The Four Types of Poverty

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself is a new book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert that argues that there are four primary relationships that have been broken by the fall: our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others, and our relationship with the rest of creation.

Another way to look at this is that these are four different types of poverty. All four of these types of poverty are part of the effects of the fall, and in Christ all four of these types of poverty are being reconciled back to their original place in the created order.

  1. Poverty of Spiritual Intimacy. This is the most profoundly and utterly devastating effect of the fall, because it severs us from God himself. Human beings are now profoundly estranged from the very source of all life. Conservative, evangelical Christians are chiefly concerned with this sort of poverty. This is, indeed, the pinnacle of the work of Christ on the cross, because Jesus died for people, first and foremost. Believers in Christ will respond in love and faith to this reconciled relationship through prayer, studying God’s word, evangelism, and fellowship with other believers.
  2. Poverty of Being. This sort of poverty affects how we view and understand ourselves. Romans 12:3 teaches one “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” The fall corrupts our capacity for accurate self-assessment, leading to either God-complexes (thinking too highly of ourselves) or self-loathing (denying the image of God in each of us).
  3. Poverty of Community. We are ultimately self-serving people which comes at the expense of the greater good and other people. This leads to exploitation, abuse, discrimination, and so forth. We see this in scripture at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), where humanity’s one great attempt at world unity was a grand plot to overthrow God Himself. We experience deep divisions of community through racism, classism, intellectual elitism, agism, and social Darwinism (only the strong shall survive).
  4. Poverty of Stewardship. God gave humanity a stewardship over creation, calling us to cultivate the earth and bring forth its fruit through joyful labor. The fall screwed all that up and now the earth fights back and doesn’t want to be subdued. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and droughts cause devastation and kill people. Human beings resist our mandate to subdue the earth and either become workaholics or lazy. Instead of caring for the earth we waste its resources. Many people have lost a sense of purpose in their lives because they don’t realize that they were created to subdue.

In short, “poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings (p. 62).” The job of the church is to work to restore shalom to the earth, reaching its apex in personal conversion, but not limited to that.

Corbett and Fikkert argue that we all experience multiple types of poverty and different degrees of poverty. “Every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship.” But many poverty alleviation efforts reduce the notion of poverty to the material realm, and then only use one possible tool of poverty alleviation, monetary relief.

This is particularly useful for me, because I frequently encounter people who are asking for money on the street, or pull up in my car beside people  on the exit ramp holding signs.

The problem, according to Corbett and Fikkert, is that if we don’t see poverty in all of its forms, we make the problems worse through our relief efforts. For example, when a middle class person gives away free money to a homeless person, s/he feels superior which contributes to his God complex. The middle class person’s poverty of being is worsened through their attempts to help.

The homeless person experiences shame or self loathing or inferiority, and having to beg for free money from others further complicates his own poverty of being. And the homeless person’s poverty of stewardship locks him into a mindset that he has no responsibility as an image bearer of God to work and provide. Both people’s poverties of being were made worse by the transaction.

The authors urge a broader understanding of poverty that encompasses the whole person and not just his amount of material possessions or income earning potential. Poverty of stewardship could cause one person to be homeless and refuse to work, and cause another person to be a workaholic and greedily oppress others.

As a result of this, poverty alleviation is best not handled by handouts. But this does not get anyone off the hook, but rather calls us to something much deeper. It calls us to relationships. I could toss a couple of quarters into the homeless dude’s cup and feel great, but harm us both in the process. That costs me practically nothing. But building a relationship with a person is much more difficult.

It means that I will have to make myself available to hang out with people outside my social class. I will have to listen to them, ask them questions and get to know them, and be patient with the fact that they may not open up to me until I’ve known them for a long time. And I will have to be open about my sin. I am not going to save them, but we may be mutually beneficial to one another. That homeless person can teach me about my own poverties as well.

Jesus came to not only die for sins, but to reconcile all things to himself. That means he wants to reconcile us to God, reconcile us to each other, restore within us a “sober judgment” about ourselves, and restore creation to its proper place in subjection to God.

That’s our calling. Let’s do it.

  1. thanks for thinking about this important issue so thoughtfully michael…i appreciate these insights…i have often thought about how we often enable and worsen the homeless person’s plight w/ our small view of what giving means, but it’s interesting to also think about how i am also worsening my own spiritual condition by not really giving anything at all…henri nouwen wrote that true giving is not giving what we want to give, but what the other person actually needs…which of course means being selfless and walking out of our own poverty.

  2. Excellent post!
    Poverty being more than just a physical problem is revolutionary. We tend to only think of poverty as economics because of our cultural emphasis on materialism. Truly we all stand naked before God by ourselves. With this in mind, people of all economic backgrounds can see ourselves in Isiah 61 where it tells us how Jesus has been set apart to preach good news to the poor. Like you and the author alluded to, this is no excuse for us to not try to restore shalom to earth, but we should just remember that we stand in as desperate need of God’s riches as those who little or no money. This should give us humility in our position and spur on love and respect for all. Great stuff!

  3. Once again great job bro. I am however concerned by the generalization you made in describing the homeless person as someone who “refuses to work” and the middle class guy as a “workaholic who greedily oppress’ others.” Although I agree with what the authors are saying wholeheartedly I feel that there is a key and very practical component that is missing in both analyzing the problem and providing the solution and that’s personal history, more accurately stated the influences we had during our formative years.
    It’s been my experience that people are who we become as a result of who raised us & how they raised us. Homeless people end up there because of issues that manifest in self destructive behavior or extremely unfortunate circumstances that leave them on the street. I believe there are VERY FEW people who would rather be homeless than have a job. Most homeless people are incapable of maintaining consistent employment either due to a lack of marketable skills or because of unsolved personal issues which manifest in self defeating behavior i.e. misplaced anger issues, or self medication thru drugs and alcohol. My opinion (for what it’s worth).

  4. Thank you so much for this. I was raised with great monetary provision in my family, but lacked so much in spiritual upbringing. On the outside, it appeared that I needed nothing, but inside I’ve been starving for 25 years.

    I have learned and grown over time, since being conceived in the mind of God, and now embrace my tribulations knowing that they are the power to transform me and the rest of the people in the world.

    And thank you for reminding me that I am created in the image of God, and that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. I forget that God cares.

  5. Thank you for a thoughtful reflection that details how all of us find ourselves in poverty, independent of physical resources. I appreciate your call to thoughtful relationship with people who do lack physical resources as a way to challenge our own sense of stewardship.

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