BY KELSI MACKLIN
A s Christians living in America, we automatically assume and expect that part of our Christian duty is to give to the poor or to help the needy in some financial or material fashion. Not only is this a way for us to model Jesus in the world, but the Bible directly tells us that God desires for us to fight against injustice and to defend the orphan and the widow (James 1:27). However, sometimes we assume that if we give financially to a Christian, non-profit organization, or serve in our church’s homeless ministry, or even go on a short-term mission trip, this will fulfill our social duty as Christians. We look at it as a duty to be fulfilled or a checkbox on our list to fulfill our social role in this world. But we fail to take into consideration the ultimate spiritual need people have and rather replace it by meeting solely physical needs.
In the summer of 2011, I went on a mission trip to China. Our mission team spent a week at a special needs orphanage and we were able to love on the children, play with them, and pray over them. Being at this orphanage caused me to reexamine everything in my life that I had placed importance on and I came to a startling revelation that what I had considered important issues in my life seemed to pale in light of the desperate circumstances of these children. I came back to the United States and tried to get into a routine, but all I could see were the faces of those little children everywhere I went. I was overwhelmed by the need these children had and I wanted nothing more than to provide each and every one of them with a loving family. But I felt helpless in being able to do anything, not only for them, but also for orphans all over the world and even children who are hurting here in America.
Recently a friend gave me a book to read called When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Their main point is that good works and charitable deeds, such as financial and material support for the poor, can in reality hurt people more than help them, especially when good intentions come from a mindset of superiority that fails to take into account the social and cultural context of the need. The authors’ framework is that material poverty is not the ultimate need of the world; the problem is a broken relationship with God that leads to broken relationships with each other and with our environment. I don’t mean to discredit the enormous need these orphans in China had for a family, but I had been solely looking at the solution to their situation as wrapped up in a family. I had not taken into consideration the ultimate need these children had for Jesus, because only Jesus could truly heal the brokenness in their hearts.
My heart still breaks for the children I’ve met in China, but I know that even if it was in my power to give each child a family, that would not meet their ultimate spiritual needs. I’ve come to realize that material poverty is wrapped up in a broken relationship with Jesus, and I’m starting to see that serving the poor looks differently than what I had originally assumed. It not only includes providing material goods but also providing for spiritual needs. Jesus calls me to love and have compassion for those around me and to point them to Him. So when I’m loving and caring for people here in Berkeley, I see it as a way of loving and caring for those children in China. And when I volunteer my time or give food to the poor, I do it with the intention of pointing them to Jesus, knowing that only Jesus can fully satisfy their needs beyond the physical ones that I can see.