically good person while leaving the other person just a little bit lower?
So what should we do?
We love our neighbour. It’s simple and commanded.
Get to know someone who is materially poor.
Instead of seeking to help, which turns someone into your project, seek to build a real relationship—a relationship that recognises that we are all sinners in need of a Saviour. We are all poor. In Mary’s 7 February blogpost she reminded us that so many of the refugees are incredibly lonely and need a friend to help them navigate the cultural divide. As someone who lives in a completely different culture than the one I was raised in, I am immensely grateful for the first friends I made who took time to help me navigate the challenges. They didn’t do it because I was their project, but because we were friends. Pray for the right opportunity and then come into the relationship with a desire to learn, understand and appreciate all that God has made great about the other person.
None of us decide where we are born, who our parents will be, and what opportunities we will have. It’s so incredibly easy to judge. I know. I’ve rolled my eyes before and wondered how people can make such poor decisions. And yet when I take time to think, I realise the incredible gift that I was given. Good decision making skills don’t just happen—I was taught them. Compared to most, I grew up in a privileged background and remarkably, instead of leaving me grateful and humble, it has too often left me judging those who didn’t have all my benefits.
If you haven’t read the second edition of When Helping Hurts, read it. The authors recognised that the challenge of the first book is that it did leave people wondering how to move forward. The second edition contains a fourth part that addresses that problem.
Beyond that look for books written by those who have been materially poor. Read them with a goal of imagining how life could have been for you if you were born in their shoes.
Here’s some suggestions from our community:
- The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
- I Love You’s are for White People by Lac Su
- Gifted Hands by Ben Carson
- The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Claiborne
- Of Beetles and Angels, by Mawi Asgedom
- Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall
Additionally there are a number of documentaries and articles available on the web
- Washington Post – The Grinding Reality of Growing up Poor
- Buffalo News – Growing up Poor taught me invaluable lessons
- Four Corners (Australia) – Growing up poor
You don’t get a year off giving. There are lots of great places to give—established organisations and programs, abuse shelters, food banks, refugee programs, relief programs. Take time to do some research and find some great options.
Pray that God will give you the ability to understand what it means to be poor. Fair warning…I once went on an extended fast, praying that God would teach me to understand what it means to be poor. Within just a week I found myself sitting having a drink at a roadside stall, contemplating how easy it would be to steal a baguette from the man with the huge basket of bread. I had enough money in my pocket to buy bread. It was a voluntary fast. And yet it only took a week of hunger to realize that I too could make poor decisions just to feel full.
So what happens after a year… or longer? Hopefully we find a place where we can help the poor without nurturing lies. Where the poor are not “them” but all of us. Where we can truly say we love and admire so much of what we see in materially poor communities. And where helping doesn’t feed feelings of self-goodness or superiority but pours from gratitude and obedience. Until such time, let’s love our neighbour.
Many people are talking about the poor but very few people talk to the poor – Mother Teresa