the danger of the god-complex

[What I've learned from the book When Helping Hurts (Part 1 of ?)]

Blogs seem to require a certain amount of self-disclosure..  So here’s mine: I was fired from my first job.  Not laid off.  Not let go during a company-wide workforce reduction.  I was just fired.  Blame it on the immaturity of youth, the college lifestyle I was still living, or my irrationally powerful FOMO [1] that makes even the thought of falling asleep before anyone else unbearable because I might be missing out on something… Whatever the reason(s), I could NOT get myself to wake up and get to work on time.  (hm.. not much has changed, huh?..)

But in all seriousness, getting fired was an incredibly humbling experience.  I’d been told for years that I was smart, talented, capable…  how in the world did I get fired??  Talk about a blow to my ego.

I could be homeless…

No joke – one thought that kept plaguing me during that time was how easy it would be to become homeless.  If I hadn’t had such a supportive safety net of friends and family willing to help me out (and even periodically pay my credit card bills – thanks SO much, meimers!!), I don’t know what would have happened.  Would I have been willing to push pride aside and get a job that was “beneath” me and my education level in order to pay my bills?  Would I have been willing to forgo fun and friends to work whatever hours necessary to feed and house myself?  Sadly, I’m not sure I would have based on my immaturity and FOMO levels at the time :/

…but I had safety nets.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I never had to experience the consequences of my poor life decisions.  I had friends and family who were supportive, still thought I was smart and capable, and continued to encourage me despite my lapses in maturity/judgment/discipline/etc…

I’m pretty sure I’d be in a very different place now if not for those safety nets… 

It’s interesting how we end up in situations that have nothing to do with how inherently awesome (or not) we are.  I can’t take any credit for the fact that my parents studied hard, took a huge risk in moving to the US by themselves, and worked for years to make a good life for us…  And yet I’ve definitely benefited.

The problem is I DO take credit for it.  There’s at least a part of me that thinks I’m somehow “better” because I grew up in a nice house in a nice neighborhood with well-educated, successful parents.  On its own, this thought may not be a bad thing.  No one really gets hurt if I think I’m awesome…  until I decide I want to help others.

Wait, what?…  Just hear me out.

If I think I’m better than the materially less fortunate, what happens when I want to help? “How can I help you?”  On the surface, it’s an innocent – perhaps even loving – question.  Dig a little deeper, and you can sense a bit of a god-complex.  I live in a nice place, I’ve got it (mostly) together financially… so I’M in a position to help YOU.

If you’ve somehow been able to follow my line of thinking, you know it’s not necessarily true.

The person I want to help was born into a situation she had no control over.  She might be smart and capable, but maybe a temporary lapse in judgment without the safety nets I had has put her in a bad situation.  

If I only focus on her bad situation and how she needs help, I could totally miss out.  SHE might have some insights into something I’M going through.  There’s an even better chance thatshe has valuable insights into how to help her own community – after all, she lives there!

Let’s work together.

That’s why I love the recent movement towards collaboration in alleviating poverty. [2] Organizations are realizing the benefit of working WITH communities to determine the best strategies for empowerment and transformation.  Instead of coming in with ideas of how WE think things should be done, we’re coming alongside individuals to learn about their actual specific needs as well as what THEY have to offer. [3] Less “what can I do for you”, and more “how can we make this better TOGETHER”.

It’s about empowering, affirming, and working together.  Kind of like what my friends and family did for me back in the day 

[1] fear of missing out

[2] http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/listening_to_those_who_matter_most_the_beneficiaries

[3] Asset mapping/inventorying “uses individual or group-based interviews to catalogue the assets in a particular community… Once local assets are ‘mapped’… community residents and facilitators can identify strengths, make linkages between existing individuals and groups, and determine the best ways to leverage these assets to improve the community and solve problems.” (When Helping Hurts)

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Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert talk about this more eloquently in Chapter 5 of their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself.  Here are a few excerpts:

“starting with a focus on needs amounts to starting a relationship with low-income people by asking them, ‘What is wrong with you?  How can I fix you?’… Starting with such questions initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them.”

“’asset-based community development’… puts the emphasis on what materially poor people already have and asks them to consider from the outset, ‘What is right with you?  What gifts has God given you that you can use to improve your life and that of your neighbors?  How can the individuals and organizations in your community work together to improve your community?’… Indeed, the very nature of the question – What gifts do you have? – affirms people’s dignity”

“Of course, as the process proceeds, it may become clear that the individual or community does not have sufficient assets to address all of the needs.  If and when such needs become pressing, it is then appropriate to bring in outside resources to augment local assets… gauging the appropriate magnitude and timing… takes an enormous amount of wisdom.”

(more on what this could look like in future posts…)

what if Christians were more like Jesus?

