Our staff is currently reading a book called, “When Helping Hurts.” It’s an eye-opening journey to say the least. At the core is the idea that what we THINK is the best way to help someone who is struggling with poverty (material or otherwise) is to step in and provide immediate relief.
I mean, if you’re hungry, what you REALLY need is food, right? And if you’re about to have your electricity shut off, or your car repossessed, or to end up evicted from your apartment, then what you REALLY need is immediate relief. Right?
Maybe. And maybe not. The authors of this book point out that our goal in helping is to restore people to shalom, or to whole, healthy relationships with God, self, others and creation. That’s based on the following definition of what poverty really is:
Poverty isn’t just a lack of material things – it’s rooted in broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. We were created to glorify God, reflect His image, love one another, and steward the rest of creation. But the fall and sin marred what God originally created. As a result, none of us are experiencing the fullness of what God intended for us. (Bryant Myers, Walking With the Poor)
In some cases immediate relief is indeed called for. But other times the need is for rehabilitation, and (most often) development. Those two are harder, longer, and less immediately satisfying when we want to feel good about ourselves. It’s the difference between doing things FOR someone, versus doing things WITH them.
An example from the world of substance abuse goes like this. Person struggles with addiction. They find themselves in a desperate situation. They cry out for help. Compassionate friends/family rescue them (provide immediate relief). Cycle repeats endlessly. What’s needed is a different kind of help. One that takes time, energy, relationship investment, and hard work.
Now when a storm knocks out your electricity or floods your home, you need immediate relief. But what about when your decisions over the last five years have eroded your ability to pay your bills? Is your real need for relief (which may simply kick the can of pain down the road a block or two), or is it for rehabilitation and development? Is this a real crisis, or a bigger pattern that needs to be addressed? There’s no simple answer, but that’s kinda the point. It requires careful consideration, and often significant time investment.
On top of this is the problem that those with resources who like to generously help others (a.k.a. immediate relief) can inadvertently start to take on a “god complex,” while simultaneously degrading the dignity of the person whom they’re trying to help. How much better if the person needing help was developed to a point where they had the confidence and dignity to provide for themselves, and/or their family?
Why am I bringing all this up? Because as followers of Christ we’re called to love and serve those in need. (E.g. the Good Samaritan.) But sometimes we can think we’re helping when in reality we’re making things worse.
So the next time you’re invited to help, you may want to stop and ask, “Does this person need relief, or rehabilitation, or development?” Then ask yourself if you’re willing and able to provide what’s really needed.