When Helping Hurts

Sometimes, helping actually hurts. Many efforts to alleviate material poverty unintentionally create an unhealthy system where needy people become chronically dependent upon well-resourced providers. For the materially poor, this situation actually worsens their poverty by confirming again and again their deep sense of inferiority and shame. This “poverty of being” may lead to depression, joblessness, breakdown of family, and criminal activity. But the poor are not the only ones who suffer harm. Well-meaning efforts to help may also hurt the materially rich. If our “good deeds” become an end in themselves, rather than a means to empower others, we can slip into narcissism, which in turn, breeds divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and suicide.

5153rk8u36LIn their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert challenge the church to rethink how we help those in need. Poverty, they tell us, is not merely a lack of material things. “[It] is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings” (62). Once we begin to see poverty in this way, we will approach all people with greater humility. Indeed, we are all poor by this definition. Therefore, we should not think that merely giving people things will automatically bring them out of poverty. Rather, efforts to help the materially poor should primarily seek to restore broken relationships.

As Christians, we have great hope to offer our neighbors. Restoring broken relationships is exactly what God has done in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus accomplished redemption: the restoration of humanity’s relationship with God. Through faith in Christ, all people may regain the “full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be, people who glorify God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation” (78).

When we begin to cultivate a new body of believers in Orangeburg, there will be many opportunities for us to get to know and serve the materially poor. Please pray that we will boast in our weaknesses, grounded in the good news of God: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

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5 thoughts on “When Helping Hurts

  1. Agent X says:

    I am a street prophet among the homeless in Lubbock, Texas. I read that book a few years ago. Then I heard about a program called HOUSING FIRST. If you have not heard about it, check it out. It is having a HUGE impact on poverty in the USA. And it totally blows the whole premise of When Helping Hurts out of the water. It does not even bother with causes of poverty, but it is both saving communities tons of money and turning around the lives of many of the homeless it serves.

    You know, Jesus said, Give to all who ask… (Luke 6:30).

    He told at least one rich guy to sell all he owned, GIVE IT TO THE POOR, count his riches in heaven, and come follow…. (Mark 10:21).

    For that matter, let Proverbs 31:6-7 jack with your world-view!

    You can’t actually trust every “Christian” best seller, but you can trust the word of God!

    I hope you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear…

    • jpsibley says:

      Thanks for commenting. I think you raise some good points. Our philosophy of ministry should never keep us from living out the kingdom with grace and liberality. That is a potential danger with this book. However, the authors never tell us to stop being generous or to stop giving to the poor. They simply suggest more godly and wise ways to do so.

      I can see how some may come away from reading it paralyzed… “If I help someone it’s really going to hurt them… So I just won’t try to help anyone.” This would be a mis-reading of the book and disobedience to God. The selfish human heart can use even a good idea and twist it into a rationale for sin.

      I don’t know you or your angle. I’m assuming you’re not trolling the internet. 🙂 Perhaps you would agree that God calls us to BOTH give sacrificially and be good stewards of the resources he’s entrusted to us.

      I would like to briefly respond to your Scripture quotations:

      Luke 6:30 – Jesus is giving a number of examples here of the upside-down nature of his kingdom. He’s speaking to unbelievers who are trusting in their riches (i.e. “you have received your consolation…”). His point is not that you should always be giving away everything God has entrusted to you. (There are plenty of examples of wealthy believers in the Bible.) But, we are free in Christ to give generously as we see fit (Acts 5:4). Jesus’ point (which he makes explicit elsewhere) is that we should not “lay up treasure” for ourselves, but be “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

      Mark 10:21 – Yes, sometimes Jesus will call us to give it all away. But to apply that command to everyone equally is too simplistic. (That would be like suggesting that Jesus’ words to Samaritan woman ‘Go and get your husband’ are intended for everyone.) Jesus is dealing with an individual and his prescription is for the man in front of him. Every believer (rich or poor) is called to “give it all away” in a thousand ways every day. Don’t miss the main message. The rich young man was rich in himself. That was his problem. God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps 50) and calls us to manage our “talents” for his kingdom and glory (Mt 25). If Jesus were to ask me to literally give away all my possessions, I pray that I would trust and obey.

      Proverbs 31:6-7 – The wisdom here is for the King to spend his wealth not on getting drunk but on serving and helping the poor. He is instructed to avoid getting drunk with the vast stores of wine and strong drink he undoubtedly has (v. 4). Instead, he is encouraged to open the winery for those who can’t afford it. Bring them into the banquet hall and have a party. This is actually a great verse to support the ideas behind When Helping Hurts. How many non-profit directors open their homes and lives to the poor? He’s NOT saying drop off a keg of bud light at the homeless shelter. He’s saying invite the guys on the corner into your home and into your fridge.

