When Helping Hurts

July 25, 2009

You’re in an African country on a short-term mission trip, interacting with a group of poor persons. One of them becomes sick, and needs $8 to buy penicillin. Should you buy the antibiotic?

You are concerned about a poor area of an American city. Should your first step be to assess the needs of the people?

Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett say the answer to both of those questions is no. In their new book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, the authors argue that most attempts to deal with poverty end up exacerbating underlying problems in both the rich giver and the poor receiver. They lay out a biblical understanding of poverty, identify principles for helping the poor, and then apply those principles to domestic and international settings. Along the way, they illustrate both effective and ineffective interventions – including their own errors and mistakes.

In Part I, “Foundational Concepts for Helping Without Hurting,” the authors emphasize the holistic nature of Jesus’ work. As we will sing tomorrow,

He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free;
To take away transgression and rule in equity.
While on earth He preached the Gospel through His words and through His actions. We, His church, are to do the same, until He comes and ends all wrongs. Christ is Lord of all of life – so the Gospel has implications for how we live every moment of every day.

How does this change our understanding of poverty? Poverty, argue the authors, is about much more than a lack of resources. It is about feelings of “shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness” (p. 53). God created us to be in healthy relationship with Himself first of all, giving glory to Him, and then with others, the rest of creation, and ourselves. And these relationships are embedded in an interweaving web of economic, social, political, and religious systems. The Fall has broken all of these relationships, and led to systems that exacerbate this brokenness.

What we normally think of as poverty – the lack of material resources – is only one aspect of the breakdown of our relationship to the rest of creation. Apart from God’s redemption, we all experience breakdowns in all four of those key relationships, and each of those is a type of poverty. Even the rich are poor in some of these senses. Furthermore, those who are materially poor often are suffering from all types of poverty, not just materially.

In particular, one type of poverty we American rich people normally experience is thinking that we are great, we are the helpers, we are the givers, we are the problem-solvers – that we are, in a sense, God. When we then try to help those who are materially poor and suffering from the opposite sense of themselves – shame – we often, even while providing material goods, make our own god-complexes worse while increasing the shame and poor-self-image of those we are helping. In such cases, helping hurts – it hurts both the giver and the receiver.

Fikkert and Corbett’s approach to the issue is masterful. They manage to discuss poverty in a way that is informed by economic research but not limited by it, in a way that acknowledges the impact of economic and political systems on poverty, while also acknowledging individual responsibility. Thus they avoid sounding like Republicans or Democrats, conservative or liberal – they instead sound biblical.

Along the way, the authors discuss the importance of the material and social assets of the poor, microenterprise development, and savings and credit schemes. The last three chapters draw out lessons in three key areas: Short term missions trips – a devastating critique of most, even while laying out principles for healthy trips – domestic poverty alleviation, and international development work.

The book is structured particularly well for small groups to read together. Each chapter begins with questions to ponder and discuss, and then concludes with follow-up, questions for reflection that help the reader apply the chapter’s lessons both to the specific issues brought up in the chapter’s opening questions and more broadly. The website www.whenhelpinghurts.com provides a large number of additional helpful resources.

Should you read this book? If you’ve ever been on a short term mission trip, or think you might – Yes. If you’ve ever wondered whether or not to give to a beggar – Yes. If you’ve ever wondered how to live out James 1:27 – Yes.

In other words: Read this book. There is no better book on the subject.

