Sometimes, helping actually hurts. Many efforts to alleviate material poverty unintentionally create an unhealthy system where needy people become chronically dependent upon well-resourced providers. For the materially poor, this situation actually worsens their poverty by confirming again and again their deep sense of inferiority and shame. This “poverty of being” may lead to depression, joblessness, breakdown of family, and criminal activity. But the poor are not the only ones who suffer harm. Well-meaning efforts to help may also hurt the materially rich. If our “good deeds” become an end in themselves, rather than a means to empower others, we can slip into narcissism, which in turn, breeds divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and suicide.
In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert challenge the church to rethink how we help those in need. Poverty, they tell us, is not merely a lack of material things. “[It] 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 meanings” (62). Once we begin to see poverty in this way, we will approach all people with greater humility. Indeed, we are all poor by this definition. Therefore, we should not think that merely giving people things will automatically bring them out of poverty. Rather, efforts to help the materially poor should primarily seek to restore broken relationships.
As Christians, we have great hope to offer our neighbors. Restoring broken relationships is exactly what God has done in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus accomplished redemption: the restoration of humanity’s relationship with God. Through faith in Christ, all people may regain the “full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be, people who glorify God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation” (78).
When we begin to cultivate a new body of believers in Orangeburg, there will be many opportunities for us to get to know and serve the materially poor. Please pray that we will boast in our weaknesses, grounded in the good news of God: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).