We are all poor (a book review of When Helping Hurts)

Have you ever been on a mission trip? You know, the kind where a group of middle-class Americans goes to Mexico or Africa and works for a week or two, usually in very poor neighborhoods? Mission trips like these often have some kind of project the team can accomplish—building a house, digging a well, delivering clothing, food, or other resources. It’s a tangible, measurable problem we can solve in a short amount of time, and we are thrilled to be able to help.

Have you ever stopped to think about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this kind of project? I mean, we generally assume that the people we’re helping are grateful, relieved, appreciative. After all, we’ve fixed their problem! We’ve done something for them they couldn’t do themselves. Isn’t that wonderful?

The problem with poverty

Imagine it though. Imagine being on the receiving end of all that kindness. How would you feel? Really.

American mission trips tend to focus on alleviating some kind of material poverty. We are materially rich, and we assume that the rest of the world needs what we have.

But there are other kinds of poverty. And people who are materially rich are often completely unaware of their deep needs in other areas.

Role reversal

Imagine a group of Africans visiting your town for a week. The purpose of their mission trip is similar to mission trips you’ve been on, but they are focused on alleviating relational poverty rather than material poverty. They visit your home, and they’re very polite, but they decide that your TV is too loud, so they shut it off and tell you that conversation is a better use of time. You smile and go along with them, not wanting to be rude. They bring out some kind of bead game and teach it to your kids, who are intrigued enough to stay home rather than heading out to soccer practice or dance lessons. When you invite the Africans to stay for dinner, they insist on cooking for you, because they want to teach you how to eat healthier. They make a fascinating meal, but it takes four hours, and you don’t get to finish the report your boss is expecting tomorrow morning. When you put your kids to bed that night, they ask if the Africans are coming back tomorrow because they want to play the bead game again.

The Africans do come back the next morning. You have grabbed an Eggo out of the toaster and are on your way to work, but they insist on sitting down with you and your children over hot bulgur and fresh fruit. You miss your train, but the Africans believe they’ve really “made a difference” because this is the first time in years you’ve had breakfast together as a family. You can hear them praising God for the work He’s already begun in your life.

One wonderful week

Interruptions and “teachable moments” like this go on all week, and the Africans rejoice each time your family eats together or plays a game together or serves in a soup kitchen rather than turning on the TV. You never tell them that the late reports and the missed trains cost you a bonus at work that you had been counting on. You never mention that you’re intensely allergic to strawberries. You never let anyone know how much it hurts when your kids would rather be with them than with you.

Finally it’s time for the Africans to go home. They gather around your family and thank God for the way He’s opened your eyes, for the healing he’s brought to your poor, mixed-up values. They praise God for lost sheep who have returned to the fold. And you can tell they feel fulfilled and uplifted. They believe their mission trip was a success.

And, you agree, in some ways it was. They were right about relationships, and you did enjoy spending more time with your family. But you also know that you need more than a bead game and some healthy recipes to overcome your relational poverty. Come Monday morning, you’ll be back on the early train, trying to make up for lost time at work. You’ll stop at home for a power bar and a Diet Coke before rushing out to your next meeting. By the time you return again, your kids will be asleep already. A week with the Africans won’t have changed anything. They’ve shown you how poor you are, and they’ve made you feel guilty for being that poor, but you know you don’t have what it takes to keep up that kind of change long-term.

Is this what our mission trips do to the people whose material poverty we want to alleviate?

How poor are you? And how are you poor?

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book, When Helping Hurts, got me thinking about poverty. And relationships. The authors make the point that we are all poor, but in different ways. And until we recognize our own poverty, we will have limited success in alleviating anyone else’s. In fact, we’ll only end up hurting ourselves as well as the people we’re trying to help.

And I think Corbett and Fikkert’s principles apply to the cross-cultural relationships we try to develop here in America, too. We are much more likely to build real friendships when we respect other people’s cultural strengths and confess our own cultural weaknesses. When those strengths and weaknesses complement each other—when we admit we need each other—relationships grow. We need each other.

The book is a rich resource of information, exercises, and discussion questions. It’s available at www.whenhelpinghurts.org, which also offers webinars, self-study courses, and tips on getting the most out of the book.

If you want to defend the way we typically do mission trips, I dare you to read When Helping Hurts first! Then come back and leave a comment.

I’m also interested to hear from those who read the book and glean specific ideas about how blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians can enrich their relationships with each other—is it possible?

