When Helping Hurts

I finished reading the book “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert for the second time and wrote a little essay about the thoughts and findings I have gathered about it and my new perception of poverty alleviation.

This book has taught me so much and I really recommend it to anyone involved in ministry, especially ministry to the materially poor.

I would love for you guys to know where I stand in the fight against poverty, how I am learning the best strategies to alleviate it, and my beliefs on where I can be making a change, starting with myself.


As Christians, we are called to preach the Good News to all the world as Jesus did. His ministry of traveling and preaching wherever He went changed thousands of lives, and continues to do so as we take on the responsibility of making sure every person knows the name of the Almighty God. People need the salvation of Jesus. We are lost in this world, deprived of hope, endlessly searching to find our worth in possessions, money, and power, all because we are born needing a Savior to give us direction. The sin in this world has made economic, social, religious, and political systems corrupt and unfair, leading to people who are not only broken in their relationships with Jesus, but also materially poor.

We call this poverty, but in reality, poverty means that an individual is poor in one, several, or all 4 key relationships in their life. The relationships are with God, with Self, with Others, and with the Rest of Creation. All humans struggle with these relationships on some level, but since our culture’s definition of poverty is that a person has little to no material possessions, we look down on those who have none and see ourselves in a higher standing than them. When we decide that we want to minister “to” or “for” these so-called poverty-stricken people, we are providing an excellent example of poverty of being. Our god-complex makes us believe we have the correct knowledge and tools to “fix” the materially poor’s problems, and we end up ignoring the assets and talents they have to change their situations, which leads to poverty of community. We think we are helping, but we are really hurting our fellow human beings, systematically destroying each of their important relationships that would lead to a fuller relationship with God.

“When Helping Hurts” defines poverty alleviation as the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. If we want to help with this ministry, we must recognize our own brokenness, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation for the problems in our own lives. In addition, we must realize that since the problems from poverty go beyond the material dimension, the solutions must go beyond material as well. Ministry to the materially poor to learn about restoration together needs to be very relational – focusing on the process, not the product. The ministry should also evaluate whether the focus should be on relief, restoration, or development. We can genuinely hurt a community when we apply relief to a situation that really needs development. The process should be about empowering people with God’s nature and all that they were created to be instead of enabling them by doing everything for them or telling them our perceptions of what they should do. The point is not to be leaning on our own understanding, but depending on God to fulfill every need in a person’s life and identifying the assets that a person has to glorify Him in every aspect of their existence.

The book cautions strongly against Paternalism: Do not do things for people that they can do themselves. It is important to start any ministry by evaluating the assets of a group or community instead of their needs. Then we can ask what their opinions are on what needs there are in the community and how they can use their gifts and talents to change things for the positive. To achieve strong development, it is essential that local churches and organizations are deeply involved and have a say in any changes that are made. Their knowledge of the culture and community help with depth and insight that an unfamiliar person wouldn’t understand. Similarly, working together creates a bigger and more successful impact since we all have different gifts and abilities and can minister to a greater variety of needs when we are joined together in unity.

We must be open to different cultural traditions and ways of life. A person cannot enter into a development situation with a “blueprint” of a process that has worked in the past or in a different country or community. Humans are multi-faceted, different in many ways, and extremely unique, so the process of development must be individual as well. However, something that must accompany every situation is participation. A community must be involved with development from the very beginning so that they can grow in their identity of Christ that empowers them to be good stewards of their lives. Since this is process-based ministry, it takes time. We must not be consumed with making a product or having expectations of what success is. The Lord is sovereign, and the more we work toward healing our broken relationships with His help, the more we will see the way He views success.

In all of our efforts to help with poverty alleviation, we must recognize our own brokenness, and be willing to speak vulnerably about our own faults and the way God is healing us. We must strongly emphasize and truly believe that we are all created equal in the eyes of the Lord, and our goal should be to grow in community with other broken people and learn from the words of God together. It is essential to seek God’s will for others, not what we think is the best method to solve problems. As we follow Jesus and selflessly work to see the good God has created in people, we will start to view them as He does: His beautiful creations made in His own image, sent to earth to glorify Him in all that we do.