When Helping Hurts


Dr. Brian Fickkert, author of  When Healing Hurts, How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself, discusses with Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee, Editor-in-Chief of  The War Cry, what it takes to overcome the marred identity endemic to poverty. You can access more articles and information at www.thewarcry.org.



War Cry: Describe the plight of the poor in the developing world.

Dr. Brian Fickkert: About 2.4 billion people live on less than $2 a day, approximately 1.1 million live on less than a dollar a day. That $2 a day level represents about 40% of the world’s population. So often the measures that are used are physical measures, such as health, infant mortality or life span. But when you ask a people characterized by these statistics “What is it like to be poor?” they respond from their perspective as whole people.  While they often describe their physical plight, they often talk in psychological, social and spiritual terms about their conditions. They feel ashamed, less than human, no hope, without any voice, unable to affect change or society. They feel disconnected or even condemned by the gods. They describe poverty in more holistic terms than those of us in the West. We come from a very materialist framework. We focus on material issues when the issues are actually far more holistic and multifaceted.

WC: Do the poor in the United States feel the same as people in other countries?

BF: If you ask poor people in America, they are more likely to talk about psychological and social factors. The materially poor here in the United States are always rich in a purely economic sense compared to the rest of the world. They talk about a sense of a loss of purpose, of meaning, of hope, a feeling that they are not truly part of society.

WC: Explain how poverty is the result of relationships that don’t work.

BF: The first step in trying to alleviate poverty is to properly diagnose the underlying condition. Often approaches to helping the poor have focused on symptoms rather than underlying causes. A person who is dressed poorly or who appears to be hungry or sick, lacking shelter—those are symptoms of something far deeper. Trying to figure out what that is pushes us into a question of what is a human being? How has God designed human beings? What has He designed us for? The Bible teaches that the essence of a human being is that we are made in the image of God. Theologians have debated exactly what it means because there is no verse that says what “made in the image of God” means. But we know that human beings are wired for relationship. God Himself is a relational being.

There are four key relationships in Scripture. ­­­Our primary relationship is with God Himself. We are wired for communion with God. Our second relationship is with ourselves through our self-image, self-concept. The Bible says that we reflect our Creator. The third relationship is a relationship to others. We are to love others as much as we love ourselves. There ought to be a sense of community. Finally, we are to have a relationship to the rest of creation. Humans are called as stewards of creation, to take care of it, protecting and preserving it, but also developing it through our work. There is a kind of rhythm established in Genesis 1 of humans working, resulting in  our being able to eat and support ourselves. Human beings are wired to experience these four relationships in the way that God intended. When we experience them the way God designed them, we experience what it really means to reflect the image of God. But the Fall happened and it has distorted all four of those relationships. Our actions and the cultures and societies we create don’t function the way they are supposed to. Poverty is rooted in the fundamental broken nature of human beings.

WC: Define predatory gratification.

BF: As we describe materially poor communities, as outsiders we tend to be judgmental and forget the oppressive systems that lock people into poverty. But one of the things that we see in inner city communities in the United States is predator/ prey mentality. People sometimes feel they are allowed to attack the weak. If the weak have property or try to get ahead, often predators will come and try to take advantage. My church had a Christmas celebration for some inner city children living around our church. At the end of it we saw some kids smashing their toys against the walls. We asked, “What are you doing?” They said, “If you have something someone will come and take it. We smash our toys before someone can take them away from us.” The strong take advantage of the weak. When people live in that setting, it is difficult for them to invest in the future. Someone will take that future away.

WC: Why is tough love important when we are helping people?

BF: What we want is restoration of relationship to God, self, others and the rest of the creation. That is what God is doing in His creation. Sometimes due to the Fall people engage in behaviors that are inconsistent with this process of restoration. Sometimes what we need to do is allow people to experience some of the consequences of their own sin in order for them to see what that leads to.

Salvation Army personnel join with residents in Pisco Pueblo, Peru to construct modular homes so families could move back to their own property and way of life after an earthquake left them homeless.