      Lastly, I appreciate your caution against “trusting” Christian best sellers. I wholeheartedly agree. Every spirit must be tested according to Scripture. God bless your efforts to live out and spread the gospel. Say a prayer for The Orangeburg Project. Leaning on Jesus, JP

  2. Agent X says:


    Thank you for responding! But especially… Thank you for responding with Scripture and care! I appreciate you taking me seriously. And I take your response seriously as well. In the wake of N.T. Wright, let me say that I am quite certain that some of the stuff I believe is mistaken; I just don’t know which bits. It is possible that you could enlighten me, and I don’t want to miss out on it – if you can.

    Your response is lengthy and addresses mine point for point respectfully. You seasoned your thoughts with the opening acknowledgment that I “raise some good points,” and that the book does in fact present “potential dangers.” You acknowledge that it is possible for some to be ‘paralyzed’ in regard to giving after reading the book, but you say that would be a mis-reading of the book. And with that out of the way you move into your “however” statement and rebut pretty much everything I offered. It is clear that you disagree with me.

    It seems that the part where you and I have agreement is all rather hypothetical. The meat and potatoes of the book (and our understanding of various Bible passages) have us in disagreement. I don’t usually argue Bible with people, largely because most don’t have an informed opinion and/or don’t want to engage at that level. You, however, do, and that gets my respect.

    I am mindful that it is possible that you and I will not ever see these passages the same, but since you are a Christian man making, what I believe to be, a good-faith effort to address my comment biblically, I will continue to show you respect whether you win me to your view or not.

    That said, I pretty much don’t see the things you say here – the way you see them.

    I don’t know what you mean by “my angle” really, but you assumed wrong about me trolling the internet. That is exactly what I did when I found you. As for agreeing that God calls us to be BOTH giving and steward-mindful, of course I can agree with such a broad statement.

    It’s the details that make a statement like that a challenge to agree with. I have a lot of experience with that book. I have worked with other ministers/organizations who championed that book, and in my view their giving became “paralyzed,” to use your word. After reading it, they stopped giving altogether. One of these organizations had a long history of keeping homeless people through the night during bad weather, but after reading the book, they closed the doors! Another ministry used to provide food, clothes, and various financial assistance services. After reading the book, they shut it all down for six months and revamped it as a store, and now sell their charity at reduced prices. And after years of this change, I have yet to see a significant change in the people they help, except that maybe they go elsewhere now.

    Of course you can, since you are not here to know the details on the ground, presume that they mis-read the book or mis-applied its teachings (or that I misrepresent them). But I read the book too, and I think they followed it rather closely. (And I am no liar.)

    Also, as I troll the internet and encounter others talking about the book, in more than one case I have found ministers claiming that they in fact deny giving to people they purposefully reach out to help. And this flies in the face of Jesus’s words in Luke 6:30.

    Now, in your rebuttal, you said, Jesus’s “point is not that you should always give away everything God has entrusted to you” and went on to note biblical examples of wealthy believers. The problem with this rebuttal is that it does not answer my concern. I never said we should sell everything we own and give it all away indiscriminately every time someone asks for something. There is a country mile difference between that verse and that meaning. And all the examples of upside-down-nature-of-the-kingdom stuff you said, does not change the fact that Jesus said to “Give to all who ask.”

    As far as I can tell, you give what you have to give. No more, no less. Sometimes, that is money. Sometimes it is time. Sometimes it is a listening ear. And everytime, it is prayer, though the passage makes no demand about that. However, I sense that your rebuttal conflates the Mark 10 passage I pointed out as well, and I am not suggesting that Luke 6:30 is making a shot-gun blast application out of Mark 10:21 at all.

    I am merely pointing out that Jesus very directly tells us to “Give to all who ask.” When Helping Hurts ignores exactly that. And if you think the book doesn’t, well I disagree, and anyway, too many readers of that book have overlooked Luke 6:30 in their effort to “not hurt” people.

    I would think that if hurting people with my giving were a concern for Jesus, he would have taken a moment to explicate that caveat right there. However he does not. Not at all. Absolutely silent on the matter. And there is no limit to the giving – either minimal or maximum – except that it must be done. I challenge the WHH book and subsequent implementation to account for this command.

    Now. As for Mark 10:21. You rebutted that we should not “apply that command to everyone equally” as it is “too simplistic.” To be honest, I don’t have an issue with the simplicity of it. But neither do I think we should apply that command to everyone equally. In my initial comment, I phrased my observation saying that Jesus made his command there to “at least one guy.”

    This actually is just a side not, but I would like to ask, “Who does that passage apply to, and how exactly?” At best it is set forth as some kind of example. The command is not actually to you or me. It raises the question why is it there then? What does it do? How do I apply that to my life without running out and doing likewise?

    I have met people who followed that command for themselves. It actually does happen sometimes. I am not convinced that Jesus came and audibly told these people to do it, but they felt compelled some way or another. Your rebuttal makes me wonder how you think you might be “literally ask[ed]… to… give away all your possessions?” I cannot imagine it. Nevertheless, surely that passage applies to someone sometime somewhere – even if only that one guy on that one day.

