Book Review: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert


“Does our desire to help those in need cause us to really hurt those in need because we are not thoughtful in our approach to their needs?”  This is the haunting question that Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert bring to light in the challenging yet helpful book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself.

I have had this book recommended to me over the past several years since it was first published.  Knowing the contents of this book, I have been hesitant to read it knowing that this book would call me to question and change the way that I view missions and reaching out.  The book has raised more questions than I feel like I have answers to and has opened a discussion that every Christian who has a heart for the needs of others and every Christian leader needs to engage.

Corbett and Fikkert address the programs and approach to poverty ministry in a church, local, and global context.  The book is written in a way that focuses on stories of the good, bad, and the ugly of reaching out to those in need.  The book also includes a storyline that follows a local church as they wrestle with the challenge of helping the hurting without hurting them in the process.

The most helpful ideas in the book, in my opinion, are the equation that often defines people’s relationship to the poor and the definition of an effective method of helping the poor.

The equation of the often found current relationship is:

“Material Definition of Poverty + God-complexes of Materially Non-Poor + Feelings of Inferiority of Materially Poor = Harm to Both Materially Poor and Non-Poor” (p. 64)

Corbett and Fikkert redefine helping the poor through the following method definition:

“Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.” (p. 74)

When Helping Hurts calls Christians and churches to embrace relationships over programs, partnership over ownership, collaboration over process, and holistic life change over a handout.  This is a profoundly helpful and challenging book that will change the way readers think of helping the least of these.