I saw this book “When Helping Hurts; How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself” and just had to read it. With a dramatic title like this the book is bound to draw attention. It is screaming; “You are all doing things seriously wrong and need to change immediately or suffer serious consequences.”
My first thoughts were that the authors were very brave to write this book effectively criticising the way Christians have been operating for decades. They also must have been very confident in the “new” methods introduced as the book attempts to change not only the way Christians operate but also the way they think about giving. I would hesitate to write a book like this myself in case my efforts resulted in people giving up completely as “helping the poor” suddenly becomes too complicated! After all, people are always looking for excuses not to give and this could be the perfect reason with no guilt attached; A beggar asks you for food or money and instead of giving him the change in your hand or buying him a snack and drink whilst giving him a Gospel tract and offering a word or two from Scripture, you pause to consider chapter 11 paragraph 2 of “the book” which states that you should establish the background of and try to form a relationship with this person before giving him anything as it may make his situation worse…you walk away.....Becoming afraid of doing more harm than good and ending up paralysed in indecision was sadly the response of some readers when the book was initially published, although the newest edition addresses that and begs people to continue helping the poor.
After just a few years in the mission field, I agree with the basic principles in the book which are;
*The true hope of the Gospel is what people really need and this should always come first. (There is a good emphasis on the Gospel for transforming lives within the book)
*Money is not always the solution and in some cases can make situations worse. We should ask the people what they need before giving material gifts rather than assuming.
*Love, time, care, compassion and relationship building are foundational to helping people and must always be central whether or not material help is given
*Where possible we want to be conducting ministries that allow people to support themselves financially in the longer term so that they do not become
dependent on us removing the motivation to work
*Local church ministry to the poor is always better than foreigners sweeping in and taking over. Foreigners should work under the direction and supervision of existing local Christian ministries rather than taking the lead
Although I agreed with the basic principles I found myself irritated as I was reading the book as it reminded me of a rather lengthy police diversity textbook full of procedures, methods, charts and diagrams with this and that “experts” opinion and theories about the human mind and behaviour and how people in various different cultures view the world. There was an emphasis on building people’s self-esteem/self-confidence and talk about reconciling relationships with God, others, ourselves and the rest of creation. We are told that there is “goodness” to discover and celebrate even in a fallen world and that we are not “as bad” as we could be. The language used seems to me to be far beyond the abilities of the average Christian reader and the things described remarkably complex. I’m sure there were some good ideas and practical suggestions in there somewhere but a lot of it was lost in “management speak” and politically correct jargon about what is and isn’t “appropriate.”
When describing things we “should not do,” the examples given where things had gone wrong were often extreme e.g a group of farmers worshipping a foreign god who, when helped financially by Christians increased their giving to their god to demonstrate thankfulness, and another group who didn’t understand the order of creation that God had placed man over animals and so were allowing rats to over-run their farm destroying everything year after year even after receiving material help. I think the point the authors were making here was that when giving we also need to teach Scripture/educate people so that resources are not wasted.
Naturally when reading something like this we tend to think of our own experiences and wonder whether we have “helped” or “hurt” people in the past. I realised that the reason I could agree with the basic principles of the book is because I learned them through experience (and many mistakes) in just a few years of mission work. There were many occasions when I tried to help the solvent children( "They're Rugby Boys, Don't You Know?") in small material ways but all they really wanted was my time, attention and love. Maybe others need to learn these things in the same way through experience and mistakes.
One of the main areas of the book concerns Short Term Missions (STM’s.) This was an area where I strongly agreed with the authors especially after some of my experiences on Logos Hope. When we were sent on teams to help people practically we were often asked for money to solve problems that should have been dealt with by local churches. If we helped we might have been undermining the local church and also causing the attention to be focused on us and not on God where it belongs. On the other hand I would not discourage someone from helping a fellow believer with whom they have an established relationship although it is important to ensure that the money is used for the intended purpose.
