Most mornings I’m awoken by the sound of a bird tapping on the glass in my bedroom window. She usually sits outside a living room window, but if I’m not up early enough, she comes to find me outside my bedroom. If she knows I’m in a room she’ll sit for hours and tweet and tap on the window, waiting for me to pay attention to her.
When I first moved into this house I thought maybe she must have had a nest inside at one point. Or maybe she remembered something from her past that drove her inside. I couldn’t figure it out. Then one day I crumbled up some old bread and put it outside on her windowsill while she watched me from safe distance. She came right down as soon as the coast was clear and started munching happily.
Then I realized that someone who lived here before must have fed her. And now, instead of hunting for her own food, she would spend all of her waking hours ramming her head and beak into a window, waiting for food to be delivered, just sitting in the nearest tree and chirping if she couldn’t get anything to eat.
At first my little bird friend made me feel like some weird African version of a Disney princess. I talk to the geckos in my house, the frogs that try to get in have names, I hold negotiations with the spiders (if you don’t come any closer I’ll let you live and go on your merry way), and now a bird would happily spend her entire day sitting on my window sill and talking to me.
But as the days have worn on, I’ve started to feel sorry for her. Does she even remember how to get her own food? Is it hurting her to bang her head against the glass? What twisted instinct won’t let her go about her day like a normal bird?
Have you ever read the book, “When Helping Hurts”? If you haven’t, you need to find a copy. The book talks all about what some people call a White Savior Complex. It’s full of lots of hard truths that make us evaluate what we often see as our most selfless urges. It helps us recognize our pride and our twisted understandings of how to actually help people in different situations than us. It gives a clear picture of all the brokenness in our world since Adam and Eve first ate that fruit, and how often as white people, or Westerners, we are blind to some of that brokenness.
To illustrate that point, let me give you a quick quiz. Think about each situation and come up with the best course of action you could take in it.
- A church member is bitten by a snake. His foot swells up so badly he cannot walk and doesn’t seem to be healing. He can’t get to a clinic and can’t afford medicine that would cost less than a meal would cost you. What will you do or bring next time you see him?
- Your church has a children’s choir and they want to buy cheap matching shirts for the kids so they can take pride in helping to lead worship. They mention the need to you and ask if you can give less than $15 to cover the total cost.
- A neighbor you’ve never met comes to your door to explain about the children’s home she helps with. She asks if you’d be able to give a small donation?
- A recent storm took the roof off of an African church you attend weekly. The sheet metal they want to use to replace it costs just a little over what your monthly tithe would be. Or you also know of a church in the States you could connect them to that would pay for the roof and more without batting an eyelash.
- Because you receive an American salary instead of an African one, dropping as much as $5 in the offering plate more than doubles the offering for the whole church. How do you give an offering?
- In the capital city any traffic stop is crowded with street kids and mothers with babies begging at the car windows for food, money, anything. How do you interact with them?
- A woman from your neighborhood shows up at your door one night asking for help, and she really seems to be in a bad way. She knows you work at a local church and thinks you can help.
- A family shows up every month at your church’s food pantry. They live in their car and are caring for grandkids.
What were some of your answers? Did they involve money or material gifts? Easy, one-time solutions to the problems? Would you have ‘fixed’ every problem it was in your financial power to ‘fix?’ Did these situations make you squirm? Did you feel any guilt or shame?
First off, I want to say that I don’t have easy answers to any of the questions and difficulties this blog post is focusing on. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, and from what I’ve seen so far, the best answers are ones that come from deep prayer and learning wisdom from others who’ve been living and working through scenarios like these for years. I also want to say that all of these are real scenarios either I or close friends of mine have experienced. And believe me, they have made me squirm and feel some deep guilt. If these questions don’t make you uncomfortable, or if you don’t live close enough or expose yourself to needs like these often, I think Jesus would say you’re doing something wrong. He seemed to nearly always be within arms’ reach of the hurting, the poor, the sick, the broken-spirited.
Next, I think it’s very important to recognize that we should take our cues here from Jesus himself, not necessarily from books or popular cultural wisdom, or even political opinions. Having read the book, “When Helping Hurts,” I can tell you that it struck me as very much in line with what Scripture teaches and how Jesus interacts with the least of these in the Gospels. So, again, I would urge you to pick up a copy or find an audiobook version.
But now let’s get down to brass tacks. The book talks about the white savior complex, and I have seen it and participated in it more times than I care to admit. Something in us, admirable at its heart, sees hungry children and wants to feed them, sees out of work fathers and wants to help them provide for their family, sees mothers with no support and wants to help them get back on their feet. Those things aren’t wrong in themselves, but we often have a very twisted way of going about helping.
What “When Helping Hurts” talks about is that, being perhaps more materially blessed than our counterparts who need help, we want to give them material things to fix their problems: money, food, gifts to meet the immediate needs. There is CERTAINLY a time and place for this type of giving. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t read their New Testament.
The problem comes, though, in how and why we give those gifts. When we have money to give away, medicine to fix an illness, donations to meet a need, what we often don’t recognize is that our gifts can sometimes make the receiver feel more helpless and incapable. And often with our response of material giving, we unintentionally communicate that material wealth can fix problems, and that because we have that material wealth to give, we are more whole or have fewer problems ourselves.
This is a Western, and often white, mindset. And it has some huge blind spots. Think about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for a second. He opens with describing what we think of as poor and broken people. The lowest of the low. The least of these. But if you look closer, that’s not actually who he describes.
In Matthew 5, Jesus talks about the poor in spirit, the people who mourn, the meek or low people, people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
Can those people be materially poor? Sure! But the text actually says not one thing about that. It talks more about people who are broken in spirit, who are relationally and spiritually poor, not hungry or materially impoverished.
