When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert: a Perspective Shift

Title: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor | Authors: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert | Genre: Nonfiction | Paperback: 230 pages | Publisher: Moody Publishers (2009) | ISBN: 978-0-8024-5705-9 | Rating: 5/5

My ministry to refugees was hurtful when I began 3 years ago.

Once during my earliest days as an intern on the field, I stopped by a newly settled family’s home to check in. They’d been in the States for just a couple weeks at this point, and the woman told me she needed some tomatoes. That’s what was pressing to her. She needed tomatoes. It could have been worse.

Mostly, she needed a way to get the tomatoes. She had the money, but no car. Wanting to be helpful and meet a need, I drove to the market less than a mile down the road to buy her tomatoes. She stayed home. I think I used my own money to be reimbursed by the agency, since her money was on a card and she didn’t tag along.

I chose the tomatoes, waited in line to purchase, bought them and dropped the tomatoes back off to her within 15 minutes. When I got back to the office, I thought it was strange when my supervisor told me that the woman could get her own tomatoes next time.

Ouch. I thought to myself, “But wait, I thought we were here to help? What’s wrong with buying tomatoes? She’s been through so much, surely just a few tomatoes didn’t hurt that much?”

I’ve watched other leaders serve refugee families on the field better than I did (and still do). I’ve learned from them. And one thing they all have in common: they don’t buy tomatoes for their refugee friends when it could do more harm than good.


When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert has been recommended to me by multiple people in the nonprofit sector.

It didn’t take long once I started reading to learn why this book is revered in this line of work.

When Helping Hurts defines poverty, and then lays a foundational understanding of how to alleviate poverty. The book teaches best practices for long-term poverty alleviation, restoration of human dignity, and propelling leaders into culturally relevant, long-term modules of work.

This book challenged and changed my perspective about poverty. It gave words I didn’t have to describe the hope of my work with refugees. It also gave framework for many of the practices and philosophies I have learned to practice. And yes, it showed me why buying those tomatoes that day wasn’t the best choice.


There were many points to take away from this book, but let me share the top 3.

001: we work to restore human dignity, and yes, it takes a long time.

The point of helping others is not to fix it for them. The point is to seek solutions with them.

Your role is to work together with them. They are called to participate in their own rebuilding. Why? Because there is a sweet reward in allowing someone to accomplish something on their own. We are made to work and be satisfied.

Deep down, no one really loves things to simple be done for us. Actually, we crave the satisfaction of providing for our families and accomplishing tasks ourselves. We are wired this way. This is dignifying and shows us a better way of helping others.

Because of this, there are no quick fixes. One of the stories in the book talks about a church that spent years working to get its feet on the ground in an inner city community. One of the church’s first projects was to build a house. A single house. And it took years.

But by the end of it, you know who was leading the congregation? You know who had grown into the facilitators? The people in the community – those who had originally been helped. They were now leading and working in the church body, growing as individuals and meeting unique needs in their community. It took longer, but the fruit was richer.

002: You might think you have the best idea, but look again.

What works in America won’t work in other countries. Actually, what works in your neighborhood may not work in the neighborhood you are reaching out to. It is so important to recognize the role that culture plays; it affects our entire worldview.

The most powerful thing you can do when stepping into new places is to invite your neighbor into their own rebuilding. Give a voice to the voiceless. Recognize that the very people you are helping have ideas and skills that are perfect for their situation, and the most empowering thing you can do is to point that out to them.

I cringed throughout the book as I came to face to face with my privilege. So many times.

This point is only one way that reared its ugly head. I had to confess that I don’t always have the best ideas, and it’s my responsibility to hear what my refugee neighbors have to say too. They are thinking, living, breathing individuals too. Why should I think my ideas are law? I can’t help but wonder what ideas they’d share if I gave them the voice and listened.

003: I am just as broken as the neighbor I’m helping.

Above all, I am no better than my poor, addicted neighbor.

I am broken too. I’ve got my own wild views of the world and experiences. When we learn to see ourselves on this same level as the people we are helping, it completely changes the way that we approach them. It banishes the idea of “us and them.” It gets rid of my pride to do it for, but to instead rebuild with.

Recognizing this key commonality re-centers me to focus on the heart of my work: to lead others closer into living in right relationship with God, others, self, and creation. I can supply physical needs, like tomatoes all day, but at the end of it there is a deep spiritual need within us all that can’t be satisfied by tomatoes. That’s the impact I want to have in others’ lives.


Now I understand why buying the tomatoes was not my best move.

The woman was capable of going herself. Maybe she was nervous about going to the market herself, but I did not help her overcome that fear by doing it for her.

Instead, I affirmed her mindset that she is incapable of overcoming, and too weak to adjust to life in America. Obviously, that is not what I wanted to communicate to this woman. But, now that I’ve read When Helping Hurts, I can see how I did do that.  

If you are a person who wants to help other people, this is the book for you. Whether you are a pastor or missionary, social worker or teacher, or preparing for a short term trip, this is a must read.

The authors provide invaluable insight, and each page is packed with so much information. You might not agree with every principle or approach outlined, but the main point remains: we seek to restore humanity back to the broken, of which we are too.

As I read, I found it most beneficial to have my journal handy. Each chapter starts and ends with discussion questions, and as each chapter moves, different thoughts and ideas popped up. Because there was so much for me to reflect on as I read, it took longer to read; I couldn’t just fly through it.

But really, those are the best books. The books that shake our norms, and correct gaps in our thinking on a certain topic are not to be ignored. When Helping Hurts is not to be ignored because dealing with poverty cannot be ignored.

And if we’re going to step into the lives of others, helping and teaching along the way, we better have a solid foundation. I’m deeply appreciative of the painstaking efforts the authors went through to lead us through When Helping Hurts. There are lots of facts, stories and statistics, but hold tight.

