Helping or Hurting?

by Gami Ortiz


There was a book published a while back titled, When Helping Hurts, which was written to address some of the issues present in missions work across the world on the part of the Church. The premise of the book is just as is implied in the title – there are times that in our efforts to help people – particularly to alleviate poverty – we end up hurting more than helping. The central thought in the book is explained in this: “One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes – and the poverty of being of the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame. The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates – albeit unintentionally – that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves." The book does a great job of making people aware of their actions and their subsequent repercussions. It’s even bringing to light the selfish motives behind some of the initiatives to “help” (i.e. wanting to feel good about doing something for someone else). In case this is still too theoretical, here’s a simple example: In a poverty-stricken country, organizations distribute food to the hungry, so that they can be fed. It sounds like a noble enterprise. However, the unintended result is that the local farmers and stores can’t compete with free food and they go out of business. If these organizations stop distributing food for whatever reason, now the people have a greater problem than before. In addition, a dependency has been created for that food to be given out. These people’s poverty has been intensified, rather than alleviated.


Here’s the other side of the coin. I think the concept and phrase is quickly becoming an excuse for people to do nothing at all. The idea isn’t to stop helping, but to think it out and ensure it’s appropriate. Ask questions. Do some research. It’s more work, yes. It means we may have to get a bit creative, spin the wheels and put more thought into it. But when it comes down to it, Scripture hasn’t changed. It still says to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31); care for widows and orphans (James 1:27); serve the least of these (Matthew 25:40); and Jesus still set the ultimate example of serving others. Unfortunately, it seems when it’s no longer a simple endeavor, people want to forget about it altogether. See, these acts of love are bigger than you and me. They are an example to the world of the love of their Creator. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35) and “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Each opportunity to love and serve people is an opportunity to be a living example of God’s love and to glorify Him. It’s an opportunity to then tell of the good news of the gospel, so that they may come to know and glorify Him too.


There’s a balance of being aware of when we’re doing more harm than good and being available to be the hands and feet of Christ in whatever capacity. Still, none of this can replace the work and conviction of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. He still knows best what people’s needs are and moves in our hearts to meet them. And above all, don’t miss the opportunity to point someone towards the only One who can truly satisfy all of our needs.