Your Suffering Does Not Belong to You

July 11, 2009

You may be familiar with these words from the first chapter of Colossians:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

They are words I have read many times and yet somehow Duncan’s application of them was entirely fresh. In the chapter in which he discusses these verses he is explaining what God may be accomplishing through your suffering and one of the four points he brings up is this one: Building up the church. Have you ever considered this before, that through your suffering God is strengthening the church? He says, “Our suffering aids the maturity of the whole body of believers. It is extraordinary that our suffering is designed not only to work godliness in us as individuals, causing us to prize Christ more, but also to work maturity within the whole church.” And this is exactly what Paul points to in the opening verses of Colossians. “Suffering is God’s instrument to bring about the maturity of the whole church. God ordains for our suffering, as a participation in the suffering of Christ’s body, to bring about in the church the purposes of Christ’s affliction. In other words, sometimes God appoints his children to suffer so that the whole body will become mature.” We all know that as members of the church we are to rejoice together and to mourn together, but do we understand that these occasions of mourning are given for our maturity? If we truly are a body, each part dependent on the other, then it cannot be any other way. One person’s suffering is every person’s suffering; one person’s maturing is every person’s maturing.

And as you think about this, can’t you see how it is true? Can’t you think to some of the Christian men and women whose suffering you have witnessed and see how their example has served to strengthen the church? I can think of many examples. Some of them are people who suffered far away from me, far from my local church, but whose suffering served to strengthen even those Christians whom they had never met face-to-face. Others of them are people who have been a part of my local church, my local congregation, whose suffering has been witnessed by only a few; but those few have been strengthened by their witness. I think of people who suffered through illness or joblessness or the loss of a child; they grew in maturity through the suffering but, remarkably, so did those of us who wept with them.

Duncan says, “These ‘lacking’ afflictions of Christ’s do not indicate that his suffering was insufficient for our salvation. They are simply a recognition that when you become a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you become a part of his body. Since you are part of his body, your sufferings are his sufferings. What are the sufferings that are lacking in Christ’s affliction? They are the ones that have not been experienced yet by his body, the church. They will continue to be experienced by his body until he comes again and makes an end of all suffering for his people.” Duncan goes on to say, “The apostle Paul is telling us something amazing. The afflictions of the body of Christ are intended to bring it to maturity. That is to say, God ordains, by the Spirit and by faith, for our suffering to bring about in the church the purposes of Christian affliction. These purposes are: Christ in us, the hope of glory, and every one of us being made mature in Jesus Christ.”

So I guess this is something we ought to keep in mind in those times that God calls us to suffer. Our suffering is not pointless; it is not meaningless. At least in part, our suffering is mandated by God so we can strengthen and edify our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they, and we, may strive toward Christian maturity. “Your suffering does not just belong to you. You are members of a body. Your suffering is for the body’s maturity as much as it is for yours. Your suffering is there to build up the church of Christ. It is there for the people of God to be given faith and hope and confidence in the hour of their trials. Your suffering is also the body’s suffering because one of God’s purposes in suffering is the maturity of the whole church.”

Taken from: an excerpt of Tim Challies reflection on reading Ligon Duncan’s book, Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?

What is the righteousness that God requires?

July 4, 2009

Martin Luther at first thought “the righteousness of God” which Paul mentioned in Romans 3:21 was the righteousness God required of us in perfectly fulfilling his law. Because Luther realized more and more he could not possibly measure up to that impossible demand, he grew increasingly angry with God. At one time he had exclaimed, “love God? I hate him.” Eventually he came to realize that the righteousness of God was that which God provided for us. “Thereupon I felt myself reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

What then is this righteousness from God that Paul announced to us, and over which Martin Luther struggled? It’s a righteousness that God both requires and provides for us. It’s the righteousness that he requires because it must fully satisfy the utmost demands of his law, both in its precepts and penalty. For although this righteousness is apart from law as far as we’re concerned, it is not apart from law as far as God is concerned. Rather it must be a righteousness that both perfectly fulfills the righteous requirements of his law and satisfies the demands of his justice toward those who have broken his law.

This righteousness from God, then, is nothing less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, who, through his sinless life and his death in obedience to the Father’s will, perfectly fulfilled the law of God in both its precepts and its penalty. In other words, this righteousness that God both requires and provides embraces all the work of Christ—how he perfectly obeyed God’s law, satisfied God’s justice, exhausted God’s wrath, removed our sins from God’s presence, redeemed us from God’s curse, and reconciled us to our Creator.

(Excerpt taken from The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges)