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What is the Problem
Scripture: Genesis 3:6-13; Revelation 3:14-18
Track 2 of 8 in the When Helping Hurts series
Running time: 1 hour, 03 minutes, 21 seconds.
Finding a sound diagnosis is absolutely critical for helping poor people without hurting them. It is a complex issue. Although the Bible is not a textbook on poverty, it does give us valuable information about the nature of human beings and of God and can point us in the right direction. Believe it or not, understanding poverty has its roots in the creation, the fall and redemption narrative found in scripture.

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Mike Nobis Speaker: Mike Nobis
Sunday School Teacher, Former Elder at Madison Park Christian Church. Mike is President of JK Creative Printers & Mailing in Quincy, IL. He is married to Pam and has three children, Tom, Tyler and Jennifer. Mike has three grandchildren: Ryne, Ivy and Alicia.

View all sermons by this speaker.

What is the Problem?

Poverty, when you hear this word, what are the images that come to your mind?

I want to take a minute and answer the question, what is poverty? What are some words to describe it?

Several organizations are working to help alleviate poverty in the world. One of the things they are doing is trying to understand what the problem is as they work to end it. What is hard to overcome is the fact that for some, poverty means one thing and for others, it means something else.

What were the differences between our words describing poverty versus the words used by those who live in poverty?

What many groups have found out, those of us who don’t live in poverty see the situation differently than those who do. While the poor mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in a far more psychological and social terms than those of us who live in the United States. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, desperation, social isolation and voicelessness.

In America, we tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc. As we continue in this study together, we will discover that this mismatch between perceptions can have devastating consequences when trying to deal with the poor.

How do the poor in the United States describe their own poverty?

Similar to World poverty, while there is a material dimension, there is also a loss to meaning, purpose, and hope that plays a major role in the poverty in America. The problems goes way beyond the material dimension so the solution also must go beyond the material as well.

In problem solving, what is the most important thing necessary to fixing a problem? Determining between what are the symptoms and what is the real cause. Trying to avoid misdiagnosing the underlying problem.

In the field of medicine for example, that really is art of being a doctor. I love the TV show “House”. It is all about trying to find out what really is killing the patient and working against time in order to find the problem and the proper treatment to cure the patient. The same is true in dealing with poverty. What is the real problem and what are just symptoms. Too often we misdiagnose the problem or end up treating the symptom.

What is the problem with this process? What makes understanding the situation and finding the solutions so hard?

Like all of us, poor people are not fully aware of all that is affecting their lives. Like many of us, poor people are not completely honest with themselves or with others. And even if a sound diagnosis is made, it might take several years to help people to overcome their problems. There will be lots of ups and downs in the relationship. It is very time consuming dealing with the poor. It is a lot more than just giving a handout to a poor person…a handout that just might do more harm than good.

Finding a sound diagnosis is absolutely critical for helping poor people without hurting them. It is a complex issue. Although the Bible is not a textbook on poverty, it does give us valuable information about the nature of human beings and of God and can point us in the right direction. Believe it or not, understanding poverty has its roots in the creation, the fall and redemption narrative found in scripture.

Poverty: A Biblical Framework

The one thing we primarily know about God is that he is a relational being existing as a three-in-one from all eternity. 3A: Beings made in God’s image (human beings) are relational as well. In fact we find in scripture that before the fall, God established four foundational relationships for each person.

Relationship with God: Our primary relationship. The other three flow from this one. Our primary purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Relationship with Self: Since we are created in the image of God we have inherent worth and dignity. We are not God but we are made higher than the other beings.

Relationship with Others: We were created to live in loving relationships with one another. We were not made into islands; we were made to know one another.

Relationship with Creation: God created us to be stewards of his creation (Genesis 1:28-30). God created the world perfect but he also created it incomplete so we would interact with it and make possibilities into realities and be able to sustain ourselves from the relations that we develop.

The surrounding oval represents the culture man was to create and live in. Our culture reflects the basic commitments to God, self, others and to creation. The system man created was to reflect the nature of our foundational relationships. If you notice, the arrows all point in two directions. People affect systems and systems affect people. All of this is built on the main relationship, our relationship with God.

The Fall Really Happened

I believe that a lot of the problem with poverty lies within the reality of the fall of mankind. No w, if you are a person who doesn’t believe in God or the fact that the fall really happened, then how you go about diagnosing the problem of poverty will be very different from someone who does believe in God and the great fall. When Adams and Eve sinned by disobeying God, immediately their relationship with each other became distorted and their relationship with God was damaged.

Genesis 3:6-13 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Reading this passage, what are some of the relational words that pop out at you?

The point to all of this is, if the four relational building blocks are affected and damaged, the effects also damage and alter the economic, social, religious and political systems man creates. And we can see the affects of the fall on man’s systems all throughout history.

According to Bryant Myers in his book, Walking with the Poor, his definition of poverty is this:

“Poverty is a 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 meanings.”

Strong's Concordance 7965 - Hebrew Shalom ..... Completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord.

Sar SHALOM (Prince of Peace) is one of the descriptive names the Bible uses to indicate the ministry and personality of the Messiah.

Based on what we just studied, who then are the poor? If poverty is rooted in the brokenness of the foundation relationships, then who is poor?

Revelation 3:14-18 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

According to what we just studied and if you look up and read what the Bible has to say about poverty, in a sense, all of mankind is poor by not being able to experience the four relationships the way God intended. Every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community and a poverty of stewardship. We are simply incapable of being what God created us to be and are unable to experience the fullness of joy that God designed for these relationships.

For some people, the brokenness in these foundational relationships results in material poverty. The broken relationships not only causes poverty but the effects of man’s broken system enhance the poverty and make life miserable. The suffering that goes on is due to not having enough income but many times the problem cannot be solved by giving more money or other material resources. For some who suffer from material poverty, more money is insufficient to heal the brokenness of the four foundational relationships.

Brokenness can manifest itself in many other different ways. There are many forms of poverty that most people don’t recognize as poverty. What about a person who has workaholic tendencies? Workaholics are people who suffer from the poverty if stewardship. Instead of seeing work as one way to glorify God, workaholics make work GOD. They try to find their purpose and meaning in life in their work. That is not what God designed man’s relationship to be with the rest of creation. A workaholic might not experience material poverty but they will experience the consequences that come with poverty of stewardship.

True or False: We are all broken, just in different ways.

There is a very important principle we all have to be aware of and must follow of we are to be successful in helping the low-income people, we all have to embrace our own mutual brokenness. If we don’t, then we will most likely do far more damage than good.

According to many studies done on the causes and effects of poverty, “Poverty of Being” is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, they often feel inferior to others. This can paralyze the poor from taking initiative from seizing opportunities to improve their situation. This often times locks them into material poverty.

These studies also have found that many of the economically rich also suffer from “Poverty of Being”. Any idea how it is manifested? 9B: God-Complex. A subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe that they achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people as they view as inferior to themselves.

Any examples of this in our country today?

Why do you want to help the poor? What truly motivates you? Do you really love the poor or do you have other motives?

When Helping Hurts: One of the biggest problems in many poverty alleviation efforts (Washington School) is that their design and implementation exacerbates the Poverty of Being. The God Complex vs. Inferiority and Shame. The way we act towards the economically poor often communicates, unintentionally, that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process, we hurt the poor and ourselves. Here is the kicker, studies have shown that this problem is stronger when middle class Christians try to help the poor. All of this is due to the incorrect perspective of the nature of poverty.

In the United States, the church finds itself locked into the following equation:
Material Definition of Poverty + God Complexes + Feelings of Inferiority = Harm to Both

So what can be done to break this equation?

Change the first term in the equation. Revise our understanding of the nature of poverty, to overcome the materialism of our western culture and see poverty in more relational terms.

To change the second term, we must experience ongoing repentance. Keep saying to ourselves every day, I am not OK and you are not OK but Jesus can fix us both.

By changing the first and second terms, the Holy Spirit can then use us to change the third term of the equation.