When Helping Hurts Review

Book Review: 

A homeless man on the street corner asking for money – some pass by and give him a few coins or a dollar, some do not. Recently, I have heard Christians say that we should give and leave the rest to God, to whom the homeless man is responsible in how he stewards it. What would Jesus do?

Victims of a devastating tornado, refugees who fled from a destructive hurricane, orphans in Haiti after a shattering earthquake, family members who lose their jobs and their homes, single moms who have no job skills – many times it is easier to invest in their short-term/obvious needs, but this could be harmful, and not only harmful but actually exacerbate the problem, according to Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself.

One of the biggest mistakes North American churches make is in applying relief in situations and throwing money at the visible needs when actually rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention. So why do we do it? We do it because we have a material definition of poverty. Because it’s easier, it’s not as time consuming or emotionally exhausting, and it’s easier to get people to donate to the cause of relief.

Many times we don’t see that we are causing considerable harm to all parties involved, exacerbating the problem we are trying to solve. How and when money is given is crucial. We shouldn’t just blindly jump in and help with our underlying god-complexes of superiority. There are many ways we can give that builds up both the giver and receiver, ways that empower both parties.

The major premise of the book is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good. We must embrace the cross and say, “I am not okay; you are not okay; but Jesus can fix us both.” We must repent of our health-and-wealth gospel that says economic superiority goes hand in hand with spiritual superiority.

Poverty alleviation is 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 (page 74). Our perspective should be less how to fix others and more how we can both walk together.

Corbett and Fikkert dissect the reasons for poverty, the problems with many church’s/organization’s approaches, and they provide answers. They break down the different ways to help (relief, rehabilitation, development), when to do which, why, and for how long. While this book leans toward being theoretical/academic, it is sprinkled with stories of failures and successes. Particularly interesting was the application of the principles to short-term mission trips – detailing the problems with them as well as providing solutions and alternatives.

This book forever changed how I will approach helping people – not with mindless generosity but with wisdom that keeps the end goal in mind of restoring each other to what we were created to be. I believe this book should be required reading at Bible colleges and seminaries. The principles in this book should be taught to every person who works in an organization or benevolent ministry whose goal is to help the materially poor. To be frank, I think the principles in this book should be known and embraced by every follower of Christ because I think this is what Jesus would do.

For more information, check it out at: Moody Publishers

I received a copy of this book from Moody Publishers for the purpose of this review.