(main sources: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, and the book of Matthew in the Bible)

Let’s start with a quote from When Helping Hurts:

“When people look at the church, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus!”(Corbett & Fikkert, p.40)

Sadly, the following is what people actually see:

In 2006, Barna researchers found that only 16 percent of “individuals who had no strong religious convictions themselves… had a good impression of Christianity. Worse, only 3 percent [had] a favorable impression of ‘evangelicals,’ with 49 percent saying they [had] a bad impression! One interviewee put it this way: ‘Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe’… The data also suggests that [Christians] have become defined by those things we are against rather than those we are for. We’re seen to beagainst homosexuality and gay marriage, against pornography and sexual promiscuity, againstalcohol and drug use, abortion, divorce, Islam, evolution… even against those who believe that global warming is a threat.’” (Stearns, p.227, 229)

I wonder what survey respondents in Jesus’ day would say about him

Actually, the Jewish religious leaders who wanted to kill him were probably more likely to be viewed the way Christians are today. They were the ones who strictly adhered to the Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath, tithing, fasting, etc. Jesus, on the other hand, was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, not making his disciples fast, and hanging out with prostitutes and tax-collecting swindlers. True, he probably did want to convert everyone. (I mean, if Christians really believe in the necessity of faith in Jesus, it would be hypocritical not to share about it.) But for Jesus, the thousands of people listening to him each day were there of their own volition and actually wanted to hear him speak.

Maybe Christians would be better received if we lived and communicated more like Jesus did:

“When we committed ourselves to following Christ, we also committed to living our lives in such a way that a watching world would catch a glimpse of God’s character – His love, justice, and mercy – through our words, actions, and behavior.” (Stearns, p.3)

Let’s break this down.

1. What if we communicated God’s character with only our words?

:: Mississippi in the 1960s ::

“Racial tensions were high as the federal government sought to end segregation… Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi…. terrorized African Americans throughout the region. Bowers was suspected of plotting at least nine murders of African Americans and civil rights workers, seventy-five bombings of African-American churches, and numerous beatings and physical assaults…

“While Reverend [Charles] Marsh preached personal piety and the hope of heaven, African Americans were being lynched… What would King Jesus do in this situation? Would He simply evangelize the African Americans, saying, ‘I have heard your cries for help, but your earthly plight is of no concern to me. Believe in Me, and I will transport your soul to heaven someday. In the meantime, abstain from alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity”? Is this how Jesus responded to the blind beggar who pleaded for mercy [and so many others who asked for healing]?” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.35-37)

No WAY..

As James said in the Bible, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17).

What has happened to the church?

:: The Great Reversal ::

“The idea that the church should be on the front lines of ministry to the poor is not a new concept in the North American context. As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreted the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the ‘Great Reversal’ in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.43-44)

Of course, in response to the Great Reversal, we shouldn’t just shift to dealing solely with social problems without teaching truth.

2. What if we communicated God’s character with only actions?

:: Bolivia ::

“A Christian relief and development agency attempted to improve crop yields for poor farmers in Bolivia’s Alto Plano. Although successful in increasing output, the impact on the farmers’ incomes was far less than hoped because of the farmers’ deep reverence for Pachamama, the mother earth goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. Seeking Pachamama’s favor, farmers purchased llama fetuses, a symbol of life and abundance, to bury in their fields before planting. At the time of the harvest, the farmers held a festival to thank Pachamama. The larger the harvest, the larger the celebration was. In fact, a large percentage of the farmers’ income was being spent on the fetuses and on the harvest festival, thereby contributing to the farmers’ material poverty. (Corbett & Fikkert, p.80)

:: Rwanda ::

“Converts need to be trained in a biblical worldview that understands the implications of Christ’s lordship for all of life… Failure to include this “all of life” element in the gospel has been devastating in the Majority World. There is perhaps no better example of this than Rwanda. Despite the fact that 80 percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christians, a bloody civil war erupted in 1994 in which the Hutu majority conducted a brutal genocide against the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates. Over a three-month period, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, the vast majority of them Tutsis. How could this happen?… For most Rwandans, Christianity was ‘little more than a superficial, privatized veneer on a secular lifestyle characterized by animistic values and longstanding tribal hatred and warfare… The church was silent on such critical life-and-death issues as the dignity and worth of each person made in the image of God.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.45-46)

Bolivians and Rwandans have years of rich culture and history that have consciously and subconsciously contributed to their belief systems, just as years of culture and history have influenced our North American understanding of the gospel (sometimes resulting in beliefs that may not be completely Biblical, as evidenced by the Great Reversal).  Culture and history should definitely be taken into consideration when trying to figure out how to communicate and understand the truth of who Jesus is most fully (i.e. contextualization), but great care should be taken in determining what the unadulterated truth of the gospel actually is.

That being said, clearly communicating truth is essential and universal. As Corbett & Fikkert explain, “[teaching] the values of a ‘Protestant work ethic’ without teaching about the Creator of those values and about the transforming power of Jesus Christ is like giving out penicillin without ever explaining the source of the penicillin’s power.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.91-92). Yes, Jesus healed and hung out with people – but that’s not all he did. He also preached a ton of truth about who he was and his role in the fulfillment of Jewish law – and that was absolutely necessary for people to understand the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s go one step further.

In When Helping Hurts, Corbett & Fikkert write that “the coexistence of agonizing poverty and unprecedented wealth… is an affront to the gospel… [What] is at stake is not just the well-being of poor people – as important as that is – but [also] the very authenticity of the church’s witness” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.16)

We’ve already seen that the church’s witness is pretty bad right now, and it’s not doing us or God any good if we as Christians – people who are supposed to be Christ’s ambassadors of love, justice, and mercy – are not doing anything about this coexistence of poverty and incredible wealth.

“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers. Let those numbers sink in for just a minute. Think of the possibilities. Think of the resources. Ponder the potential to change the world if all of these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (Stearns, p.237)

More on this next time…