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This is part one of a three-part series, “How Then Shall We Help?”
“It was an amazing mission trip. I can’t tell you how happy and content all the people were despite how little they had.”
Have you heard comments like this before? Have you said this before? I have said it several times. It’s a recurrent reflection after trips to poor countries because it is compelling to see joy in the faces of children, parents and grandparents despite their modest means. I specifically remember a joyful little boy from my last trip to the Dominican Republic who was running around wearing nothing but a ratty, tattered t-shirt. His face was dirty, he had few possessions, but, in the midst, he was content.
I have been thinking a lot about this the past few months. Christians in this country, I think, recognize we are called to help the poor. Biblically, there is almost no book in scripture devoid of God’s commands to care for the less fortunate. And, even in our secular culture, it is in vogue to care about “social justice.” It is hip to care about Africa and to buy fair trade coffee. My concern is in the outcome of this groundswell of excitement in “giving back.” I believe the end-game for Christians, often, is supporting any program, project or initiative which increases the prosperity of the poor.
The line of reasoning goes like this: Increased prosperity leads to decreased suffering.

At first glance, I agree with this statement. There are poor people in this world. As Christians, we are called to help them out. We help them by providing education, medical care, housing, language training, business loans, savings accounts, and clean water—all to help them increase their prosperity. As a result, this line of reasoning states, their suffering decreases. Increased prosperity leads to decreased suffering, right?
What if, however, when we help those poor, happy, underprivileged families by providing them with things, they develop some of the same issues our over-privileged children have? Entitlement, jealousy, materialism, obesity, greed. What if, in our attempts to help, rather than decreasing it, suffering just takes on a new identity? I believe most American Christians would agree that increased financial prosperity does not lead to increased fulfillment. We do not have to look beyond our own families and friends to know that material wealth has very little influence on personal joy, satisfaction or success. But, it seems to me that reality has little bearing or influence on our attempts to help the poor.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I work for an organization which helps the poor. I absolutely believe we are to sacrificially serve and “give back” to those in our communities and to those around the world. But, just helping people increase their prosperity cannot be our end-game. In fact, helping the poor does not always decrease their suffering. Next month I will continue to explore these issues while grappling with the question: How then shall we help?