A Biblical Framework for Poverty: The Four Key Relationships
Adapted from When Helping Hurts
Bryant Myers, a leading Christian development thinker, argues in Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development that in order to effectively address material poverty, we need to consider the fundamental nature of reality, starting with our triune God as the Creator of that reality. God, eternally existing as three-in-one, is inherently relational, and as beings made in His image, we too are inherently relational.
Myers, following Christian theologians across the centuries, explains that before the fall of humanity, God established four foundational relationships for each person: a relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. These relationships are the building blocks for all of life.
When they are functioning properly, human beings experience the fullness of life that God intended, because we are living as what God created us to be. In particular for our purposes, when these relationships are healthy, people are able to fulfill their callings of glorifying God through working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.
Relationship with God
Our primary relationship is with God, the wellspring from which all other relationships flow. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, our fundamental purpose is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Serving and praising our Creator through our thoughts, words, and actions not only brings us closer to Him but also nurtures a joyful and intimate connection, like that of children to their heavenly Father.
Relationship with Self
Human beings, uniquely created in the image of God, possess inherent worth and dignity. While we must recognize that we are not God, we bear the high calling of reflecting God’s being, setting us apart from the rest of creation. This understanding of our intrinsic value is pivotal to our self-perception.
Relationship with Others
God designed us to live in loving relationships with one another. We are not isolated entities; instead, we are meant to know, love, and encourage one another to use the gifts bestowed upon us by God to fulfill our individual callings.
Relationship with the Rest of Creation
In Genesis 1:28–30, we encounter the concept of the “cultural mandate.” This mandate reveals that God created us to be stewards of His creation, responsible for understanding, protecting, subduing, and managing the world. While God initially created the world as “perfect,” it remained “incomplete,” signifying that humans were called to engage with creation, transforming possibilities into realities and sustaining ourselves through responsible stewardship.
Relationships as the Foundation of Culture
These four relationships form the cornerstone of human existence. The culture that humans create—including the economic, social, political, and religious systems within which we live—emanates from our core commitments to God, self, others, and the rest of creation. For instance, historical figures like William Wilberforce, who viewed all people as bearers of God’s image, dedicated their lives to combating the enslavement and trafficking of Africans in England. Wilberforce’s actions influenced the political system to align with his fundamental commitment to love fellow humans.
Yet, culture goes beyond being merely a product of human effort. Colossians 1:16–17 reminds us that Christ is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, not just the material world. Christ’s ongoing involvement in sustaining economic, social, political, and religious systems underscores that human cultural activity unpacks a creation that Christ both created and continues to uphold and, as we will explore later, redeem.
Systems and Individuals
We also recognize that individuals shape systems, and systems, in turn, impact individuals. Our lives are substantially influenced by the organizations we work in, affecting our self-perception, relationships with colleagues, stewardship of creation, and our spiritual journey. Furthermore, in a world marked by rapid flows of information, capital, and technology, local, national, and global systems have a profound influence on the scope and nature of these organizations.
Understanding the four key relationships and their interplay with the cultural and systemic dimensions of our world is essential for addressing poverty and promoting holistic well-being. As we navigate the complexities of life, we should heed the call to foster healthy relationships with God, ourselves, others, and the world around us. In these bonds we find the path to flourishing.