    I never made the argument that we should all sell everything we own, and give it to the poor. But if you read WHH and determine that God does not want you to hurt people with your giving, and then you read the passage in Mark 10, those two ideas don’t jive. And I will stand on the giving side of the issue with Jesus rather than the worry that such giving might hurt someone.

    Think about this: If Jesus was concerned that your giving might hurt someone, then why would he tell a rich guy who OWNED MUCH property, to sell it ALL and GIVE IT ALL to those people? That would hurt them! And giving it all away like that almost certainly hurt himself (the rich guy) thus violating the subtitle of the book! Ouch! Jesus just does not seem to care that people might be harmed by our giving! He shows NO CONCERN about it.

    Meanwhile, we have a “Christian” best seller out there warning us of this “danger,” instigating the all out stoppage of several benevolent ministries as they revamp trying not to hurt people. The concern is not even biblical. But the giving is! Hmmm…

    In fact, the only time Jesus ever cautions you to be careful when you give, as far as I know, is in Matthew 6:3 where he tells us to do it in secret! That is his only caveat about giving that I know of. Perhaps you can show me something I missed? Meanwhile we have a whole Christian best seller concocting a worry that we might hurt people with our giving????

    Then for that strange passage from Proverbs. I am pretty mystified by most of what you had to say about it. I will look into it further – sincerely. But whatever else, the Word of God there says to give booze to the suffering and dying.

    Now… This gives me concern. This sounds like the best case for When Helping Hurts ever except that it is exactly backward. God’s word is telling me to do the very thing I am afraid a bum will do with my $5 if I give it to him.

    Again, I make no case that giving booze to the homeless is a “go to” ideal. I would be very conservative in my application to this passage, but I cannot deny that it is the Word of God. And kind of like that rich man in Mark 10, perhaps it is not a one-size fits all command. But how do you know when to implement it and when not to?

    Well, that is a question that is important but goes too far afield from my point. My point is that the very concern that drives someone to pick up a book like WHH and apply it is their fear that the bums will use the gift to buy booze. But if God’s Word actually tells us to do that very thing – even if in some very rare and particular instances, it is enough to pull the rug out from under the whole WHH philosophy and program.

    I never suggested dropping a keg off at the shelter. I merely refute the premise of the WHH book. Beyond that, I caution against hiding selfish ambitions and/or politics behind doctrines of Stewardship. I am not accusing you, but I do caution against it. It is easy to take that line and run with it where it does not go. After all, IF the rich man that Jesus commanded to sell all, give all, seek heaven, and follow HAD OBEYED him, surely that would be being a good steward – at the very least not being a bad one. Jesus would not ask us to be bad stewards, I don’t think, but if that command includes good stewardship, then it changes our common idea of what good stewardship is.

    Now, with my rebuttal of your rebuttal, I will give you the last word. I really doubt that I have persuaded you. But I thank you for a respectful exchange. I will look at your previous response, and if you see fit, your next one. If you can persuade me with a last word, I will let you know. However, I have no desire to bog down in endless arguing. It is enough for me to challenge and make you think, if you will. And I believe you have and are.

    I trust we have Christian civility between us. And I bless your endeavors to serve our Master the best you know how. May he be gracious with us both.

    • Katherine Fallon says:

      AgentX, I think in an effort to do well to others, many have fallen on either extreme in thinking “I can never give” or “I must always give with no questions asked.” The question is…what will truly help this person in front of you? And that means the approach will probably be different for each person.

      How do you know what to do with each person? You pray. You ask for discernment. See who God leads you to and pour into that person. If you feel convicted to, keep dollar bills on you to give to people if there’s no opportunity to talk with properly.

      I live in the hills of Brazil among the desperately poor as a missionary. The Lord is working on my heart still, but one thing I’ve learned is that not everybody needs the same thing. And people sometimes don’t actually know what they need. Sometimes God has led me to pay a bill. Other times I’m led to not give as all – I trust God knows why. Maybe there is a son/daughter who should be giving per God’s command and God is working on them. Other times the need is actually a listening ear. And other times they need to be introduced to a community of churches so the burden can be spread among the body of Christ. Sometimes I believe God is seeking a relationship with the person and their need is a chance for them to finally turn to Him.

      Paul, the same man who eagerly desired to remember the poor, commanded that the families of some widows take care of their own instead of the church and those who refused to work should not eat. To make those decisions, the church would have to put effort into knowing not only the people, but their families and situation as well.

      It can be, in my opinion, much harder to dig into a person’s life and pray over what they truly need vs handing out money. That takes patience and a heart for the person. And the book is correct that many times chronically needy people have a pattern of sabotaging relationships.

      And I’m by no means an expert. I myself struggle with resentment towards the chronically needy who wallow in self pity. That’s my flesh. I admit atm I inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) groan when a person chronically sends me “My life is so terrible I’m so depressed woe is me my bills are due sad face sad face sad face” messages. But that isn’t the heart of God, and not how I’d want to be treated if I were struggling in the pit of self-pity. God is working on me to understand how to truly love them with the heart and mind of Christ. If we ask God for wisdom on how to do it, God will respond!

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