I have never really understood STM’s, especially where a lot of money is spent to send a person/team as it seems that it is often more about the experience for the person/team taking part in the “mission” rather than the people they are going to help. These “missions” often cost a lot of money and cannot really accomplish anything due to the short duration. It is not possible to establish meaningful relationships in order to share the Gospel in a few weeks especially in a foreign culture. Literature may break the barrier here as it can be left, studied and read long after the mission is complete, but is it really necessary to send people halfway round the world to do this or could we just use local churches/believers and send them the literature for distribution? Money often seems to be wasted in the area of STM’s and I agree with the authors that they can do more harm than good. I would suggest that people wanting a “mission experience” (unless they feel called to a particular country where they could go for a longer trip to begin with) should join a team in their own country at first to avoid the huge costs associated with unnecessary foreign travel.
The main problem I had with the book is that it reminded me of the “Purpose Driven” material; where one method is used for every situation and where people began studying the “Purpose Driven” books instead of Scripture. At the end of each chapter is a study guide for small groups with questions for reflection that the authors stated was a mandatory part of the “course.” (I skipped it) They do say that they are not teaching a one size fits all approach and that there will be exceptions to every rule but that is not how the book comes across. One of the subtle messages is that you shouldn’t even attempt to help the poor unless you know exactly what you are doing and/or are an expert in the field. I would agree that if you are heading into long term work in this area you should conduct proper research in advance but I would suggest that the authors should not have included the average person dealing with an individual on the street/in their community in their blanket ban on helping people. Although praying for discernment and being led by the Spirit (through the Word) are mentioned, in my view, they are not referenced enough. I believe a better way forward is to deal with people on a case by case basis as individuals as no person’s situation is exactly the same as someone else’s.
Of course, we can all do things in a more efficient and productive way and we shouldn’t waste resources but is that really what God is concerned about? All of our resources/money belong to God anyway and I have to believe that when a person makes a decision to give for the right reasons (cheerfully and not under duress) that God will use that for His glory regardless of the circumstances. There is always a risk that some people will exploit generosity but I don’t think the methods described by the authors will necessarily combat that. They say that material/financial giving should always be “seldom, immediate and temporary” but where is this in Scripture? What the authors are really saying is that we need to check whether the people that are presenting themselves as “poor” are really poor or just lazy, but is that really our role or is it God's on Judgement Day?
The Bible uses all-encompassing words to encourage generosity in all situations without hesitation and with no qualifications or conditions. I have included some of these below, although I recognise that the authors are really seeking to address our methods of giving/help rather than the issue of whether or not we should give. There is no doubt that we should seek to be wise in our mission “giving, sending and going” for God’s glory but I would suggest that it is better to give and get it wrong than not to give at all. This book is worth reading as it will make you think.
Relevant Bible verses
1. Luke 3:10-11 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
2. Ephesians 4:27-28 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need.
3. Matthew 5:42 Give to everyone who asks you for something. Don’t turn anyone away who wants to borrow something from you.
4. Proverbs 19:17 The one who is gracious to the poor lends to the LORD, and the LORD will repay him for his good deed.
5. Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you. A large quantity, pressed together, shaken down, and running over will be put into your lap, because you’ll be evaluated by the same standard with which you evaluate others.”
6. Psalm 112:5-7 Good comes to those who lend money generously and conduct their business fairly. Such people will not be overcome by evil. Those who are righteous will be long remembered. They do not fear bad news; they confidently trust the LORD to care for them.
7. Psalm 37:26 The godly always give generous loans to others, and their children are a blessing.
8. 2 Corinthians 9:7 Each of you must give what you have decided in your heart, not with regret or under compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver. Besides, God is able to make every blessing of yours overflow for you, so that in every situation you will always have all you need for any good work.
9. Deuteronomy 15:10 Be sure to give to them without any hesitation. When you do this, the LORD your God will bless you in everything you work for and set out to do.
10. Romans 12:20-21 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
11. Proverbs 25:21 If your enemy is hungry, give him some food to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him some water to drink.
12. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 If there should be a poor man among your relatives in one of the cities of the land that the Lord your God is about to give you, don’t be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your poor relative. Instead, be sure to open your hand to him and lend him enough to lessen his need.
13. Acts 2:44-26 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity