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.

Hang On, Heaven is Coming

We are told to be alone right now, and I keep thinking about heaven.

We are hunkered down at home. Some of us have finally gotten around to, and even finished, those projects we never thought we’d start. Others of us have given an embarrassing amount of time to Words With Friends; I somehow land in both categories.

We can’t go anywhere, and it’s not normal. Well, I suppose it’s our “new normal.”

The loss still feels strange. All the coffee dates that never happened, and the concerts and weddings that were cancelled. Everything we used to do and not think twice about is gone for now. Every plan we dragged our feet about making was postponed before it even made it on the calendar.

Perhaps for the first time in our Westernized lives, we are experiencing what it means to have our wants, comforts, and everyday routines removed from us. We’ve never really treaded these waters before. In our culture that prizes comfort, where even our poorest live in luxury compared to others in the world and throughout history, having anything taken from us is hard.

But it’s not just our favorite coffee houses or local shops that have been taken. Our entire sense of normalcy has been uprooted. And as we get honest with ourselves in these quiet moments, we’re realizing how people – friends, family, coworkers, strangers at the grocery store – play a vital role in our daily rhythm.

We are a people who are learning to look ahead to the right things now, and the more I think on this, the closer it brings me to heaven.


Of all the losses, not being at church has been the hardest.

We can’t gather in the sanctuary to worship God. No one is crowding in living rooms with Bibles open. There’s not a host welcoming you in for dinner right now. This isn’t time to pull a friend into a hug as you pray grace over her, or look into someone’s eyes to ask, and wait for the response, “How are you doing?”

In its place is a schedule of Zoom calls and livestreams, a never-ending stream of Marco Polos and text messages.

At first it was exciting. Oh, let’s gather in our neighbor’s home to watch the church service. We’ll cook breakfast, and it’ll be fun.

Then we said, Let’s watch the church service in our living room, snuggled with the cats with a cup of coffee in hand, fresh cinnamon rolls in front of me. We can get through this. This isn’t so bad.

Weeks in and the coffee seems to get cold a little faster. And the cinnamon rolls? Not as fresh.

This seeps into every aspect of community. I usually share an office space with some of the God-loving women I most admire, but for 5 weeks now, my “office space” has been a blue plastic tote next to my dining room table and my “work attire” has been chinos and house shoes.

The coffee just gets colder when we’re alone.


Even the most introverted, home-bodied of us all need to be near others.

As I’ve settled into self-isolation, there is an aching growing at the center of me. It’s this humble confession: I long to be in community again.

I’m restless to raise my hands in worship with the congregation, and to be with my brothers and sisters again. I want to hear a whole body of believers lifting their voices in adoration to the Lord, and to feel the friend beside me scripting notes as the pastor leads us through a passage.

There has to be something, someone, some group you miss too? Not one of us has walked this season without giving up something.

We were not meant to be alone. I am understanding that now – in these wild days of global pandemic – more than ever. As I look ahead to the day when I can be in community again, away from this exile on the Persinger’s carpeted island with the olive wreath on the door, it’s all I can do to think how tightly I’m going to hug some people.

I have a feeling that when we go back to church, when everything gets back to normal, we will love the people when we walk through the doors more honestly and openly than we ever have before.

Can you imagine how amazing those greetings are going to be?


Friends, we are getting ready for a glimpse of heaven.

I know we feel alone and disconnected right now. Even the most introverted of us; I know because I’m one of them. We long for hugs and to lock eyes with another person. My soul feels it – that need to pull another person in close, to hear the voice of a brother singing, to see a sister’s face light up and hands raised in worship.

At the end of these days await once-in-a-lifetime reunions. And these will be glimpses of heaven we’ve not ever seen before. I really believe this.

Because at the end of this isolation are restored greetings with brothers and sisters, people we have missed. And not just any reunion; it’s going to be a reunion of tears. Tight hugs. Laughter and wide smiles. Waiting for us around this corner is a renewed love for the gifts we have, starting with the congregation of God.

I don’t have answers for most things in this life, including the whys and hows of this pandemic we are living in. But if there is one thing I am certain of in this life it’s that God doesn’t waste. He’s going to use this, and is already, to tell us something.

I’m not the first person to think this. I’ve heard other believers, both friends and leaders alike, voice this too. But, what if just one way that God is speaking to us right now is by giving us a unique opportunity to savor this moment of looking forward to being with brothers and sisters again?

What if He’s allowing us to truly miss and appreciate the gift of friendship and camaraderie that we take for granted every week? What if we are being beckoned into a deeper love for the community He has given us?


So this is how, as I sit in the quiet of my home, busying myself with tasks and spending extra time FaceTiming, I can’t help but feel drawn toward heaven.

We are looking ahead to the most rich, genuine earthly reunions we’ve ever been a part of. Our arms will be stretched wider than ever before, and our joy will run in tears down our faces as we finally feel together again. Sometimes when I imagine that first Sunday back at church, in some future day, that hope is enough for the moment; it’s only a snapshot compared to the glorious reunions we’ll experience in heaven, and yet, it’s enough.

They say we’re living in unprecedented times, but I think the remarkable thing about it all is that when these days of heaviness are lifted, the joy and gratefulness to follow will be unlike anything we’ve experienced here before.

So when this is over, when we’re a little wiser and patient and quicker to show our love to others, just remember that this is our glimpse into the heavenlies.

We’re eager to greet one another at the end of this season. There’s another day we’re eager for: it’s the day when our mourning and sojourning on earth will finally be brought to an end, and we’ll make it the glory of heaven we were created for. We’ll see our beloved brothers and sisters in restored bodies, and meet our Savior face to face. There will no tears or fear, but we will only know how to love and live in community without any disease or fear; there will be no comparison to that joy.

But hang on, because pretty soon, we’ll return to the sanctuary on earth and we’ll get to peer into the heavenlies disguised as long-missed earthly gatherings.

Let’s sit in the presence of this season, yes, but let’s also look ahead. Let’s not miss the opportunity to catch a glimpse of glory, even here.