This is the practical playbook we need as we seek long-term restoration for all people. I highly recommend reading this with a curious perspective about the true reality of poverty, and an open heart about the true cycle and response to helping people.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman: A Prophetic Wake Up Call, Echoing Back Decades

Amusing Ourselves to Death | Author: Neil Postman | Genre: Nonfiction

Paperback: 184 | My Edition’s Publisher: Penguin Group (2006) | Original Publisher: Viking Penguin Inc. (1985) | ISBN: 978-0-14-303653-1

Rating: 5/5

“Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business.”

Postman, page 80

If you need a wake-up call to the ways that entertainment has reshaped our culture, and continues to infiltrate every part of our society, this is for you.

If you need to confirm your weary suspicions that media is crazy and is making us crazy, this is also for you.

Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues how public thought and conversation has been misshapen in an era of show business, constant entertainment, information overload, reliance on technological media, and ultimately, led us to an addiction us to our own deadly disease. Speaking to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Postman describes how we are ruining ourselves and our society with our addiction to being entertained.

Yeah, it’s a lot.

It’s a heavy read, and it took me several weeks. But, I think this is important for us to consider. We cannot deny the fact that our entire society has been completely infiltrated by entertainment, technology, and media.

Have we made it through the year 2019 yet? Just barely. Have we survived next year’s presidential election? Lord, help us.

It Got Me Thinking…

Postman’s argument is not simply that TV is bad. Instead, he illustrates to us how vastly different communication has become in recent decades. Taking each chapter to discuss a different avenue – specifically politics, education, news, and religion – and how TV has changed these spheres, his overarching theme is that TV is deteriorating those spaces because it is not suitable to relay this information and to give room for conversation to follow.  

In short, modern day America has become so addicted to entertainment, that we won’t even receive the news and politics and education without it.

But what if those pairs can’t coexist?

When we choose to use the screen to relay all of our news and politics and education and religion, we are choosing to receive it in a way that entertains us, and only widening the gap between our ability to have a thoughtful discussion and our desire to always be entertained. This book makes us wonder how entertainment has changed the difficult conversations.

“Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment. It serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion – and turns them in to entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. ‘The A-Team’ and ‘Cheers’ are no threat to our public health. ’60 Minutes,’ ‘Eye-Witness News,’ and ‘Sesame Street’ are.”

postman, pages 159-160

He says that we are teaching ourselves to love TV – not the information. We are a society of people who are being taught that if it’s not entertaining or pleasurable to me, then I don’t want to hear it. So, the only way that we receive information is by getting it in little pieces crammed between advertisements. There is no cohesion, or connection to its context. There is not background or even time for a full argument, to discuss all of its implications.

Just like our addiction to scrolling and seeing dozens of photos and bits of information in a mere minute, so is our reception to news. Just tons of tiny bits, and no glue to hold it together. Not to mention, no time to make sense of it all.

One of the most alarming chapters to me was Chapter 8 “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” In this chapter, Postman discusses religion and TV. And it’s astounding.

On our screen, we have witnessed profane events and have sinful memories etched into our brains; it’s difficult to use our screen for a sacred event. I can easily turn my screen to a Preds game or Netflix. It’s no problem to click over to Instagram. What about that space is suitable for my worship? What have I truly consecrated and given up in the total adoration for the Lord that I claim to love, when I give him a bit of time between my scrolling and watching? When I rely on my screen for spiritual refreshment, I will always be let down, because there are always apps waiting on either side of my worship, rushing me back.

I should also note that Postman doesn’t claim Christianity, or any other religion in the book. But even as he writes from a secular mindset, he sees these problems – perhaps more clearly than my religious friends can. That’s also astounding.

“The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread public understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture.”

postman, page 160

By the way, in case you didn’t catch it above, this book was written over 3 decades ago. And he is spot. On. In a prophetic tone echoing from its original creation in 1985, Postman has presented us with a detailed warning that we are on the way to our own disaster. His message has not lost meaning over these years. Instead, it’s clearer and more relevant now than ever.

As I read, I thought of my own screens. No, for me it’s not cable television anymore. But it is Twitter and Instagram, Netflix and Crowd City. It’s mindless scrolling, wasting time numbing my brain and believing every headline I read. And after the last couple years our nation has seen, as we mock a president’s ridiculous comments on social media and receive risqué headlines that barely give us the story, who can argue that we don’t have an entertainment problem.

Actually, if I’m honest with myself, I have a hard time stomaching the news because it does feel like a joke. I can’t take the most serious news I will receive seriously, because of its packaging. And of course, the way its packaged and delivered alters the message altogether. It leaves me to wonder – what can I trust?

From a Christian, to a Christian:

Coming from a Christian worldview, brothers and sisters, we have to consider this topic. As Christ-followers, we should desire to be the most present, intentional people in all our conversations – no matter how big or small. But how often does our media get in the way of our presence? How many time have we worshipped our media and entertainment? How often do we let it rob our memory of the dignity of a person?

If the world cares about education, politics, religion, how much more should I? I know our Maker, and I know what he says about the value of people. He has dignified our position, and I call him a liar when I’m not engaging in these conversations.

Most of all, my pride is reigning when I choose entertainment first. I am saying that how I feel is more important than the person or conversation at hand. This is a woe of 2019, but that doesn’t excuse us from the damaging affects of our phones.

The verdict:

We would all do well to seriously consider our relationship with media, and to question our addiction to entertainment. And for that reason alone (and because I love ya and don’t want to see you waste your brain power), I believe this provocative, bold book is well worth the read.

Don’t fall asleep on this one. Put on your brave face. Brace yourself for impact. Grab a cup of coffee, and settle in. This is good. Difficult, but good.