12 thoughts on “We are all poor (a book review of <em>When Helping Hurts</em>)”

  1. Thanks for another thought-provoking blog this week.

    As I read it, I thought of one of my favorite Bibles verses–“We belong to each other, and each of us needs all the others.” Romans 12:5

    Also, anyone interested in learning more about relief efforts in Haiti might want to view a segment from this week’s Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS. You can view it at


    Pierre Philippe, one of the people featured in the story, is a Christian Reformed Church pastor in the Dominican Republic. He also serves as Bible League International’s ministry director in that country, and was in Port-au-Prince less than a week after the quake, helping the Haiti director assess damages and care for injured and/or displaced staff.

    • Thanks for the comment, KR, and for the video link. I think Pierre’s last comment in the video fits perfectly with the principles in When Helping Hurts: “I’d say to all the people who want to help, they have to put their faith in the leadership that’s in Haiti. They shouldn’t go and do things for the Haitians with the idea that they can’t do anything for themselves, but to let the Haitians play a role in the reconstruction of their country.”

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on the book, Melanie. For years I gave into the belief that our week-long ventures to “help” the “poor” people across the country and around the world were really productive for everyone involved. After a couple dozen trips I couldn’t do it anymore because of the pit in my stomach. It felt like I was going to the zoo, buying some food for a quarter and throwing it into a pen only to go home excited about our trip to the zoo that day. I was taking dignity from people by telling them through my actions that I was going to provide what they needed, without ever asking what they desired or could offer. This is where the relationship is essential in any mission effort, either with your neighbor, through your church or in the majority world. In this way we become facilitators more than teachers and listeners more than talkers. We open ourselves up to our own poverty as we see ourselves through the eyes of others, and the opportunity to participate in actual restoration in our lives and the lives of those we come into contact with.

    • Wow, it sounds like you’re being pretty hard on yourself, Steve. What do the rest of you think? Does Steve need to apologize for leading mission trips? Don’t his good intentions count for anything?

  3. I hope that I can express this succinctly. Mission trips, visits to shut-ins, volunteering are “right” things to do but to answer Melanie’s question about good intentions, well…good intentions shouldn’t be the primary focus. If we are serving for the glory of the Lord we are serving because there is a need. We can’t predetermine an outcome of “warm fuzzy” feelings about the service. I don’t think Steve is being hard on himself, I think he’s feeling the weight of needs of the world. It is not normal to feel good about leaving people in poverty BUT to relieve a portion of their pain is a gift to both the giver and the receiver. When Jesus healed, he never added, “And you will live happily ever after!” He healed the earthly things while promising a perfection beyond our humanness. The Lord teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our DAILY bread”. Helping another human for Christ’s sake allows us to be part of the solution, even if we deem it to be small.
    Entering into service takes humbleness and the capacity to respect and honor the life of a stranger. Anyone recall the “Good Samaritan”? I’m sure that critical hearts scoffed at the reviled foreigner taking pity and intervening in the life of a beaten-up stranger. Did the Samaritan help out of “good intentions’?
    No, his heart was moved to service; to help with the immediate need.
    Yes, we can make errors when we are do-gooders but our life’s goal should be to serve when the Lord sends the opportunity and stop thinking about motives and outcome. When the Lord calls, pray then go!

    • Hi Jan, welcome to the conversation!

      I think Steve’s dilemma is that when he was doing mission trips, he thought he was helping people. But after reading books like When Helping Hurts, he learned he was actually hurting people. His intentions were good—he never meant to hurt people. But the results were bad—he actually made people weaker and poorer.

      Now, I’m sure God can redeem the situation and bring good out of it. But what is Steve’s responsibility as a disciple of Christ? Are his mistakes OK because he didn’t know any better? Or does he need to ask forgiveness? Is there anything he can do to make up for the harm he caused?

      Steve, I know I’m oversimplifying things, and I hope I’m not misrepresenting you or speaking out of place. Please jump in and correct as necessary! i’m guessing you are not the only one who is wrestling with this question.

      • Jan and Melanie, you both make some good points. Specifically, Jan, when you say ” we serve because there is a need”, I would tend to agree with you. It doesn’t take long to recognize the need, whether in our own homes, our own neighborhood or in a majority world country. The distinction I would make is in how we identify these needs and our propensity, especially as North Americans, to believe we have a solution.

        I have a friend who works in some of the most economically depressed regions of Africa. She tells the story of a group of young girls who work at collecting garbage on the dump outside of Nairobi. They were often raped at night by the local men and teen boys. There is millions of dollars of aid flowing into this slum, and it is surrounded by NGO’s from the west. Nothing was changing. She decided to ask one of the older girls what they wanted for their lives and she said “a safe place to sleep at night, and a garden.” So, my friend continued to ask questions about how these girls could do this for themselves with the help of a couple of adults from the same slum. They drew up their own plan, pooled their own money from garbage collecting, applied for a loan with a local organization and built their own hut. Six months later my friend came back and they had their own garden, which they were harvesting and taking to the market.