Salvation Army personnel join with residents in Pisco Pueblo, Peru to construct modular homes so families could move back to their own property and way of life after an earthquake left them homeless.

At times we get in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work by debiting the pain. For example, if every time a child does the wrong thing and Mom and Dad rush in, fix the problem and take away the pain, then the child doesn’t learn to change the behavior. Sometimes the best way to love people is for them to experience the consequences of their decisions. The Bible clearly commands that we are to work. If a person is not willing to work then the Bible says they shouldn’t eat. If we are providing all sorts of handouts to people who are not willing to work we are enabling them to persist in what isn’t good for them.

WC: What is asset based community development?

BF: So often when we start working with a low income individual or low income community, we rush in and try to find out what their needs are. That seems reasonable. One of the primary dynamics we are trying to overcome is a marred identity, which many poor people have. By marred identity I mean that broken relationship with self that many materially poor people are experiencing so they are left with a sense of inferiority, that they can’t actually affect change in the world around them. We approach people that have a sense of incapacity as we at the same time are aware of our own of brokenness. In “helping” others we miss that we struggle with pride, with feeling we have been anointed by God to save other people. When people who are prideful interact with people who feel shame, it is a really bad combination. We take over and through our actions and our words we communicate, “You are really helpless and you need me to fix you.” A need-based approach exacerbates that problem because it basically says, “What is wrong with you? How can I fix you?”

An asset based approach starts off with what is right. It says to the low-income individuals or community, “What gifts and abilities has God given to you? What resources do you have?” It walks that person or community through a process of listing their gifts. Gifts can be spiritual, social, physical. They can be associations or businesses in a community, the gift of family, or personal gifts. After getting people to understand what those gifts are you then ask, “What are your dreams? How can you use these gifts to achieve the dreams?” Eventually you ask what the obstacles are, what will prevent you from achieving your goals with your own assets. Those are things you might want to provide from the outside, the needs that need to be addressed. Whatever you are providing from the outside should not undermine their use of their own gifts.

WC: What role does repentance play for both the receiver and the giver?

WC-2BF: Most think the poor need to come and repent of all kinds of sins and behaviors, such as alcoholism or destructive behaviors. The poor need to repent as part of their own process of healing and restoration. But what is surprising is that those who are materially better off also need to repent. There are two sins that are deadly to our work with the poor. The first one is to have pride and superiority. We often think that we are kind of self-made, that we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We have a sense of accomplishment, that we are not as bad as others. That pride is particularly harmful as we work with the materially poor. They have a sense of shame. When people with a sense of pride mix with people who have a sense of shame, it’s a bad combination. We speak down to them, take over, try to control, confirming in them what they already feel. The other is materialism, not just things like televisions and DVD players. It is something a bit broader than that. It is understanding the world in a naturalistic way, seeing the world as a big machine. It is to not believe that spiritual forces do intervene in the world. All this leads to approaches to the poor by looking for material, natural solutions for things. If we dig this well or if we make this vaccine available, build a house for somebody or give them money,we have solved the problem. But the Bible speaks of human beings and indeed the entire universe as having a spiritual component. In fact in Colossians 1 Paul describes Jesus Christ as the Creator and Sustainer and Reconciler of the entire universe. He is touching it, He is holding it in the palm of His hand and He is doing something to it. The biblical model is that human beings and the cosmos as a whole are open to Him. We are spiritual in nature. That changes everything. It changes how we view our everyday life. Suddenly prayer is essential, praying to God, believing He is actually doing something. It changes how we work with the poor. It is not just about stuff. It is about a spirituality and relationship. It is a different understanding of how the world works.


With more than 225,000 copies sold, When Helping Hurts, co–authored by Dr. Brian Fikkert, is a contemporary classic on the subject of poverty alleviation and ministry to those in need. It provides proven strategies that challenge Christians to help the poor empower themselves.

Dr. Fikkert is founder and executive director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, a research and training center helping churches and missionaries declare the kingdom of God by bringing economic development and spiritual transformation to the poor (www.chalmers.org). He also serves as a Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College and has been a consultant to the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the United States Agency for International Development.