Outside of natural disasters like hurricanes and car accidents and cancer, the real cause of poverty is sin—and even natural disasters find their roots in sin. It is that simple. All over the world, in each culture, sinful decisions have been calcified into systems of thought and behavior. These days, those systems are called worldviews. The system of thought described in Scripture is a Christian worldview and is responsible for the wealth of the world.
Notice that the sinner responsible for the poor person’s poverty may be a politician or a criminal. A poor person in the Congo may be poor because of his own sin, or maybe because of those in his government or the criminals that the government should have stopped. But what is always sure is that poverty comes from sin.
Suffering may be allowed by God as in the case of Job, but poverty is a state of lack in a world sufficiently stocked by the Creator. If sin is the most common cause of poverty, then a book on poverty alleviation should talk about the precious remedies against this poison. You won’t find much discussion of repentance, Bible study, evangelism, or the means of grace in When Helping Hurts though.
Even in the 16-page discussion of poverty, they make sure we know that worldview “transformation is often insufficient to alleviate poverty for several reasons. … Even if all humans had the correct worldview, Satan would still be on the prowl, attacking us and the rest of creation, thereby causing ‘poverty’ in many manifestations.” (83) Having our minds renewed by Scripture is insufficient because Satan will still cause poverty? Did he really mean to write that? (After all, as a good amillennialist, doesn’t he believe that Satan is bound right now?) I think he did mean to write it that way because throughout the book, he does not act as if sin causes poverty. Except for one full page (76), he does not treat evangelism, and churchplanting does not show up in the entire book. So apparently, poverty alleviation does not require new hearts or new churches; it might be nice to have some Christianity, but according to the authors, it’s not necessary.
In When Helping Hurts Fikkert and Corbett aim to help rich Americans do a better job alleviating poverty around the world. Of course, they make some good recommendations regarding short term mission trips and personal responsibility, but the main point of their book is too weak to really lift the huge weight of poverty from the shoulders of those struggling around the world. Unfortunately, the authors are more concerned with keeping the temperature of the discussion comfortable than with actually eradicating poverty.
“What is wrong with you? How can I fix you?” … Starting with such questions initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them.
But what if this is the truth? What if “they” have something terribly wrong with themselves that is trapping them in poverty? What if they desperately need to be fixed so that they can get out of the downward spiral of generational poverty?
The truth is that inferior cultures have always been conquered and ultimately helped by superior ones. In ancient times, the loser found better weapons and farming techniques from the victor. Today, American Christians may offer a superior understanding of work, time management (The discussion of time management on 152-153 makes me cringe, possibly the most naïve section in the book.), personal responsibility, planning, education, and theology.
But in order to accept these strengths, the poor person needs to recognize that his culture, his way of doing things, and his worldview are wrong. Ouch. No one likes to admit he’s wrong, but you’ve got a choice: keep your pride and your poverty, or grasp after humility and hopefully catch enough wisdom to get you out of the miserable hole of material want.
Of course, poverty alleviation also includes changing the government as well as cultural values of the whole community. But each person must take responsibility at the very least for himself and his family. And yes, that’s a Western idea that we have been borrowing from Moses, Jesus, and Paul for many generations. There was a time when America was poor too.
Why did I call this set of reviews, When hurting helps? Because as Spurgeon told us at the beginning, “If you really long to save men’s souls, you must tell them a great deal of disagreeable truth.” He also said, “Why carry your head so high that it must needs be cut off?” Truly helping the poor means telling them the painful truth, that their religious beliefs are terribly wrong. And these beliefs bear the greatest responsibility for the iron shackles of poverty that they and we so desperately want to break. The poor are released most entirely from their fetters by preaching, evangelism, and churchplanting just like the book of Acts says. All other efforts are nice add ons, like repainting a car with no engine.
Now why couldn’t Fikkert and Corbett have given us 250 pages of painful, healing truths like that? Maybe they think we can’t take it, or maybe they couldn’t take it.