Poverty fighters need boldness to get at the root of endemic poverty. As Spurgeon said, “If you really long to save men’s souls, you must tell them a great deal of disagreeable truth.” And is that not the case in every worthwhile endeavor?
These days American evangelicals are taken with the idea of social justice, compassion ministries, poverty alleviation, “preaching the gospel in deed as well as word,” and Great Commandment missions. Notice I did not say “ideas” because these are all basically synonyms. And these are the big things to talk about in books and missions (or mission) periodicals. Less common are discussions of churchplanting, evangelism, and confrontations with sinful cultures.
With this as a background, I both listened to and read When Helping Hurts by Fikkert and Corbett (rev. ed. 2012 by Moody). Before having read this book, I recommended it based on its clever title, implied emphasis on personal responsibility, and general acclaim among some people I respect. And the 250+ pages of text have some worthwhile points to make. Let me start with them.
Fikkert (he was the main author of the book, page 26) does believe that people should work hard for themselves and their own wealth. He even castigates himself for about 4 pages (123-126) for inadvertently stealing from some poor Ugandans a great chance for them to show personal responsibility. He returns to this theme on a number of occasions throughout the book. As a pastor among poor people who has preached a six-sermon series on personal responsibility, I am especially glad for this emphasis. So many great doctrines and blessings of Christianity rest silently on the presupposition that every man will answer, be rewarded, and be punished for his own actions. Like the existence of God, personal responsibility is assumed from Genesis 2 until Revelation 22:12 where Christ will return with his reward in hand to give every man according as his work shall be. Of all the important notes to sound in ministering among the poor, this is certainly near the top of the list.
Short Term Mission Trips
About a decade ago, Americans spent $1.6 billion on short term mission trips (page 151). In one of the longest chapters in the book, he carefully dismantles myths about short term trips and speaks firmly to any one who might be tempted to consider this “ministry.” I myself have taken 5 short term trips from 1995-2003, yet I found his critique to be backed up with ample facts and sound reasoning.
Love for the Poor
Finally, this book comes from a compassionate desire to alleviate pain around the world. We are naturally self-centered pleasure-seekers, and that tendency is only heightened by living in the richest country in the history of the world. The OT is replete with texts about the poor and God’s love for them; Christ’s example follows the law of God perfectly by sympathizing with their plight. Elihu said to Job, “Teach me what I do not see; If I have done iniquity, I will not do it again.” In loving poor people, we need to constantly examine our hearts.
However, that was not all Fikkert and Corbett squeezed into these 12 chapters. In fact, these points were not the main emphases of the book. Since this particular book has received so much positive press—213 of 233 reviews on Amazon are 4 or 5 stars and the first four pages of the book are packed with Evangelical stars saying, “Amen”—and since I live permanently among a people group that is significantly poorer than the average American and since some of the errors are serious, then I offer a review. Maybe another book is needed in response.
In some sections, especially in the first 3 chapters, my copy is heavily marked in red. Rather than making a superficially impressive double-digit list of problems that are all very similar, I’m grouping them under three main headings. Yet even within the narrow confines of three separate concerns, it should be obvious that there is a vital relationship between each of them. They are something like individual supports for a three-legged table. Remove one, and they all fall. Or, a web whereby every strand that shakes reverberates throughout the whole.
Lord-willing, I’ll treat each of these problems in separate posts within the coming week.