Book Review: When Helping Hurts

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A Thoughtful Call to Action

When Helping Hurts has been lauded by many for its careful call for North American churches to spend their time and money wisely when it comes to the relief of the poor. And for good reason. If, like me, you read the title and conclude it with “When Helping Hurts . . . the Poor,” then it might be a sign that you also share some unhelpful underlying assumptions that need to be corrected. After all, thoughtless “help” can damage both poor recipients and wealthy benefactors.

Reformed churches sometimes have a reputation for being all thought and no action, all head and no hands. Perhaps, in an effort to clarify the unique mission of the church, some have swung the pendulum too far and avoided engaging their communities’ physical needs. Thankfully, Corbett and Fikkert provide a way forward.

How Did They Get There?

My quibble with this book lies not in where the authors end but in where they start. They seem to begin with the problem of global poverty and work their way back to Scripture from there. For example, they quote Isaiah 58:1-10 to persuade us that Israel was sent into captivity in large part because they neglected the global poor. And yet, the Lord’s Law for Israel throughout the Old Testament is primarily concerned about how they care for each other—and then the sojourners and foreigners among them. Similarly, 1 John 3:16-18 applies most directly to the church, not impoverished unbelievers. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, emphasis mine). In sum, the most straightforward application from these verses—the primary ones the authors use to make their argument—pertain to the material well-being of fellow Christians, not the global poor.

Put simply, there is ample Scripture to lead us to Fikkert’s conclusions. Local churches do indeed have a biblical imperative to care for the materially impoverished world. Why? Because God has seen fit to make them our neighbors. And these neighbors are made in his image. As such, they are creatures of unique dignity that should not be relegated to cesspools and slums.

But the passages he uses don’t quite get us here. I wish he’d started elsewhere.

For example, if we consider Genesis 1:27ff, we will find ample reason to care deeply for the plight of the global poor. Then, in Genesis 12, God makes clear that he cares for all nations (“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”). As we trace the Lord’s promise to Abraham through the Old Testament, we get a taste for the nature of God’s care for the impoverished and oppressed. “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him,” the Lord tells Israel in Exodus 22, “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” The Lord calls Israel to show compassion toward the sojourner, the foreigner. His decree in Leviticus 25 is even more striking: “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.” Here, the Lord emphasizes his care for the poor among his people. He assumes they are caring for foreigners, and he uses this care for the sojourner as an example of how they should care for each other. The New Testament gives us even greater clarity. Jesus summed up the entire law like this: “You shall love the Lord your God . . . and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We Can’t Justify Inaction

Let me now offer a word of caution. We should never use imprecise exegesis and application as a justification for sin. We’re all commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. Would we share the gospel with a starving child and then walk away, hoping he’ll come to faith before he withers away on the street? Our words might be beautiful, but our deeds would be wicked. We are complicit in the sin that ravages our world. We are not innocent bystanders. In the same way Jesus cared about the needs of the people around him, we ought to care for the needs of those around us.

We should spend time considering our church’s responsibility to our neighbors. Yet, if we endlessly debate while ignoring the physical and spiritual needs of those neighbors, we risk imitating the lawyer who, “seeking to justify himself,” asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He spent much energy debating his responsibility while neglecting to show his neighbor mercy. He was all thought and no action, all head and no hands.

When Helping Hurts offers us several excellent tools to assess the needs of those around us. Let’s use these tools to partner with the impoverished communities around us, commending their dignity as humans made in God’s image and laboring alongside them in a manner that commends the gospel. Let’s be all thought and all action as we seek to display God’s glory to the world.

K.B. Henry

K.B. has lived in Central Asia since 2016, where he oversees a travel company specializing in biblical tours of Asia Minor. He and his wife have three sons and are members of a small local church, where K.B. serves as an elder.

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