Those phrases, “relationally poor” and “spiritually poor” sound strange to us. They’re not categories we often use to measure wealth or brokenness. That is our white, western blind spot. Whether we would recognize and say it out loud or not, often on some level we see most brokenness as connected to material poverty, not poverty of the soul. And in so doing, we often miss our own poverty of the soul. Depression, isolation, loneliness, aimlessness, poor self-esteem—these are all the problems of people impoverished of the soul. It’s the westerner’s own patented brand of brokenness, and much of what we would call the materially poor world doesn’t struggle with it like we do. They have tight communities, close family, they often share resources and spend hours on hours of relational time together.
When we try to fix a snake bite by giving medicine, instead of teaching the budding medical worker in our church congregation what it means to visit and learn to care for their neighbor, we focus on material poverty instead of relational poverty.
When we throw money or material gifts at problems without stopping to consider their larger context and causes, we put a material band-aid on a broken soul problem. I don’t mean that we should roll down our windows and hand a tract to the street kid or only share the gospel with the woman who shows up at your door asking for help. James bluntly calls that faith without works and he says it’s useless to close the door and send them home wishing them well-fed and peaceful and warm. There is a time and place for material gifts.
But so often we mistake a need for spiritual and relational gifts for a need for material gifts. So often we give money or material things instead of giving time spent together grieving, or visiting, or listening, or an opportunity to help someone learn to provide for themselves, or to help a church grow in its faith by seeing they are capable of raising their own money for the project God has laid on their heart. We give away opportunities left and right to mentor people or walk with them through a problem when we just try to give them a Thanksgiving food basket and call it a day.
What’s worse, when we give that food basket and don’t spend time getting to know the family in need, we can easily think we’ve saved the day. We might think that because we walk away feeling good about ourselves for meeting a material need, or because we don’t see the relational and spiritual needs we didn’t spend the time to notice. Maybe what that family really needed was a friend, a neighbor, someone to connect them to a job. But we’ll never know that because we didn’t spend the time of day with the family to hear about any other brokenness besides material.
I’m white. In rural Africa especially I get mistaken for a dollar sign. While I may be poorer than some of you reading this, If I’m not careful, my small gift of less than two dollars can double the offering for a church service in a poorer section of the camps. And that can create problems I would never think about.
For example, when someone asked us to buy uniforms for the children’s choir, if I couldn’t have afforded the expense, I almost certainly could have connected them to a church happy to do it. But does that really help, in the long run? Maybe. But if the church asks for this, what else could we find the depths of our pockets to help with? Do they learn to give sacrificially? Or do they learn to depend on outside help? What happens when I’m not there? Have I helped at all? Yeah, I met a physical need, but did I deprive of an opportunity to learn a spiritual truth, to have the blessing and pride of watching your own children dancing and praising the Lord in uniforms you saved and prayed for the Lord to provide? When I leave a church to go ‘help’ another, will this church know how to run by itself, or will they continue habits, like depending on others, to run smoothly? That may be an exaggeration of what I would be capable of doing in a church, but all of those are pitfalls that have tripped up not just missionaries, but good-intentioned Christians all around the world who understand that God loves a cheerful giver, but don’t always think through how best to give of themselves.
White people here are usually here for one of three reasons: missionaries, aid workers, or businessmen. We come from affluent societies with truly heartfelt desires to help, but we can often be misguided. If we think we can come and dump knowledge of how to run a church, better hygiene, or better business practices, we may in the end help short-term with the money situation. But it’s the old proverb of ‘give a man a fish, and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.’ We can’t just throw money around and think we’re helping. We have to realize that we may come into economic brokenness, but our spiritual or social brokenness can be just as crippling. What do I know of hospitality? Of sharing my last scraps of food just to make someone feel welcome and like part of my family? Do I have a poverty of relationships in the way my neighbors may suffer from economic poverty? Is my tendency to make a business arrangement like a house lease with as little personal contact as possible to keep a distance or respect privacy?
My neighbors sit down to tea first to show kindness and goodwill before ever bringing up business. They’re happy to teach me to make tea like they do even if it means they have to choke down something unpalatable a few times. They immediately know the sadness it must be to live alone and isolated rather than valuing independence at the expense of relationships. I could funnel all the financial resources I could connect to into Africa and not even fix the problems in my own neighborhood. These problems come at root from neighbors who do not know they are cherished children of God. They come from broken senses of self and not knowing how to think of money in the long-term, or not having family that taught them how to plan financially.
But I come bearing my own problems of fierce independence at the expense of relationships. I come with a worldview completely alien to Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“ Do you know what that really means? It means that if my African neighbors have a better grasp of spiritual poverty and understand their need for God and the community of believers better than I do, they truly have a better grasp of the Kingdom of Heaven. Because I don’t know what it means to be poor, to give a widow’s mite, to use the last flour and oil in my house to bake bread for a prophet, to give a thanksgiving offering to the church because I recognize the Lord’s blessing in my life. I have a LOT to learn from the people I live in and amongst.
So what does all of this have to do with the bird that spends her life in my windowsill pecking and asking for bread? Not much, just this: sometimes it’s easy to give out bread and think you’re being helpful or saving someone a little trouble. And sometimes you are. But we must be ever so careful that when we give out that bread, we aren’t thinking of ourselves more highly because of it. And we have to think through very, very carefully—are we meeting a need in a way that helps for a lifetime, or are we meeting a need in way that cripples in the long term and teaches dependency? Are we walking alongside someone for the long haul and giving dignity and empowerment, or are we putting a material bandaid on a much deeper need and patting ourselves on the back?