A few years ago, the community where I lived was abuzz with the news that the television program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition had come to our area and filmed an episode. A family arrived back to their former residence and found that in a course of a week their dilapidated, moldy, former residence had been demolished and a luxurious, 3000 square foot plus home had been built in its place. Hundreds of volunteers worked around the clock to insure that this family, with a 12 year-old daughter having a congenital blood disease, would have their new home ready when the star of the show began shouting, “Move that bus!” The four children were also given four-year, full-ride scholarships to a state university. When it eventually aired, undoubtedly many in our town were glued to their TV sets.
Without begrudging this particular family, in a sense this show epitomizes what has become the standard in our land when it comes to helping the poor. The poor lack money, homes, and possessions; society "helps" them by giving them money, homes, and possessions. To this end, a whole army of government departments, social programs, relief agencies, and celebrity causes have arisen in the hopes of conquering poverty and the ills that fall on mankind. Yet these approaches often breed dependency and a lack of dignity among the recipients, perpetuating the poverty. Rather than "Extreme Makeover", we have "Extreme Takeover" as we remove people's sense of responsibility, understanding of work and reward, and dignity as God's image bearers.
As an example, recall Lyndon B. Johnson’s "War on Poverty" that began in the late 1960’s. This legislation set into further motion the philosophy that had begun developing earlier in the twentieth century, that it is up to the state to care for the poor. The grand result? In the first fifteen years (1965-1980) of the legislation, the welfare budget increased ninety-fold, beneficiaries went from less than ½ million to more than 21 million people, and those living under the government poverty line increased! Since that time trillions of state-collected tax dollars have been poured out to seek, in Johnson’s words, “to eliminate poverty as we know it today.” Yet sadly that has not been the case.
Too often the church in the West simply mimics this approach of the world when it comes to caring for the poor. The book When Helping Hurts chronicles the failure of the West’s mercy relief here and abroad. The authors, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, speak of “the god complex” so many have in poverty ministry. They define this complex as
a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe that they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves.
Because of this god-complex, or sense of superiority, the true needs of the poor often are not met. Even more alarming, the church that views itself as anointed can unwittingly be committing an "Extreme Takeover" of the worse kind. For recall what Jesus said of himself in Luke 4:18. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” Jesus was called the Christ (meaning the anointed one in Greek; in the Old Testament Hebrew it is Messiah) because He is the only one who can redeem people in both soul and body. A Christian or a congregation that seeks to minister to the poor without the clear preaching of the gospel along with its teaching on mercy is in effect offering itself as the Christ, which is blaphemous. For the poor do not need their stomachs filled with food nearly as much as they need their hearts filled with the true Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.
So how do you avoid the god complex, or extreme takeover, when it comes to caring for the poor and disadvantaged? Reading good books like When Helping Hurts and giving congregations training in mercy ministry is highly recommended. A thorough answer is beyond the scope of this article. However, let me offer the following five measures as starting points.
1. Accompany all works of mercy with testimony to Christ. Even a person giving the simple gift of a cup of cold water to another is to make it known he is doing it "because he is a disciple" of Christ (Matt. 10:42). Our light is to shine in good works in such a way that glory is given to the Father (Matt. 5:16). Giving glory to the Father can only happen in the context of his Son being honored by having the gospel preached.
2. Meditate on God's Word for the wisdom needed in caring for the poor. "Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation" (Ps. 68:5). As such, he has not left us without light in knowing how to care for the orphan and widow. We simply need to seek this wisdom found abundantly in the Scriptures. For example, just consider what these verses from the Proverbs teach us: Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4; 13:7,23; 14:31; 16:26; 19:1,1722, 24; 20:13; 21:13,17; 22:2-4,7-9,16,22-23,26-27,29; 23:4-5; 28:11.
3. Never forget your own state of need and deliverance. Of the stranger God's Law said, "You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:34). When caring for the poor, naked, or lonely, we must always remember that we were spiritually in the same state until Christ redeemed us. This needed humility will help us to not view the poor as inferior to ourselves.
4. Remember that in worship God is examining your care for others. As we gather each Lord's Day before the throne of God, he is looking to see if his people are bearing the fruit of mercy toward others (Ps. 82; James 1:17). Indeed, how we cared for the lonely, hungry, imprisoned, and ill will be how we are judged by Christ upon his return (Matt. 25:31-46). Worship should lead us to reflect and adjust to how we can care for others more faithfully.
5. The needy must be called to exercise faith. When Elijah went to the widow of Zarephath, who was in such desperate straits she was preparing the last meal for her son and herself, who gave food first? Elijah the miracle-worker or the widow? See 1 Kings 17:7-16 for the answer, and then consider how the needy should be pointed to trust Christ even as they are promised help in his name.