The Five Causes of Poverty: Individual Brokenness

The Five Causes of Poverty—Part 3: Individual Brokenness

[author_box layout="inline_avatar" show_title="false"] – June 7, 2022

Adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole, 125-134.

We’ve been exploring the five causes of poverty in this series of posts, and it’s important to remember that any one of us can be impacted by all five causes—false stories, destructive practices, individual brokenness, systemic brokenness, and demonic forces. These factors are so intertwined it’s often difficult to sort them out.

Embodied Brokenness, Embodied Healing

Consider the following question that our founder Brian Fikkert included on a college test:

____(True/False) The story of change in the culture in which we live impacts our intestines.

The answer to this question is “True.” Why?

Our whole beings, including our bodies, are impacted by the cultures in which we live. As the people in a culture pursue that culture’s goals and ways of achieving those goals, they engage in practices and create systems that impact every aspect of a person (a highly integrated mind-affections-will-body relational creature), right down to the guts! 

Researchers have found that growing up in an environment of trauma, material poverty, or oppressive systems often has devastating physical and emotional consequences that can last a lifetime.1

If we want to bring healing to broken people, often much outside of them needs to be fixed. That said, some things can and must be done to directly address individual brokenness, even as we seek to address other causes of poverty that impact them.

Obviously, there are many specific factors in each person’s situation (critical material needs, access to social services, life skills training, etc.), but here are a few ways we can incorporate holistic care for individual brokenness into our poverty alleviation efforts.

Verbally Invite People to Saving Faith in Jesus Christ

Many of the benefits of Christ’s kingdom are enjoyed by both believers and unbelievers: God sends sunlight and rain to all people (Matt. 5:45), and Jesus calls His followers to extend these benefits of His kingdom to all out of a posture of love, humility, and grace (Matt. 5:43-48). This means that when injustice is perpetrated or a system is broken, Christians should work to fix it out of love for those who suffer, even if we aren’t personally affected as directly.

Ultimately, the foundation for flourishing—both in this life and the next—is being brought back into communion with God, and only the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can get us there. Jesus is the person in whom all five causes of both relational and material poverty are defeated (Col. 1:15-20). We are dependent on the Spirit to open eyes and ears, to hear our prayers, and to act. 

If we truly want to help materially poor people escape poverty, we must introduce them to the risen King. This requires us to verbally communicate the gospel to unbelievers, for faith comes through hearing the word about Christ (cf. Rom. 10:13-17, etc.), in a way that connects with them in their cultural context (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23), demonstrating that Jesus cares about their whole person. 

The gospel must be communicated in its fullness, but we must also remember that salvation brings people into a family, makes them new creatures in Christ, restores them as priest-rulers, and launches them on the path to becoming whole. This is more than a three-minute conversation. This is the good news of the kingdom, and the kingdom is big!

As an important caveat, we should not presume that all people who are materially poor are unbelievers! Indeed, the typical Christian in the twenty-first century is a woman in extreme poverty living in the Majority World.2 Poverty has multiple causes, so believing that materially poor people are necessarily unbelievers is to embrace a false health and wealth gospel.

Invite People into the Church’s Administration of the Ordinary Means of Grace.

Like all of us, believers and unbelievers who are materially poor need to encounter Jesus Christ. Not just an idea about Him, but Him! 

We all need to experience the power of His presence, holiness, and love. We need his forgiveness and grace. He is the answer to poverty. He alone can make us whole. And Christ has promised to be personally present by His Spirit in the local church as believers gather to hear and sing the word, pray, and receive the sacraments. 

Help People Access Physical and Mental Healthcare.

Just like Jesus’ redemption encompasses our whole beings (not just our disembodied souls), sin and death at work in the world since the Fall affect every aspect of our person. At least one consequence of this is that our minds, affections, wills, and bodies are not completely healthy, which can dramatically contribute to material poverty.

Sick or physically weak people understandably find it difficult to work, and a host of mental health issues can impair people’s functionality, including their ability to earn a living. And sometimes it all just snowballs: lower incomes and rising health expenditures increase the household’s physical and emotional stress, which can lead to additional health problems. In response, extremely poor people may cut back on eating to make ends meet, which further weakens them both physically and mentally. Over time, families can be caught in what economists call a poverty trap, an inescapable downward spiral: illness leads to poverty, which leads to more illness, which leads to more poverty.

Often, relatively low-cost preventative care can prevent physical and mental crises, so there is a desperate need to expand community health education and access to care. As part of our efforts to address material poverty, helping people access healthcare for their bodies and minds is essential to helping them become whole.

Walk with People as They Address Sin and Destructive Behaviors in Their Lives

Often, when people who are not materially poor see people wrestling with material poverty, individual choices and destructive behaviors jump out as obvious contributors to their situation. The full picture is almost always more complicated than that—remember there are five causes of poverty—but choices and behaviors do need to be addressed.

Poverty alleviation is about transformation—helping people move from their present condition to a better one. Some of what needs to change may be internal to the person, requiring modifications to their knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors. These internal changes can’t be forced and are best addressed through long-term, relational ministry (built on principles outlined in When Helping Hurts). Ministry programs that introduce new ideas and disciple people toward healthier behaviors should proceed patiently, taking into account all the relevant factors of someone’s situation and being present as they begin to take steps toward their own improvement.

  1. See for example Brianna Barker Casa and Amy Wrzesniewski, “How Work Shapes Well-Being,” in Susan A. David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers eds., The Oxford Handbook of Happiness (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 693–710; E. J. R. David, ed., Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups (New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, 2013).
  2. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 1-2.
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