Public Square & Theology 101

Poverty Is More Than Just a Lack of Money

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As you experience Thanksgiving this week with friends and family, both the joys and challenges, it is a great reminder that we are all made for community. We are not made to live in isolation.

Community is the reason we must focus not only on the material, but also the social, spiritual, and psychological aspects of poverty as we help the poor.

In the Beginning, There Were Relationships

The Christian faith worships a Triune God, one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. God’s Trinitarian nature 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 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 and contains two main ideas:

1. 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.

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.

2. The body of Christ is interconnected.

As the members of the body suffer or rejoice, so the other members of the body suffer and rejoice, for we are all connected to and affect one another. What a beautiful picture of community! We are so connected as brothers and sisters of Christ that we impact one another. We celebrate with one another. We cry with one another. These relationships are incredibly significant because they are for our good and 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.

Poverty is not just a lack of money. Many poor people are plagued with social and spiritual poverty, and their view of their value is also affected.

Poverty Affects Relationships

The social aspects of poverty are just as important as the material. Imagine going through life alone—without any support structure, a family and friends to pick you up when you fall, or people you can rely on to ask for advice, encouragement, or accountability. Social poverty exacerbates material poverty. What might be a bump in the road to someone with a support structure could be a mountain that derails a poor person.

We are made to enjoy, rely on, and reflect God’s glory through relationships. Seeing that poverty is more than just a lack of material resources changes the way we work for people’s flourishing.

Poverty Stems from Separation from God

Our relationships with others are important; our relationship with the Lord is even more so. We usually only consider material poverty, but the Bible often discusses the spiritually poor—those who do not know God. Spiritual poverty, in the sense of not knowing God, affects the way people view their dignity, their purpose, and the world. It is important to keep spiritual poverty in mind as we serve the poor. Without a relationship with Jesus, people cannot fully know hope, grace, and love.

Poverty Affects Peoples’ Self-Worth

Poverty often corrupts the poor’s view of their dignity and value. Many have been torn down in their relationships, not built up by them. They have been treated in such a way that they feel they are worth nothing and have no gifts or talents. There can be a sense of shame about where they are in life and fear about what might come next.

These concerns certainly overlap with spiritual poverty. If a person knows Christ, but is materially poor, they may not experience this type of poverty, for they know their strength, worth, and dignity come from Christ.

We must keep in mind the psychological effects of poverty when serving the poor because these effects impact the way a person will interact with the people and organizations that want to serve them. It is essential to help the poor understand they have dignity and capability. We should walk alongside them, cultivating their gifts and talents. Our goal is to help them understand they have value and can care for themselves and those around them.

Whereas charity only works to alleviate the poor’s material poverty, to truly be effective, we must consider all aspects of poverty, the material and the social, spiritual, and psychological.

 

Editor’s Note: This article contains excerpts from Kathryn’s booklet, Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.

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