A few years ago, I boarded my first of many flights to Africa to serve some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Despite many preparations, I was still not ready for my initial confrontation with desperate poverty.
I felt the shame of my own comfortable lifestyle while these precious people went days without food. I felt anger at the injustice of predatory men taking advantage of vulnerable women. I felt love of and protectiveness over the children who soldiered on after their parents died from AIDS.
After I returned home, I threw myself into helping these new friends. They had problems, and I was determined to provide solutions. I resolved to better the physical circumstances of as many people as I could.
While I was motivated by compassion, my initial response to their poverty was incomplete. By God’s grace, He has given me a better response to injustice.
If we really want to help the poor, we will start by recognizing that people’s greatest need is Christ, not the alleviation of their material poverty. This truth will shape our involvement with them for the glory of God. What the poor need most is reconciliation — to God, to others and to creation.
Consider the following ways we can holistically help the poor.
Regardless of economic circumstances, our greatest need is for Christ to reconcile us to our heavenly Father.
Engage them with the gospel.
If we really want to help the poor, we must explain to them their greatest need. Billy Graham said, “Our greatest need is to have the barrier between us and God erased — a barrier that’s been created by our own sin and rebellion.” God sent His son to make peace between sinful man and Himself. Regardless of our economic circumstances, our greatest need is for Christ to reconcile us to our heavenly Father (2 Corinthians 5:18).
If we merely give food to the hungry and medicine to the sick, our assistance is temporary. Will our compassionate acts matter in the scope of eternity if we withhold the good news of our God who welcomes the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame to His table (Luke 14:21)?
Peter Abungu is the director of Swahiba Networks in Nairobi, Kenya. He ministers to vulnerable children living in the Kibera slum. Peter is surrounded by desperate poverty and meets temporary needs to share eternal truths. Peter often says, “If we want to share Christ with a hungry person, then sometimes we have to wrap the gospel in a sandwich.” Yes, people are hungry and need food. Feed hungry people, by all means. But as we feed the poor, let’s prioritize giving them the bread of life that satisfies for all eternity. Let’s offer them what the world cannot. Let’s offer them Christ.
Salvation meets our greatest need. Vulnerable people need a Savior more than they need food, shelter or medicine. If we really want to help, we will make it a priority to share Christ with them.
Equip them through the local church.
As people are reconciled to God, they will be reconciled to each other. In the New Testament, we see many examples of believers gathering and forming local churches. Ephesians 2:10 teaches, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The local church exists to equip the saints for ministry (Ephesians 4:12).
Part of our great commission is to teach followers of Christ how to obey God’s law (Matthew 28:20). Disciple making includes, but is not limited to, evangelism. We must also teach believers how to live in obedience to God and in relation to one another. This is the work of disciple-making, and it is best done in the context of the local church.
If we really want to help the vulnerable, we will invest in local churches where discipleship is valued. This includes planting new churches, training pastors in impoverished communities and empowering local leaders to engage their communities for the glory of God.
People living in desperate poverty do not have access to seminaries, books, podcasts and Bibles. We must join God in building His kingdom by generously giving not only our resources, but also ourselves to create kingdom outposts to shine the light in the darkest places.
Christians need community. We weren’t meant to live out our faith apart from others. If we really want to help the poor, we will plant churches in their communities and help established ones flourish.
Our love for God and His love for us compels us to use our resources to help those in need.
Empower them with sustainable livelihoods.
The poor face extensive economic challenges. Westerners have many opportunities that those living in third world contexts don’t have. The poorest citizens of the United States would still be considered wealthy in many impoverished nations. Most of us are blessed with more resources than we need in any given month.
What will we do with those resources? 1 John 3:17 says, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” Our love for God and His love for us compels us to use our resources to help those in need. We have the privilege and responsibility to care for the poor (1 Timothy 6:18).
In the book Good News About Injustice, Gary Haugen, International Justice Mission president, writes, “God’s people are his plan to respond to the needs of the oppressed in our world.” One way we can help is by working together to provide sustainable livelihoods for our poor brothers and sisters in Christ.
God has created each of us with unique skills and talents. We can leverage those to help the poor. For example, consider Jeremy and Tim. Jeremy is a fish biologist living in Georgia, and his friend Tim is a successful businessman. The two desired to help alleviate poverty, so they planned to bring aquaponics to the third world. (Aquaponics is a system that allows fish and vegetables to grow interdependently.) They partnered with 127 Worldwide, a nonprofit in Raleigh, NC. This year, they will build their third aquaponics system in Africa to benefit children’s homes, medical clinics, local churches, schools, and families.
These men use their skills and their resources to help alleviate poverty and advance God’s kingdom. What about you? How are you leveraging your knowledge and resources? In the book When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett writes, “Each Christian has a unique set of gifts, callings, and responsibilities that influence the scope and manner in which to fulfill the biblical mandate to help the poor.”
The poor generally lack opportunities and resources to improve their circumstances. If we really want to help them, we will work together to provide sustainable economic solutions.
My African friends have many needs, and I love that God uses me to meet some of them. I never step into a tiny African hut empty-handed. My hands may carry food, books or a mattress. But I am not the solution to their problems; God is. I can offer them what they really need. I can offer the good news of a beautiful Savior who rescues His people from their sin.
As we respond compassionately to the many needs of vulnerable people, we must not forget to give them what they need most. Let’s give them Christ.
Learn more about suffering and the good life at The Wisdom Forum.