When Helping Hurts

One thing I deal with most on a week to week basis is people asking for help, usually financial. My natural response is to help them (as long as there are funds to do so) but each time I feel as if there is something missing. I try to share the gospel with them, but in a town like ours they have heard it all before and just want to get on with it and get the help they need. But still the question remains, is this the best way to help them? It certainly is the easiest. But is it helping them in the long run?

In steps When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Here they provide the short answer to my question, ‘no!’ Truly helping those in need is not simple nor easy nor clean. So, the long answer to my question is deeper and more complex, but in the end leads to true and lasting aid.

Here are the four things I found most helpful:

First, this is a book I can trust. Too much of what goes around the world as ‘Christian aid’ is simply social gospel, that is, all aid and no gospel. Fortunately, we can trust the theology of Corbett and Fikkert and be assured they are putting the gospel first. They are confident in the gospel to transform lives and realize that any attempt to help those in need without addressing the greatest need will fall way short.

This also adds humility to their approach because they realize that a) rich, white, Americans do not have all the answers, and b) God must do the work of truly transforming hearts.

Secondly, the authors provide four relationships that are key to every human functioning as they were created to: relationship with God, relationship with self, relationship with others, and relationship with the rest of creation. Each of these relationships is essential for human flourishing. If we leave one or more out in our attempts to alleviate poverty, we may do more harm than good.

Thirdly, Corbett and Fikkert share that it is always necessary to ascertain what kind of aid is necessary in any given situation. In urgent and disaster situations, relief is required to “reduce immediate suffering.” Once the bleeding has stopped, rehabilitation is what is needed. Here, the goal is “to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions.” Finally, and what is needed in most cases, is development. This “is a process of ongoing change” that leads people to have a right relationship in the four areas mentioned above.

These descriptions are simple yet helpful. Further, what is usually needed in most North American situations is development and not relief or rehabilitation. This was especially helpful to me as I found myself responding to most requests as if it were a relief situation when really what was needed was an investment of time for the sake of development.

Finally, the third section of this book deals with practical strategies and one whole chapter is devoted to short-term mission trips. Personally, I had never thought through all of the implications (good and bad) of short-term missions and just assumed that they were good for helping people who go on them to be more passionate about missions. That may or may not be true but regardless, there are many pitfalls to avoid and this book gives some great insight. In short, short-term mission trips can be productive and helpful but much planning and training must be done before, during, and after.

                [For further reflection on the benefit of short-term mission trips, check out this series]


Above all, this book was very helpful and will be one I turn to often as I develop strategies for helping those in need both at home and abroad.

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