3 Essentials for Helping People Without Hurting Them...or Yourself

You’re at a stoplight, running late for an appointment, when a woman dressed in ragged clothes approaches your window. The sign in her hand shares only a fragment of her story, but it’s enough to tell you what she’s looking for. How do you respond? Your neighbor lost his job six months ago, and he’s confided in you that it’ll be a sparse Christmas for his children. He’s making the best of it, but you feel bad for the family. You consider surprising them by playing Santa. Should you?

Asking the Right Question

If you have a heart to help those in need, figuring out where and how to invest your resources can be mind-boggling. Run a Google search for “helping the poor” and you’ll find thousands of organizations eager for your partnership.

You ache over images of starving children, and boil over statistics about human trafficking. You want to adopt every orphan, feed every belly, and heal every ailing body.

But you can’t do it all, so you follow your heart to the need the touches you most. Even then, how do you know where to begin?

The best place to start is by asking yourself one very important question:

How do I help people without hurting them?

Rethinking Our Methods

It’s tragic that, despite the best of intentions, many efforts to help actually perpetuate the very needs we’re trying to eliminate. We give hand-outs as an act of compassion, but in doing so create dependency. We lavish gifts in a show of generosity, but in doing so reinforce the recipient’s sense of inadequacy and lack of self worth.

To genuinely help those in need, we have to be smart about our methods. Wise, effective help begins with 3 things:

1. A Humble Understanding of Poverty

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that because we have more material resources than “the poor,” we must also have more knowledge/faith/intelligence/education/work ethic, etc. The truth is, having money, food, clothing, and shelter doesn’t make us superior – it doesn’t even mean we are any less impoverished than the beggar on the street corner. Brian Fikkert, author of When Helping Hurts, says,

Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meaning. (When Helping Hurts, page 59)

In other words, poverty can have many faces, not all of them so obvious as the lack of material things. Some of us are relationally impoverished, without community. Others suffer the poverty of spiritual intimacy with their Creator. Some are mired in insecurity and self-loathing, impoverished in their sense of worth.

We must understand that in a broken world, poverty in its many forms is a common experience among mankind, rich or poor. If we are going to help the materially impoverished, we must first humbly understand our mutual need for restoration.


2. An Honest Examination of Motives

Hand-in-hand with humble understanding is the willingness to be honest about our reasons for serving. Many humanitarian organizations design fundraising and recruiting campaigns that pull at our heart-strings with images of forlorn victims of social injustice. Of course we feel compassion, but is that our primary motivation for taking action?

It feels good to help, but some of us relish the sense of heroism more than we know. Peter Greer, President of HOPE International and author of The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, says:

Most will assume a Wall Street investment banker would have a bigger ego than a humanitarian aid worker in Africa. But I have been around do-gooders my entire life—and am one—so I know there’s a desire to be seen as the hero in all of us. (The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, page 56)

If we’re not motivated by the thrill of “saving” people, or the accolades that often follow acts of service, perhaps we’re trying to earn God’s favor, or seeking redemption for something we regret.

The possible motivations for helping others are as diverse as we are. Some are good, others dangerous. But if we are not driven first and foremost by love for God and gratitude for His grace, we probably won’t have the long-term stamina, passion, or discipline needed to help without hurting.

In Greer’s words, our service should be “simply a response to the most radical generosity the world has ever known.” (The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, page 176)

3. A Focus on Relationship

Some of us serve the poor by writing a check, others through teaching, and some through personal discipleship. Whatever role we play in helping someone in need, we must remember that change primarily happens in relationship over the long haul.

We can’t all have rooted, empowering relationships with the people we want to help, and that’s okay. We all have different skills, spheres of influence, and emotional capacity. We just need to invest what we have to offer in ways that foster relationship.

We see this at work in our own organization with our sponsors' financial support of Sparrow’s Nest, and our team’s spiritual and emotional support of James. James’ relationship with our Imana Kids is one of grace, love, empowerment, and security. Because we know long-term change happens through long-term relationship, we do everything we can to support and equip James in his ministry on the ground.

This is also why we encourage sponsors to write letters to their children, and to join one of our short-term trips to Rwanda. By building meaningful relationships, we hope to encourage and empower our Imana Kids to positive, lasting change that will break the cycle of poverty.

If you would like to learn more about helping without hurting, consider these resources: