Investing in Change: Helping that Helps
Poverty is a complex issue affecting billions of people around the world. In 2023, the World Bank estimated 3.6 billion people worldwide were living on less than $6.85 per day and over 650 million were living in extreme poverty on less than $2.15 per day 1 If God’s people want to follow the heart of our gracious and compassionate God and take seriously His commands to care for those in poverty (Ex. 23:6, 11; Lev. 19:10, 23:10, 25:35-39; Deut. 15:4-7; Gal. 2:10; James 2:1-7; etc.), we should not let staggering numbers like this pass us by.
But how we engage the issue of poverty is important. As we’ve seen, the definitions we use to understand poverty affect our approaches to addressing it. Digging deeper to wrestle with underlying causes and downstream effects of material poverty can help us find effective and sustainable ways to push against it.
Asking for Help: A Case Study
Consider the scenario of a woman coming to a church seeking help with paying an electric bill. On the surface, it seems like her primary need is a lack of material resources. The church’s deacons or benevolence team might respond, then, by providing money to cover the bill. However, what if this person is struggling with her physical or mental health in ways that are preventing her from maintaining a stable job? Or what if she has been short-changed on child-support payments from her ex-husband? Or what if she has never been taught how credit and banking systems work or how to budget effectively?
In any of these (or countless other cases), simply giving money would address the symptom, but not the root cause. In this case, the act of giving money without context or a longer term action plan might actually perpetuate her problems. Instead, building a supportive relationship and helping her develop skills or access appropriate care could lead to lasting change.
Unveiling Hidden Causes
While the symptoms of poverty may seem the same worldwide—lack of material possessions—underlying causes can be diverse and deeply hidden. Individuals in material poverty might not fully understand all the factors influencing their situation, and they might not always be ready to be completely honest about their circumstances with those seeking to help.
This complexity makes diagnosing the root causes challenging and often requires lots of listening, and testing of possible solutions. In addition, helping people overcome these issues can take years, with many ups and downs along the way.
Investing Time: The Key to Effective Change
Effectively addressing material poverty demands time and effort. Instead of simply giving handouts that might do more harm than good, we must commit to understanding each individual’s situation. This approach involves more than just financial assistance; it involves building relationships and offering support. The Bible’s wisdom comes into play here, guiding us to help those in need without inadvertently hurting them.
While the Bible isn’t a textbook on poverty alleviation, it offers valuable insights into human nature, history, culture, and the divine. The grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation provides a foundation for understanding poverty and its solutions. Remembering the goal of the story God is telling in the world can help us pursue approaches to poverty alleviation that go deeper than just material or financial solutions.
Defining and addressing poverty requires a holistic approach that goes beyond surface-level symptoms. Providing material resources alone might address symptoms, but it might not lead to meaningful change. The complexity of poverty’s underlying causes requires patience, understanding, and a commitment to building relationships. Guided by Scripture, we can lay the groundwork for successful poverty alleviation efforts that bring about lasting transformation.