In my work with Baptist World Aid Australia I regularly hear stories of people in desperate financial poverty. When I hear these stories my heart is to help those in need however I can. But in doing so it’s important for me to remember that I’m poor too!
Of course, what I mean by this is not that I am in financial need. In fact, per the How Rich Are You? calculator produced by Giving What We Can, I am in the richest 3% of the world’s population (mostly because I’m Australian and have a job.) But being Australian also means I’m susceptible to different forms of poverty.
Different forms of poverty
The unofficial textbook for aid and development workers is When Helping Hurts by Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert. This book’s authors make a solid case for a more holistic understanding of poverty, one that encompasses humanity’s four foundational relationships described in Genesis chapter 2: our relationship with God, self, others, and with creation (Corbett and Fikkert 2009, 57-58).
The authors suggest that for humanity to live a fulfilled life in which all people are given the opportunity to feed and house their family through their labours as God intends (cf. Genesis chapter 2, verses 15 and 16), it is necessary that all four of these relationships be functional and flourishing (Corbett and Fikkert 2009, 57). But since the fall (Genesis 3), these relationships have been distorted. This distortion has affected all human life and activity, be it in the sphere of politics, social systems, economic systems, or religious systems.
All of humanity is affected and therefore (this is the kicker) the life of every individual person. These broken relationships, the authors conclude, cause poverty of all kinds in people from all walks of life, including, but certainly not limited to, financial (or material) poverty (Corbett and Fikkert 2009, 63).
Within this framework, a person might be suffering from material poverty, but such poverty might actually be caused by other, more deep-seated deficiencies. They might be suffering from poverty of community, for example, because they are oppressed by their government and exploited by the rest of society. They might suffer from poverty of self because they experience great shame over their place in society and no longer think themselves worthy to be released from material poverty.
Despite these forms of poverty they may suffer from, in other areas, the materially poor may be quite rich as their relationships with God and with creation might be very strong. Many in the majority world enjoy an immense spiritual closeness to God and have a healthy understanding of their role as stewards of creation.
My own struggles with poverty
I, as a comparatively rich person financially, might enjoy a positive relationship with my community, receiving all the care and support I need. I may also have a strong relationship with self, having been told that I’m special by my mum and dad, and having received many participation awards as a child. But I may suffer from poverty of spiritual intimacy because my comfortable lifestyle means I don’t need to rely on God as directly for food and shelter, and from poverty of stewardship by becoming obsessed with materialism, taking for granted God’s gift of creation and misusing it due to my selfishness (remember how we broke the ozone layer?).
We can all help each other as we seek to alleviate all forms of poverty
The lesson in this is clear: my being born in a lucky country, and having ready access to food, clean water, and health care doesn’t make me ‘superior’ to those in the majority world. In fact, my perceived superfluity of resources makes me rely less on God and treat His world with selfish contempt, rather than stewarding it properly as He intended.
Whilst there are ways I might be able to help my brothers and sisters in material poverty, there are at least as many ways that they can help me in my forms of poverty.
They can teach me to respect the world I live in since they don’t have the same perception of endless resources, and to better rely on the God who made it all since they often rely on their faith in the face of life-threatening material poverty or danger from their government or community. Just because I am rich financially, doesn’t mean I’m superior to those who are not. We are all equal before God, and can learn from one another how to lift ourselves out of our various forms of poverty.
When it comes to thinking about issues of poverty, we need to remember that we too are poor. We might not suffer from financial poverty but in some aspect of our life we are each, no doubt, in some form of poverty. Remembering this will help us to see ourselves as we truly are, not Western saviour figures having pity on those in poorer nations, but as equal brothers and sisters offering help in a specific area, recognising that those we help can assist us just as much in return.
Corbett, Steve, and Brian Fikkert. 2009. When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself. Illinois: Moody Publishers.
Brent is the Queensland State Representative for Baptist World Aid Australia and is a registered pastor with the Baptist Union of Queensland. He completed a Bachelor of Theology with honours in New Testament through Malyon College in Brisbane, where he now lives with his wife, Jane. Like all good advocates for the poor, in his downtime, he likes to pretentiously drink overpriced coffee out of mason jars and other quaint glassware.
Brent Van Mourik’s previous articles can be viewed at