When Helping Hurts

One of the truths that we have concluded is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good. There is a shame – a “poverty of being” – which is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, low-income people often feel they are are inferior to others. This can paralyze the poor from taking initiative and seizing opportunities to improve their situation, thereby locking them into material poverty.

The economically rich often have “god-complexes,” a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe that they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, who they view as inferior to themselves. This is contradictory to Jeremiah 10:23, “LORD, I know that people’s lives are not their own; it is not for them to direct their steps.”  Few of us are conscious of having a god-complex, which is part of the problem. We are often deceived by Satan and by our sinful natures. For example, consider this: Why do you want to help the poor? Really think about it. What truly motivates you? Do you really love poor people and want to serve them? Or do you have other motives? I confess to you that part of what has motivated me in the past to help the poor is my felt need to accomplish something worthwhile with my life, to be a person of significance, to feel like I have pursued a noble cause… to a bit like God. It makes me feel good to use my compassion to “save” poor people. And in the process, I sometimes unintentionally reduce poor people to objects that I use to fulfill my own need to accomplish something. It is a very ugly truth, and it pains me to admit it , but “when I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom 7:21).

And now we have come to a very central point:

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).

The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates, unintentionally, that we are superior and they are inferior.

In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves. And here is the clincher: this dynamic is likely to be particularly strong whenever middle to upper class, North American Christians try to help the poor, given these Christians’ tendency toward a Western, materialistically perspective of the nature of poverty.

So how do we break out of this? We need to understand our own brokenness, it requires ongoing repentance. To understand our brokenness and to embrace the message of the cross in deep and profound ways, saying to ourselves every day: “I am not OK; and your are not OK; but Jesus can fix us both.” And as we do this, God can use us to breakout of the paradigm. By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride.

Written by Pete Couper with information gathered from the book, “When Helping Hurts”


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