Book Review: When Helping Hurts


When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is a book that I’ve been hearing about in a variety of conversations.  When I was a kid, before I knew Christ, I knew the love of Christ because of an incredible gift that our family received from the Neighborhood Christian Center in Memphis.  Our family situation changed pretty drastically when my parents got divorced and we didn’t have a car.  That made it hard for my mom to find a job to take care of three small kids.  The Neighborhood Christian Center in Memphis came to our rescue thanks to a friend that made them aware of our need.  That ugly yellow station wagon continues to be an image of grace and mercy that I’ll never forget. I came to Christ several years later, but have no doubt that my first exposure to the gospel was the gift of that car that set our family on the path to recovery.

I have had the privilege over the last twenty years to travel the world for a variety of mission trips and other purposes.  My heart is not for the one-hit wonder.  The Lord has called us to invest deeply and put down roots…and to support those that labor for the long haul.  This book was an incredible journey of asking some hard questions and setting aside my own pride to truly seek out God’s best and His plan for all of this.  I definitely don’t have it all figured out, but I’m grateful that this book has set me on a path to ask more of the right questions.

I highlighted several things while reading and have posted those notes below…

  • We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth.  But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it.  There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on. p. 27
  • Colossians 1:15-20 [15] He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. [16] For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. [17] And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [18] And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. [19] For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, [20] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (ESV) p. 33
  • Converts need to be trained in a biblical worldview that understands the implications of Christ’s lordship for all of life and that seeks to answer the question: If Christ is Lord of all, how do we do farming, business, government, family, art, etc., to the glory of God?  p. 45
  • The problem goes well beyond the material dimension, so the solutions must go beyond the material as well.  p. 52
  • “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Isaiah 58:10 p. 53
  • One of the major premises of this book is that…until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good. p. 61
  • One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich—their god-complexes—and the poverty of being of the economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame.  p. 62
  • Poverty is rooted in broken relationships, so the solution to poverty is rooted in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to put all things into right relationship again.  p. 73
  • Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. p. 74
  • Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work. p. 74
  • Worldview affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldview. p. 86
  • A helpful first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development.  In fact, the failure to distinguish among these situations is one of the most common reasons that poverty-alleviation efforts often do harm.
  • “Relief” can be defined as the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis.
  • The key feature of relief is a provider-receiver dynamic in which the provider gives assistance—often material—to the receiver, who is largely incapable of helping himself at that time.
  • “Rehabilitation” begins as soon as the bleeding stops; it seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their pre crisis conditions.
  • The key feature of rehabilitation is a dynamic of working with the tsunami victims as they participate in their own recovery.
  • “Development” is a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved—both the “helpers” and the “helped”—closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.
  • The key feature in development is promoting an empowering process in which all the people involved—both the “helpers” and the “helped”—become more of what God created them to be. p. 100
  • Avoid Paternalism.  Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves. p. 109
  • Asking the question “What gifts do you have?” affirms people’s dignity and contributes to the process of overcoming their poverty of being.  And as they tell us of their gifts and abilities, we can start to see them as God does, helping us to overcome our sense of superiority, that is, our own poverty of being.  p. 120
  • Once the assets have been identified, it is appropriate to then ask the poor individual or community the questions: “What needs can you identify that must be addressed?  What problems do you see that must be solved?  How can you use your assets to address those needs and to solve those problems?” p. 121
  • The North American need for speed undermines the slow process needed for lasting and effective long-run development. p. 124
  • Participation is not just the means to an end but rather a legitimate end in its own right.  p. 136
  • “Jesus, unlike the founder of any other major faith, holds out hope for ordinary human life.  Our future is not an ethereal, impersonal form of consciousness.  We will not float through the air, but rather will eat, embrace, sing, laugh, and dance in the kingdom of God, in degrees of power, glory, and joy that we can’t at present imagine.” Tim Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 104. p. 249

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