Social justice, mercy ministry, caring for the poor–whatever you want to call it, it is all the rage in Christian circles, especially among young people. Whenever some noble cause becomes popular there is the possibility for a ton of good to get accomplished, and the chance that a lot of harm will be done in the name of good intentions. That’s why every pastor passionate about the poor, every deacon, every missions committee, everyone interested in short-term missions, everyone fired up for “the least of these” should read this book. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is the best book I’ve read on ministering to the poor. Corbett and Fikkert both teach at Covenant College and work with the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.

Here are few things I really like about the book:

• Lots of thought-provoking examples. The book starts by asking what you do to help in the following situation: The tsunamis that hit Indonesia in December 2004 wiped out many small businesses in the city of Meulaboh. These businesses are the primary source of income for many poor people. Most of the shops, equipment, materials, and inventory were destroyed. Four months after the tsunami, your church decides to send a team to help restart these small businesses. Who should go on this trip? What will you do? What should you bring?

• Fikkert (the book’s main author) doesn’t just make us feel bad for not “doing more.” He gives us practical ideas on how we can help the poor (and ideas how not to “help”).

• This book is balanced. Fikkert argues that broken systems contribute to poverty, but so do broken people. Sometimes broken systems are oppressive. Sometimes life just doesn’t give everyone the same advantages. Christians need to be concerned about ministering to the whole person, but we cannot neglect evangelism and discipleship. We should listen to others (more than we do), but truth is not a social construct. We need to show love to others, but faith only comes by hearing.

• Fikkert keeps us focused on actually helping the poor. If the goal is really to help the poor, and not just to make ourselves feel better or “accomplish” something, then good intentions are not enough. In fact, many of our passionate pleas to “show the love of Christ to the needy people in the world” end up hurting the very people we meant to help.

The book is divided into three parts, each with three chapters. Part 1: Foundational Concepts for Helping Without Hurting. Part 2: General Principles for Helping Without Hurting. Part 3: Practical Strategies for Helping Without Hurting. I’ll take a day summarizing each part of the book, starting today with Part 1.

Part 1: Foundational Concepts for Helping Without Hurting

Jesus came to earth to reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:15-20)–that’s the point of Chapter 1. Yes, Jesus died on the cross for our sins so that we can go to heaven. This is a glorious message. But this is the central part of God’s comprehensive plan for the re-creation of the entire cosmos. This means helping the hurting, caring for the needy, and working for reconciliation in the world are not sub-Christians tasks. These things matter to God as well as evangelism.

God not only cares for the poor, he has chosen to reveal his glory chiefly among those who are weak and despised. Fikkert strikes the right balance when he writes, “The claim here is not that the poor are inherently more righteous or sanctified than the rich. There is no place in the Bible that indicates that poverty is a desirable state or that material things are evil. In fact, wealth is viewed as a gift rom God. The point is simply that, for His own glory, God has chosen to reveal His kingdom in the place where the world, in all of its pride, would least expect it, among the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised” (43).

Chapter 2 tries to explain the problem of poverty. The book takes a wide-angle look at the nature and definition of poverty. Borrowing from Bryant Myers, Fikkert argues that “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” (62). Poverty exists where one of more of the four foundational relationships for each person are broken: a relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation (57). This definition of poverty looms large in the rest of the book. Honestly, I’m not totally convinced that this framework can be exegeted out of Genesis 1-3, but the point is still a good one. Certainly, these four relationships matter and if we are to truly help people we’ll want to pay attention to all four.

Fikkert makes a compelling point in this chapter that many of us miss: poor people tend to describe their condition in more psychological and social terms. That is, most of us see poverty as lack of food, money, medicine, or housing. The poor talk about their poverty in terms of shame, inferiority, fear, hopelessness, isolation, and voicelessness (53). This has profound implications for how we help the poor. “One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich–their god-complexes–and the poverty of being of the economically poor–their feelings of inferiority and shame” (65). In other words, when we march in and give the poor the stuff we think they need, we are only making them feel poorer, as they understand poverty.

From time to time our church has brought Thanksgiving baskets to the poor in our community. My family participated once. We bought some food and helped put a basket together. We called up the recipient and arranged a time to come over. We drove to another part of town, knocked on the door and delivered our expression of love. The family quickly took the basket and shut the door. Since then, I’ve thought a lot (and read some) about what we did. Now, I’m convinced that this was not a good way to help the poor. The whole operation reinforces a sense of shame. In fact, almost everyone notices that you never see the men at these houses or apartments. And it’s not because there are no men (though sometimes that’s the case). It’s because they are profoundly embarrassed to be seen when the strange family comes with smiles on their faces to deliver a turkey. And after time, those who deliver the baskets get tired. They notice that year after year the same people get the baskets. Some of the people don’t even seem very grateful. Some begin calling up the church the next year wondering where the basket is. The whole process, though very well-intentioned in your church and mine, does nothing to actually alleviate poverty. And it can do a lot to reinforce our sense of superiority and their sense of shame.

Poverty alleviation, Chapter 3 argues, does not mean making the poor all over the world into middle-class Americans (a group, Fikkert notes, characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness). The goal is not even to get the poor more money. The goal of poverty alleviation is to work to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can glorify God by working and support themselves and their families (78). Too often, church and governments have resorted to throwing money at the poor, but in most situations money is far from the biggest need. People need to see that Jesus’s death and resurrection changes everything. They–and we!–need to understand who God is, who we are, how we should relate to others, and how we should relate to creation.