Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Review of When Helping Hurts

Cover photo of When Helping Hurts from

It has been said, “The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions.” Good intentions are not always good enough. In attempting to help others with our good intentions, we can actually do more harm than good. This is the issue Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address in their thought provoking and challenging book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself.

We must be thoughtful and intentional in the ways that we seek to resource those who are in need. As Christians we are called to be restoration agents in the world, but we are also called into intentional and loving relationships. We are called to healthy relationships and investment in people over projects. This is not always easy, but it is essential if we are to be truly helpful, without doing more harm than good. Due to the fallen nature of humanity and the world, even the very systems through which we try to help people are fallen and broken. It is not enough that we have to navigate our own fallenness, and the fallen nature of the people we are trying to serve and help, but we must also navigate the fallenness of systems, government, infrastructure, culture and the like.

When doctors set out to do their call to serve the sick, their first rule of thumb is to “First, do no harm”. This is part of what is called the Hippocratic Corpus. As those who are called to serve others in need and to reflect the love of Christ, we too should practice, at minimum, “First, do no harm”.

There is an old proverb, which states, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” The issue of truly helping someone, as Christians are called to do, is a complex issue. We must look at problems systematically and for the long term. A short-sided view of help, relief, is not as affective as looking at long-term solutions, which address systematic breakdowns. It is important to see beyond relief and to rehabilitation and restoration. Poverty alleviation is better than mere poverty pacification.

Poverty and need is a relational and structural breakdown and is a result of sin. This sin has caused us to be fallen in our relationships with God, ourselves, others and creation. Helping people can be difficult as we navigate our own sinfulness and is further complicated through the fallen nature of creation and the fallen nature of those we serve. We should not do for others what they can do for themselves. We do not want to enable people in our helping them, nor do we want them to become dependent on our aide.

Relief is a simpler and an easier solution than the larger investment of time and resources that it takes to do rehabilitation, development and restoration. Sometimes quick relief is appropriate, but often times what is needed and what is best requires much more effort, time and resources to help those in need when providing assistance. As Christians, our call is a high calling and should be focused on people and loving our neighbors in selfless service. We must consider others and engage the community.

As Americans we can be tempted to move toward the quick fix. We can also be tempted to throw money at problems rather than time, thought and relationships. The importance of the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself cannot be overemphasized.

Any person who is interested in appropriately meeting the needs of people and impacting the community and the world for Christ should read this book. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have identified and addressed the issues that lead to helping actually hurting the people we are trying to serve. They offer valuable insights and suggestions of how to navigate the complexity of helping, how to honor God in our helping and serving, and how to truly help those in need to move toward reconciliation and restoration.


Corbett, Steve and Fikkert, Brian. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself. Moody Publishers, 2012.

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