You all may or may not know that the day before classes started this semester I changed my major to ethics, culture, and social witness, which is part of the religion department at Hope. As I frantically dropped all my classes and added all new ones, I basically threw together a schedule of whatever general education classes were still open and happened to realize that there was still one spot left in a class that would go toward my major. It was a political science class called Global Political Development, which didn’t sound very exciting to me, but it was all I could get into that would count for my new major, so I threw it in and hoped for the best.
I am finishing up the class this week, and I am so thankful that I took it. It has changed my perspective on the world I live in and how to live my life. I have been reading books for this class with titles like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity, and I have rethought things I have done in the past and have desired to do in the future. So many of us see needs in the neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and the world around us, and feel called, even obligated, to do something. As a Christian, I see passages in the Bible that state that I should give to the poor, serve others, and so on and so forth, and that is absolutely true. However, it is important to thoroughly consider the ways that we try to help others. It is often the case that we see needs that we think we can meet, and we organize mission trips, buy Christmas gifts for kids, build a new house or church, sponsor children, give away meals, and more. All these acts are so often done out of a true sense of Christian love and the best of intentions, but, in some cases, they hurt more than they help. Parents, especially fathers, lose a sense of identity and value as they see that someone else is providing food and toys for their kids. People living in poor neighborhoods see outsiders coming in to fix the problems that they perceive in the area, without getting to know the residents of the community, learning about their hopes and dreams and goals, and building on what their assets are. Able-bodied young men watch someone else fix their house for them, when they are perfectly capable of helping. All these things are so well-intentioned, but can cause serious erosion to the self-worth of those people who are being “helped,” and encourage a “god-complex” and cycle of looking down upon others for those who are “helping.”
The most important thing in trying to help others is realizing that those who are helping are broken too, maybe just in different ways. As Toxic Charity says, “The poor, no matter how destitute, have enormous untapped capacity; find it, be inspired by it, and build upon it.” This is not easy, and it’s far simpler and less time-consuming to just give money or attempt to provide a “quick fix,” but the really valuable thing is to build relationships, find out what people in need are really looking for, and to work alongside each other for mutual growth and benefit. I have messed this up time and time again, but as I’ve begun to think through choices I have made and continue to make, I encourage you to do the same. It is so important to help others, but it is also so important to consider all the possible consequences of doing so. The materially poor are endowed with gifts, skills, and wisdom to impact their own lives, as well as the lives of others, and it is so necessary to always keep this in mind. I truly applaud those who have an overwhelming desire to help others; what an incredible endeavor! Please research your methods of helping and prayerfully consider the best ways to do so. I still do not know the perfect ways to help others without hurting them (nor does anyone), but I am learning, and I would love to learn along with others and make positive changes in the world together. As Roger Sandberg said, may our charity be transformative, not toxic.
And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God.
– Hebrews 13:16