Understanding Poverty: A Brokenness That Affects Us All

Adapted from When Helping Hurts.

Have you ever stopped to ponder the question, “What does it mean to be poor?” If poverty is rooted in the brokenness of the four key relationships, then the answer becomes clear: we are all affected by poverty.

Because of the comprehensive nature of the fall, every human being experiences a form of poverty, a lack of fulfillment in the four key relationships—with God, ourselves, others, and creation. We’re unable to be what we were created to be and miss out on the joy that God intended for these connections. We’re like “square pegs in a round hole,” not quite fitting because we were shaped for something else.

The Impact of Brokenness on Material Poverty

For some, brokenness in these four key relationships leads to material poverty. They lack sufficient resources to provide for basic physical needs for themselves and their families.

Let’s look at the story of “Mary” as an illustration. She resides in a densely packed urban settlement in western Kenya, in unstable, temporary construction. As a woman in a male-dominated society, Mary has faced polygamy, physical and verbal abuse from her husband, limited access to education, and a cultural system that devalues her. This leaves Mary with a poverty of being, making her doubt her own abilities and confidence to seek employment.

In a desperate attempt to change her situation, Mary decides to start a business but needs a loan to get it off the ground. Her poverty of community comes into play as a local loan shark takes advantage of her, demanding a staggering 300 percent interest rate on her $25 loan, further plunging her into material poverty.

Lacking a sense of her creative potential, she uses this business loan to join the ranks of charcoal sellers at the local market, even though the market is oversaturated, keeping prices low. This reflects a poverty of stewardship, as she doesn’t realize that God has given her the creativity and capacity to make different choices.

Frustrated and overwhelmed, Mary turns to a traditional healer, a manifestation of her poverty of spiritual intimacy with the triune God, who advises her to appease ancestral spirits with a costly bull sacrifice, further depleting her financial resources.

While Mary’s predicament stems from her insufficient income, it’s clear that simply giving her more money or material resources won’t heal the brokenness in her relationships.

Other Manifestations of Brokenness

Mary’s brokenness has both resulted from and contributed to her material poverty. For many around the world, however, these broken relationships manifest differently. In wealthier contexts, the struggle with workaholic tendencies reflects a poverty of stewardship and a disconnection from the rest of creation.

Some people make work their god, seeking all their meaning, purpose, and worth through productivity. This is not how humans’ relationship with creation was meant to be. While material poverty may not be the consequence for workaholics, they often suffer from strained relationships with others, stress-related physical and emotional issues, and spiritual weakness due to a lack of time for a relationship with their Creator.

Understanding the Impact of the Fall

The fall, as described in Christian theology, is not just a myth; it’s a reality that has profound implications for all of us. We are all broken, each in different ways. Poverty, in its many forms, is a consequence of this brokenness. To address poverty effectively, we must acknowledge that it’s not merely about providing money or material resources. It’s about restoring the foundational relationships that have been marred by the fall.

The question of “What does it mean to be poor?” requires more than a simple answer. We are all poor in our own way, as we grapple with the brokenness in the four key relationships in this world. Poverty is not solely about a lack of money; it encompasses a lack of intimacy with God, a lack of sensing one’s own worth, a lack of community, and a lack of stewardship over creation.

Understanding the true nature of poverty is the first step towards combating it effectively. It’s about addressing the brokenness in these foundational relationships, not just filling a financial gap. Poverty alleviation efforts must extend beyond material assistance and work toward healing the deeper wounds that affect us all.

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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