Taking the First Step in Poverty Alleviation
Adapted from a post originally shared on our blog in March 2020.
As followers of Jesus, when we see material poverty in the world around us, our first instinct is often to do something about it. Compassion is a good impulse and a gift from God!
But where should we start? What’s the first step in poverty alleviation?
Before we dive into any poverty alleviation work, it’s important to remember that material poverty isn’t just a lack of money or stuff. It’s typically a symptom of much deeper issues. If we want to truly help people who are materially poor, we need to address the root causes of material poverty.
So what’s the first step in poverty alleviation? We would submit to you that the first step is repentance.
Recognizing Our Own Brokenness
“Hold on,” you might be saying. “Why do I need to repent? I’m trying to help people!”
Well, the same brokenness that affects people in material poverty also affects you and me and everyone on earth this side of the garden of Eden. While the Bible calls God’s people to be particularly concerned for people who are materially poor, there is a sense in which all of us are poor, because none of us are experiencing the full flourishing of our relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation in the way that God designed us to.
Though the factors leading to material poverty are complex, many people in that situation experience their broken relationships with self as a “marred identity”—a sense of inferiority and incapacity. They often feel that they are powerless to change their circumstances.
Those who are materially better-off and seeking to serve others also have a broken relationship with self, but it looks different. They often suffer from pride and what some people have called a “god-complex.” They believe that they can use their wisdom, knowledge, and wealth to save the world.
The way that these two groups are broken makes for a bad mix! Too often, the words and actions of “helpers” communicate to people in material poverty what they’re already feeling: that they’re less than human, that they are incapacitated and inferior. As we’ve shared many times, it is easy to actually hurt the poor in the very process of trying to help them!
Christians should absolutely seek to address material poverty and serve those affected by it. But we need to adopt a more humble posture, a posture that says, “I am broken, you are broken. Those who are rich in this life are broken, and people who are materially poor are broken.” Thankfully, Jesus Christ is showing up and bringing healing to all of us!
Cultivating a Humble Posture
It can be difficult to cultivate a posture of humility in a wealthy country like the United States. Those of us who enjoy material security and wealth (even if it’s just owning our home and cars!) often have tremendous compassion for poor people in the Majority World of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But at home, our attitudes towards the materially poor often express disgust or disdain.
It’s hard for people who have seen the systems of life in America work for them to understand how people here could be materially poor. After all, there are so many opportunities for progress here, aren’t there? America is the land of opportunity! The system has worked for you and for me. Why can’t people who are materially poor make it work for themselves?
We have to repent of that attitude. For some people—yes, even here—systems don’t work well or are even oppressive. And when personal sin is the primary culprit, we must remember that we are all sinners, just in different ways.
In addition, we need to repent of the belief that we have all the knowledge, expertise, and resources to solve the problem of poverty. Because poverty is rooted in broken relationships, it is only Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all things, who can ultimately solve poverty.
Yes, Jesus uses broken people like us as part of His reconciling work, but ultimately He is the only one who can address the fundamental issues underlying material poverty. We need to root all our ministry in the story he is telling about Himself and about us.
As you think about how to help people who are materially poor in your community, here are two questions to consider:
- In what ways do you recognize your own poverty?
- In what ways might you be failing to recognize your own poverty?
Recognizing our own brokenness is just a starting point—there’s a lot more to think about! If you’d like to go deeper and discover how you can help people in material poverty without hurting them, check out our Fall Training options.