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 discuss. The 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).