In this series, I’ve focused on poverty in the specific sense of material poverty, but the camera lens needs to be zoomed back before continuing any further.
Let’s check our pity at the door.
Poverty, in itself, basically means brokenness. It can be individual or corporate, and refers to the brokenness of our own hearts, our relationships, and the systems which govern many aspects of our lives.
If you have the knee-jerk reaction, “I’m also broken,” then you are on the right track. As it is, the root cause of poverty, the fall of mankind, and the entrance of sin into humanity, affects all of us. Thus, everyone has areas of poverty in their life. For example, a CEO of a fortune 500 company who has no time for friends, and who’s rise to the top came at the cost of a loving marriage is suffering from relational poverty. Additionally, a well-situated socialite who has no relationship with God may have plenty of friends and resources in the eyes of the world but, in reality, is suffering from real, spiritual poverty.
Brian Fikkert and Steven Corbett, in their seminal work on poverty alleviation, When Helping Hurts, discuss four key relationships: those with others, with oneself, with God, and with the rest of creation. Before we can address root causes and work to alleviate others’ poverty, we must recognize our own poverty. Every person has areas in their lives where they need God’s abundant grace, and all can learn from others regardless of their income.
I say this because there is a distinct danger when seeking to help others. Working among those who are materially poor, especially for ministers who also carry the Good News, carries with it a hidden, insidious temptation.
When you don’t have to worry about where your next meal comes from, and you have the opportunity to help numerous people out who do have that concern, it can begin to affect you in subtle ways. Consistently being asked for resources more than you have to ask others starts to breed a certain kind of superiority. In cross-cultural work, it can begin to look like an attitude of paternalism. Satan enters in and sells the slick lie that you know what’s best, and even more destructively, that you are closer to God because you are the lender, not the borrower.
Corbett and Fikkert refer to this the God-complex. It’s the underlying arrogance that the enemy tries to implant in the hearts of those who are materially non-poor when they seek to serve the materially poor. I have felt it far too often in the dark places of my heart. It is a form of deception and idolatry when I begin to believe I understand someone else’s situation so much better than they do, that I am the answer to their problems, that God has put me in their path to rescue them, that everything depends upon me. These mindsets creep in silently, and they are even more spiritually dangerous than material lack. Not having enough can drive someone to seek God more fervently, but what will happen to a person who thinks he is God? No one would say to a poor person, “I am God. Give me some worship,” but the way in which he conducts himself in the relationship, the respect and consideration he gives, and the way in which he portrays himself in conversations, letters, pictures, and communications to friends and supporters might serves as a clue that a God-complex is lurking.
There was a satirical social media account started some years back called White Savior Barbie. With incisive humor, it poked fun at the growing trend of “voluntourism,” that is, the trend of young people traveling to far off places—ostensibly to serve—but in reality to have an exotic experience and boost one’s image. The pages were filled with pictures of the Barbie doll posing with materially poor indigenous children, mourning how they lacked to access to finer things in life, such as manicures and on-demand media. In self-congratulatory, staged pictures, she would give them things like Starbucks lattes.
Comedy often points to truths we are too uncomfortable to address directly.
Isn’t there a little bit of that in all of us whenever we try to help the materially poor? Perhaps admitting our own weakness and brokenness is the first step toward making a difference in the lives of others.