Who Are "The Poor?"

S. Michael Craven | Center for Christ & Culture | Monday, April 5, 2010

Who Are "The Poor?"

Last week I wrote how Israel's neglect of the poor was a central offense against God that led to their Babylonian exile and that we, too, have neglected those in need in our own times. This neglect, I argued, has led to increased government intervention. However, we need to go further by asking, "Who are the poor among us?" While the Israelites were guilty of neglecting the materially poor—and we no doubt have done this as well—Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett make an important contribution that serves to expand our conceptions of poverty in their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself.

Beginning with the doctrine of the Trinity, the authors make the point that "God is inherently a relational being, existing as three-in-one from all eternity" (p 57). Therefore since mankind is made in God's image, we, too, are inherently relational and this relational capacity is expressed in four distinct areas: relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. As Fikkert and Corbett point out, "these relationships are the building blocks for all of life" and "when they are functioning properly, humans experience the fullness of life that God intended because we are being what God created us to be" (p 57).

Of course, we know that these relationships are not functioning properly, having been broken by sin; the destruction of these original relationships is foundational to every problem that confronts us today. To understand this, let's look at the specific progression of broken relationships as illustrated in the narrative of the Fall. First, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and their intimacy with God was replaced with fear (Gen. 3:8). Next, their relationship with self was damaged; they suffered shame and insecurity (Gen. 3:10). This was followed by the corruption of their relationship with others; Adam turned on Eve by blaming her (Gen. 3:12). Finally, their relationship with the rest of creation was distorted when God cursed the ground and the childbearing process (Gen. 3:16-17).

To be sure, absent the restoration of our relationship with God through Christ Jesus, we have no hope of resolving the other three relationships; therefore it will remain impossible to experience "the fullness of life that God intended." However, by understanding God's original design for our relationship with him, with self, with others and with creation, we will better understand God's redemptive purpose in our own lives, in history, and the cosmos. I would add that this understanding, when laid against the broader gospel of the kingdom, brings clarity to the church's true purpose and mission. The goal of the gospel is the restoration of these relationships: people living in right relationship with God, with themselves, with each other, and with the rest of creation

Returning to our question, "Who are the poor?" Fikkert and Corbett write that "poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all of its meanings" (p 62; emphasis mine). Thus poverty is not limited to the materially poor nor is poverty exclusive to the absence of material possessions. Certainly, material poverty is a desperate reality often requiring immediate relief, but its roots are grounded in the brokenness of these four essential relationships that affect every human being. That being the case, the ultimate solution to poverty begins with the power of Jesus' death and resurrection to put all things into right relationship again.

In essence, we are all impoverished. We are poor spiritually because we have severed fellowship with God. We suffer poverty of being or identity because we don't understand who we are as beings made in the image of God nor for what purpose we were created. We suffer from a poverty of community because our insecurities and fears inhibit our intimacy with others. And we suffer in our relationship to creation due to poverty of stewardship, which leads to the exploitation and destruction of God's good world.

Practically speaking, the church, which serves as Christ's body on earth, works for the restoration of these essential relationships. Whether we are confronting material poverty, spiritual poverty, or the poverty of man's relationship to creation, the process is generally similar—involving various aspects of relief, rehabilitation, and/or development.

Relief is immediate, as exemplified in the actions of the Good Samaritan, and this we must do whenever the opportunity arises. The Haitians illustrate a recent example of those in desperate need of relief. However, relief is temporary, offering little in the way of long-term transformation. Rehabilitation, which must follow, culminates in the Great Commission, as we go out "making disciples of every nation" and begin teaching people the truth of reality as expressed in these four foundational relationships. Here again, Haiti offers an example. In 1989 a 7.0 earthquake hit San Francisco and sixty-three people were killed. Yet a 7.0 earthquake hits Haiti and more than fifty thousand are killed! While severe material poverty is a factor, one aspect of this disparity is the broken relationship with creation (a poverty of stewardship). The earthquake's effect was exacerbated by poor construction, using inferior building materials, absent engineering standards designed to protect people. The Haitian people will need to learn and apply the principles of stewarding creation in the reconstruction if they hope to avoid a similar disaster in the future—and the gospel compels us to help them do so. 

Finally, development would be that process of leading people into the full understanding of their humanity in proper relationship to God, to self, to others, and to creation, bringing them and the world into what God created them to be. It is shocking to discover that the majority of Haitians profess faith in Christ and yet they clearly lack the basic biblical understanding of these relationships. The tragic result is that there is little or no transformation of their worldview, which would drive their society in this restorative direction. This says much more about our missionary activity than it does the Haitian people.

Material poverty of the kind in Haiti and other countries is exceedingly rare in America. We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world, but given our broader definition of poverty, that doesn't mean there aren't poor among us. First and foremost, there is an abundance of those who suffer from spiritual poverty in our increasingly secularized society. As for those suffering from a poverty of being, we are awash with people who seek their identity from sources other than Christ—including many Christians. Considering the fact that we have the highest rate of divorce in the world, growing single-parent households, record out-of-wedlock birth rates, and diminishing numbers of close confidants, poverty of community or relationship with others is epidemic. Distorted priorities, time pressures, increasing dominance of the marketplace over family, and greater disparity between the haves and have-nots demonstrate the dysfunction in our relationship with the rest of creation. In short, America is as impoverished as the poorest nations on earth!

So, given our broader definition of poverty, we again must ask ourselves, "Have we neglected the poor?" To which, I think we can safely say yes!

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.

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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org

Who Are "The Poor?"