By Matt Carlquist
Since its first publication in 2009, When Helping Hurts (Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Moody Publishers, 2014 ) has been a welcome wake-up call to North American Christians, many of whom (like me) were surprised to learn that some of our well-intentioned approaches to helping the poor have actually been misguided and harmful. The authors, an experienced Christian relief and development worker (Corbett) and professors with The Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College (www.chalmers.org), use a gracious and convicting approach to teach Christians how to respond appropriately to poverty in a way that glorifies God.
When Helping Hurts calls on the church to acknowledge and repent of our limited material definition of poverty because we all suffer from a poverty of being, spiritual intimacy, community, and stewardship. When coupled with our god-complexes (“…a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority…”), we can exacerbate feelings of inferiority among the materially poor. Rather than providing things to the poor, the authors echo God calling us to walk humbly with the materially poor as fellow broken people.
The book is full of helpful, practical recommendations that God can use to help us to be more discerning when confronted with needs. In a nutshell, we are exhorted to “Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.” While the authors acknowledge that the Holy Spirit sometimes leads us to circumvent this easy to remember, general rule of thumb, those times should be exceptions. “The Bible does not command mindless ‘generosity’, but rather the use of wisdom and prudence that keeps the end goal in mind: restoration of people to what they were created to be.” Thanks to feedback the authors received from the 2009 first edition, the subsequent editions benefit from additional chapters that detail very specific steps that the local church can take to appropriately respond to needs within our communities.
One of the reasons When Helping Hurts is so effective is the authors’ use of real life stories scattered amongst the not insubstantial amount of poverty alleviation theory. Many readers will be able to identify with the sometimes cringe-worthy anecdotes involving ministry opportunities like delivering turkeys and presents to families at Christmas, serving meals at a homeless shelter, responding to someone knocking on the door and asking for assistance, and repairing houses or leading Vacation Bible School during short-term mission trips. The book benefits greatly from these examples including the authors’ personal experiences with coming alongside the poor and their willingness to humbly share lessons learned so that we don’t have to repeat the same mistakes.
God used When Helping Hurts in a powerful way during my season overseas in Christian relief and development. At the time, we were wondering why it was so challenging for people to construct their own pit latrines when we were giving them many of the materials they needed. According to the book, our problem was that we were applying a relief approach (handouts) in a development context. In a subsequent country, we only provided community tools and the people provided their own materials and labor. Amazingly, all of the households in those communities now have safe sanitation, and because the community tools are still available, new latrines are being constructed as new families arrive long after we stopped working in the area. This success proved that we had previously underestimated the former communities’ assets. As the authors write, “One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make—by far— is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.” It’s easy to give handouts, but let’s remember that they compound the problem when they’re provided during the wrong circumstances.
When Helping Hurts isn’t just for those involved with church benevolence and missions ministries and Christian relief and development workers. It’s a practical handbook for anyone with a heart to serve the materially poor. Chapter 7: Doing Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm should be required reading for anyone planning or considering going on a short-term mission trip. Also, the post-chapter reflection questions and exercises make this book ideally suited for individual or small group study.