Helping (not Hurting!) the Poor

 I finally got around to reading through Corbett and Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts.  I typically don’t read all the new and popular books that are heavily marketed, but since this one covered a topic that is unique, I though I should get it.  I’m glad I did – with some qualifications.

First, the negatives.  I’m not too wild about the theological/biblical aspect of the book.  For example, it isn’t helpful to say that the church must preach the gospel in word and deed (cf. p. 38).  The gospel is an announcement of Christ crucified, not a deed for the church to do (Mike Horton addresses this well in The Gospel Commission).  Also, I didn’t see any distinction in this book between how the church helps the poor in its own ranks and how it helps the poor who are not Christians (cf. Gal. 6:10).  I disagree with the neo-Kuyperian aspect of the book, which shows up in phrases like these: “Christ is actively engaged in sustaining the economic, social, political, and religious systems in which humans live;” “Jesus is bringing reconciliation to…the systems that emanate from [our foundational relationships];” “One day…neighborhood associations, schools, businesses, governments, etc. will be liberated from their ‘bondage to decay;” and other such phrases (pp. 59, 77, 128).  I simply don’t think these types of teachings have solid biblical foundation; they are very ambiguous (whose version of government is being liberated, and what will liberated government look like?).  Finally, I would have liked to see more discussion of those NT verses that specifically talk about money, finances, and helping the poor in the church.  There could have been a better balance between the main teaching of Scripture and the specific details in it.

Positively, I liked every other aspect of this book. The authors are exactly right when they explain that and how our helping the poor often hurts them and us.  Most of the time our solution to poverty is to throw cash at it, which is ironically what we shouldn’t normally do!  “When North American Christians do attempt to alleviate poverty, the methods used often do considerable harm to both the materially poor and the materially non-poor” (p. 28).  I’ll come back to their excellent chapter critiquing short-term-missions later.  For now, I want to point out another solid principle they discuss: “Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves” (p. 115).

This paternalism, as Corbett and Flikkert call it, is a typical attitude of Western Christians: we have the money, spirituality, power, and know-how to help people who are lower on the social ladder than we are (they also call this a ‘god-complex’).  In other words, when we paint the house of a poor person who could have painted it himself (or at least helped paint it!), we’re really not helping the situation at all – we’re hurting it instead.  When we give someone money or a new car when they more desperately need job and financial training or basic life-skills, we’re hurting him and ourselves.  Or, from a different angle, the authors say that we usually err in our helping the poor by thinking they need relief when they actually need rehabilitation and development.  This is covered well in chapter four, which, in my opinion, is worth the price of the entire book.

In summary, while I don’t think it is as biblically solid as it could be, I do think the practical side of this book is something all church leaders and missionaries should read and discussThe book did challenge me in many ways.  Theologically, it got me thinking how one could approach this topic from more robust theological point of view – with Reformed theology in mind.  Practically, it helped me think harder about helping the poor in ways that actually help, not hurt them.

Here’s the full title and more info: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Press, 2009).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

2 Replies to “Helping (not Hurting!) the Poor”

  1. Shane–I haven’t figured out how it is you can dislike Kuyper and like Bavinck–they’re so similar; neither would support your Two-Kingdoms theology. Oh, well, we’ve discussed this before. One of these years one of our trips to Doon will coincide with one of yours and we can discuss further in person.

    Suffice it to say that I though Fikkert’s book was one of the best I’ve read in years. And it’s not just because Fikkert (the son of an OPC pastor) is a distinguished alumnus of Sheboygan County Christian High School and Dordt College, two institutions very close to my heart! I’ve been inviting some Christian leaders active in neighborhood ministries in our area to start a book club studying this book.

    And since I was a touch negative, I’ll end on a positive note–even when I disagree, yours is the best book blog I read anywhere. Keep it up!



  2. I do like Kuyper quite a bit; both Andrew and I have quoted him from time to time here. However, I think the key is to read Kuyper and Bavinck from the standpoint of Reformed scholasticism that came before them instead of the neo-calvinists (neo-kyperians) that came after them. I’m not convinced that Dutch Reformed theology in the 20th century took all the best turns (i.e. mono-covenantalism, non-reformed views of the kingdom, and so forth).

    In other words – though I didn’t plan it this way – my reading Bavinck and Kuyper only came after I read Calvin, the Creeds/Confessions, Turretin, Witsius, Brakel, Ames (etc.) so I’d argue that they are not all that neo-calvinistic but more scholastic and historically Reformed.

    Make sense? I’d use the above mentioned book as well, though I’d just substitute more historic Reformed theology (guilt/grace/gratitude) instead of his first section (creation/fall/transformation).

    We do agree that the last section of the book is great – to end positively. And, thanks for the positive comments. And one more positive: congrats to your Brewers! I’d much rather have them win it all than the Yankees. Next year watch out for KC!



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