        The girls worked together, stood up for themselves, found the help of a few adults who took them under their wing, pooled their own money and were wildly successful and proud of everything they accomplished. No, it’s not a new school, or a new house or a fresh water well, but it is theirs and relationship and self-worth is being restored.

        Instead of doing for, maybe we should begin to consider how we can use the grace we have received in restored relationship to draw others into this as well, working together, living together, sharing what we have, no matter how little. As a North American, I have to become more comfortable saying “I’m sorry, I can’t help you, what do you think needs to happen?”

      • Melanie,
        I don’t even know how good my intentions were. Was I trying to please God? Or was I trying to alleviate my own guilt for having so much material wealth in the face of so much material poverty. I had convinced myself that my intentions were good, and used passages like the Good Samaritan to convince myself of this. But when reading the Good Samaritan parable I began to realize that I’m the one laying beside the road and Christ is the Samaritan. Christ is the rejected one who came to rescue us. When I begin to put myself in the place of Christ is when I develop the God complex. When I begin to see myself as the rescuer and couple that with our desire to identify need in economic terms we can quickly lose sight of the person. Did I truly want the people I “served” to be transformed by the love of Christ and my love? If I did, wouldn’t I live there, and love them and allow them to love me? Was I willing to be transformed by their relationship? Did I convey to them that they are in need and that their gifts and abilities and dignity did not matter because we are going to do this for you? I believe Christ can redeem these situations, as you say. But I also think there is a healthy amount of confession and forgiveness that has to take place on my part. I’m thankful God has revealed this poverty in myself and ask forgiveness for any harm I may have caused others in refusing to see it before.

  4. Steve,
    I fear that this is too lengthy but bear with me and understand that I get all “geeked up” when I’m talking about the Bible/Jesus. Be thankful you don’t have to listen to my voice lol.
    Matthew 5:1-16 is a wonderful section of Scripture where we read the Beatitudes BUT begin with prayer, asking God to reveal why you’re being attacked like this then go back and read Matthew chapter 4. Satan tried to turn Jesus with what I call the “What if’s…?” We are all attacked in this way in various places/times in our lives. Jesus triumphs and goes on to begin his earthly ministry by choosing four fishermen. Pardon my laughter, but what a hoot! Jesus has just gone through an exhausting, gut-wrenching 40 day nightmare, has a war of the wills with the Devil, is attended by angels and what? He walks along the Galilee and picks 4 stinky fishermen; may I add, four stinky unprepared fishermen who respond “at once”.
    Here’s what I’m getting at Steve & Melanie. I hear the cry of Steve’s heart. What are my motives, how do I fit into the larger picture, I’m so small and problems are so big, Where is God? If we were to come together to contemplate a solution to the suffering and inequity in the world we would go mad in disagreement. Our attitudes about suffering are formed by our exposure to the world around us. I do not understand why God allows suffering but if our families and our churches have an “us and them”or “we gotta fix these people” philosophy and manipulate us through guilt and pity we will not understand God’s larger plan. Satan would love to prevent us from serving by filling our minds with questions and bring us to the ultimate conclusion that God is not just and loving. Jesus chose those fishermen because they were teachable and willing to separate themselves from what was familiar. Imagine their discussions, “Fishing for MEN, what does he mean, fishing for men?” They understood the working part; physical labor, maintenance of the equipment, locating the fish but Jesus puts the mysterious workings of an Almighty God into their grasp.
    Steve, going back to the Good Samaritan, indeed we are those by the side of the road but as we recover from our injuries (because of the help of the Samaritan) we should be compelled to duplicate that act of kindness. It’s not the Karmic “paying it forward”, it’s being moved by the Holy Spirit to respond. We will make mistakes, we will have disappointment, we will be overwhelmed by the injustices we see but we must “do something”. View the crowds as Christ walked among them. Not everyone was helped, not everyone was happy, not everyone understood or supported his work or his words. He could have feed EVERYONE, healed EVERYONE but he didn’t. Again, the mystery of God. If you have done mission work with the wrong motive, confess it. Shake off the doubts that Satan is hammering you with and say, “Lord, let me serve.” If you don’t trust that you have the discernment yet, start small. Pray for an opportunity to see Jesus in the handshake you give, the hug you offer, a visit to a shut-in.
    1 Cor 13:3 – “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” NIV

  5. Steve and Jan, it sounds like, for the most part, we are in agreement! At least, here are the things I think we agree on:

    1. God calls us to live out our faith, to let our relationship with Him affect our relationships with others.

    2. Sometimes we misinterpret HOW we should live out our faith, and we do things that damage relationships.

    3. Satan tries to make the most of these opportunities.

    4. We need to keep learning, keep trying. As we grow in relationship with God, we will grow in our relationships with others.

    Does that sound right?

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