When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert – a book review

I was very intrigued by the title and advertised content of the book When Helping Hurts. The book was co-authored by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Fikkert is an associate professor of economics at Covenant College and the founder of The Chalmers Center for Economic Development. Corbett is an an assistant professor in the department of economics and community development at Covenant College and the community development specialist for The Chalmers Center for Economic Development. Therefore, the two men have significant knowledge in regard to the process of helping individuals who are financially poor in a biblically guided way.


As I read through the book I was immediately confronted with my own preconceived notions. The authors are very cognizant of the fact that all humanity is born sinful. They hold to the biblical gospel and need of all mankind to be reconciled to God through his Son Jesus Christ. The authors present the reality that there are individuals in this world who are in need as a result of their own poor choices. But they also point out that there are individuals in this world who are in need as a result of corruption on the part of those in power. According to my understanding of God’s Word this will result until Christ judges the unbelieving world and establishes his eternal reign here on earth. Yet, this should not result in Christians ignoring the condition of those around them. Corbett and Fikkert provide instruction, correction, and an alternative way of approaching those who are in need.


The authors point out that many times those who have financial means “provide” for those in need in a way that ultimately hurts more than it helps. They provide examples of groups traveling to the storm ravaged South and rebuilding homes while able-bodied man (who would live in those homes) watched. The point being raised is that it would be far better for those in need to be a part of the process. Being a part of the process may take various forms, for example, helping to build the home; making suggestions for a recovery plan; working for money to pay for bills and needs. Corbett and Fikkert urge Christians and local churches to think through what they are doing to help those who are in need. To question whether or not their ministries are helping the individuals or causing them to become dependent. None of those who are seeking to help those in need would desire to create dependency. But, as the authors demonstrate, our methods frequently create that very thing.


Corbett and Fikkert address issues of those in need not only in the United States but also worldwide. They point out the effect American Christians have when traveling overseas and offering help. Frequently very little listening occurs and suggestions abound. The authors urge their readers to be learners first. They propose that questions must be asked of those who are in need and resources found in the local contexts must be identified. This approach is one of partnership and the authors suggest it is a more biblical and healthy approach for all involved.


When Helping Hurts provides substantial information for every local church to help evaluate its own approach to ministering to those in need at home and abroad. Corbett and Fikkert conclude that you must determine who the poor are. Then they set forth the following principles for determining how to help the poor: should we do relief, rehabilitation, or development? Only then can churches and individuals begin to work on strategies to help.


I would say these principles are some of the most helpful pieces of information I have seen in regard to helping the poor. The authors do not operate under any illusion that poverty will be eliminated by the implementation of these principles. But they do suggest that the implementation of these principles will help the poor and the non-poor. Corbett and Fikkert propose that the result of giving answers and throwing money at situations have harmed those who gave and those who received. Those that gave frequently contributed to a sense of superiority in their own hearts. Those that received frequently had a growing sense of inferiority in their own hearts. In both cases neither group was truly helped because of the means of the help that was given.


As you wrestle through the issues involved with attempting to help the poor I would encourage you to read this book. You will have to wrestle through the suggestions and claims that the authors make. Compare the authors’ conclusions with Scripture. Pray about these issues and how you can keep the gospel message involved with the efforts. Corbett and Fikkert clearly state that the gospel message must be a part of the process. If individuals are helped financially and materially but they remain ignorant of the gospel message then the help is not complete.


I received this book as a review copy from Moody Press in exchange for an honest review.


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