Overcoming Poverty: Keys to Flourishing
A few years ago, at a restaurant near Dallas, Texas, a young cashier with Down Syndrome told a customer, “I love my job! It’s who I am!” He enjoyed greeting and seating people, balancing the register at the end of his shift, and seeing people smile as they noshed on their signature sandwiches.
This simple exclamation contains the seeds of poverty alleviation and sustainable personal and community flourishing. Our young cashier enjoyed his work and found purpose in the simple tasks he performed. He did not allow his personal challenges to rob him of the dignity of being a self-supporting member of the community and adding value to the world. His identity was not reducible to a task, but he intuitively knew that he brought his whole self to his work. He was affirmed by a business owner that joyfully employed women and men much of the world chooses not to see.
John Perkins, civil rights leader and founder of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), has quipped in interviews that “what the world needs now is Jesus and a good job.” Here we see profound anthropology and socioeconomic wisdom in one sentence. Jesus redeems the whole person. A good job represents a transformed community and economy. “Coming to Christ” includes having all of life under the Lord’s reign, including economics and work.
Seeing the Whole Picture: Presence and Purpose
Perkins isn’t just expressing a good understanding of human nature, but God’s divine design for us. Humankind was created to enjoy God’s presence and fulfill his purpose through good work. Genesis 1:26-28 presents a beautiful vision: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (NIV).
We see here that:
- We are made in God’s image
- We are given a job to do (exercise wise stewardship of creation)
- And we fulfill this mandate as men and women in community
In the next chapter, we discover God made the world in such a way that it needed human work: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15 NIV). Even the first, perfect garden required cultivation, and God placed resources in the earth for our discovery and refinement. The Lord also fashioned us to enjoy God’s presence, as God came to commune with our first parents in the cool of the day. Worship and work were designed to be a seamless tapestry of creativity and joy. Being and doing, spiritual delight, and meaningful activity are all facets of a whole life lived well under God.
With the disaster of the fall (Genesis 3), humankind now chooses pathways of idolatry (constructing our own gods), immorality (our own ethics instead of God’s ways), and injustice (oppressing others for our own gain). Our work is now laborious and often unjust. Every day we see personal and social dis-integration. This fallenness inserts itself into the lives of Christians, often leading us to live captive to an “evangelical Gnosticism” that separates the spiritual and physical, religious experiences from social engagement, truncating human wholeness.
One historical example of this is seen in every Protestant denomination in the USA dividing over the practice of slavery between the 1820s and 1850s. This not only oppressed African Americans through enslavement and Jim Crow, it led to a separation of Sunday’s ecstasies and Monday’s ethics! It is astonishing that people shouting, “Hallelujah!” at church could then tolerate the oppression of an entire group of fellow divine image-bearers. Outside of Christ, much of the world is captive to pagan-secular naturalism that reduces the human project to natural forces or economic determinism, denying human creativity, freedom, and our need for worship.
Work is an integral part of this picture.
In Becoming Whole, Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic suggest that one way to describe how God has made humans is through the image of a wheel. But the boundary of the human being is not the hub in the middle—the person’s body and soul—rather, the human being is the wheel as a whole, including both the person’s body and soul (the hub) and their foundational relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation (the spokes). Each part of a wheel impacts all the other parts and can be affected by both internal and external forces.
If one spoke is misaligned, enormous pressure will be placed on all the other spokes and on the hub itself, and they all will eventually bend or break. For example, when a person loses his job or can’t find good work, this results in far more than the loss of income, as it entails a broken relationship with creation. As the spoke connecting the hub to creation is bent or broken, additional pressure will be put onto the rest of the “wheel,” onto the person as a whole. The other spokes will weaken, as there will likely be family stress (relationship to others), a low self-image (relationship to self), and even doubts about God’s goodness and care (relationship to God). And the hub itself will be damaged, as the person may experience mental and physical health issues through long-term unemployment.1
Through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can begin to anticipate the divine destiny of restored communion with the Lord and a diverse, inclusive community working with joy (Ephesians 1:13-14). The Holy Spirit helps us bring foretastes of this future as we re-integrate worship and work, divine presence and purpose, and realize that our everyday work is the frontline in God’s mission of reconciliation (Colossians 3:17; 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2).
We now can move toward wholeness as we say no to separations of body and spirit, church and work. We now say, “Yes!” to God’s design as we find our identity in Christ’s and live out our vocations through our daily occupations. Enjoying God’s presence and fulfilling his purpose–are now inseparable dimensions of our lives. Good work is so much more than just a means to an end. It is a crucial part of how we’ve been designed to glorify God.
Forward Toward Flourishing
For hundreds of years, humankind has experienced the conflict of two extremes as we aspire to a world that is loving and just. First is hyper-individualism, where everyone is completely autonomous. This view sees poverty alleviation as a purely personal problem. The poor just need to “get it together” or “work harder.” The other extreme is collectivism, where individuals made in God’s image are reduced to members of a class or culture and robbed of their agency. People are either the oppressed or the oppressor. Under this view, flourishing can only come through massive institutional interventions and forcible transfers of assets from one group to another.
The kingdom of God celebrates individual agency, creativity, and responsibility. The poor must have a personal stake in their pathways to the abundant life promised by Jesus (John 10:10). God’s kingdom also energizes systemic transformation, offering access, equity of opportunity, and pathways of liberation. Our helping hurts when it offers temporary relief without personal agency or institutional change. When we see the whole picture, hope can fill our hearts, enliven our minds, and unleash resources heretofore hidden behind our walls of misperception.
Every testimony of a woman or man moving from despair to dignity includes personal agency, relationships that affirm and challenge, spiritual renewal, and overcoming injustices.