Economics 101

To the Poor, Poverty Is More Than Material

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The holidays are full of community. We get together with friends and family. We congregate and celebrate.

But we also remember those who are less fortunate, those who may not have communities they can rely on during the holiday season.

We are all made for community, rich or poor. Because of this, we must focus not only on the material, but also the social, spiritual, and psychological aspects of poverty.

The Biblical Basis for Focusing on the Social, Spiritual, and Psychological Aspects of Poverty

The Christian faith worships a Triune God, one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. We read about the Trinity in the New Testament in stories such as Jesus’s baptism (Matt. 3:13-17) and Jesus’s discussions with the disciples during the last supper (John 14-16). The Trinity, although never mentioned explicitly in Scripture, is laid out specifically in the Great Commission, too: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19)

God’s Trinitarian nature also informs our understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. God is in relationship with himself in the Trinity. In his book, Jesus the King, Tim Keller describes the Trinity, writing,

The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are each centering on the others, adoring and serving them…That’s what God has been enjoying for all eternity. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are pouring love and joy and adoration into the other, each one serving the other. They are infinitely seeking one another’s glory, and so God is infinitely happy.

Keller explains what this means for us:

If this is ultimate reality, if this is what the God who made the universe is like, then this truth bristles and explodes with life-shaping, glorious implications for us. If this world was made by a triune God, relationships of love are what life is really all about (emphasis added).

We have been made in God’s image and exhibit his communicable attributes. This understanding of the Trinity reveals that we have been designed as relational beings. We were made for community. With this insight, let’s turn to a well-read passage with fresh eyes—1 Corinthians 12:12-27. This passage emphasizes our call to care for one another as a community:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink….God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be….God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. One part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

We all have a role to play in the body of Christ. We are made in the image of God and have inherent dignity and a purpose to glorify God in what we do. Our role matters, whether we think this role is big or small, important or insignificant, useful or boring.

This is the idea of comparative advantage in economics—more is accomplished when people use their God-given gifts and talents to do what they do well, relative to other people. Comparative advantage creates more overall value because the costs of what we do are lower. The body of Christ functions properly and more efficiently if each person is using their God-given gifts to do what God has designed them to do.

To the Poor, Poverty Is More Than Material

In the Trinity and in the body of Christ, we see that community is important. We were made for relationships because in them we can display God’s glory. How does this relate to poverty?

In an excerpt from the book For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, Peter Greer, president of HOPE International, explains what the word “poverty” means to the poor. He writes,

In the 1990s, World Bank surveyed over sixty thousand of the financially poor throughout the developing world and how they described poverty. The poor did not focus on their material need; rather, they alluded to social and psychological aspects of poverty. Analyzing the study, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development said, “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.” The study highlights that, by nature, poverty is innately social and psychological.

Greer continues:

In an informal survey, our clients at HOPE International in Rwanda affirmed that poverty is more than a lack of material possessions. In 2011, a lead trainer of a savings program in Rwanda posed a question to a group of twenty individuals within a savings group, most of whom lived on less than two dollars a day. “How do you define poverty?” he asked.

The trainer received these answers:

  • Poverty is an empty heart
  • Not knowing your abilities and strengths
  • Not being able to make progress
  • Isolation
  • No hope or belief in yourself; knowing you can’t take care of your family
  • Broken relationships
  • Not knowing God
  • Not having basic things to eat; not having money
  • Poverty is a consequence of not sharing
  • Lack of good thoughts

Poverty is not just a lack of money. It is not just hunger and need for shelter or clothing. Many poor people are plagued with social and spiritual poverty, and their view of their value is also affected.

This post was adapted from IFWE’s latest booklet, Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.

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