When reading the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor ... and Yourself, one passage stood out to me as an important analogy for understanding God’s providential work in sanctification. We often wonder why God allows, directs, or initiates difficulties and trials in our lives. The Bible is full of these promises that we will have to face many troubles (e.g., Rom. 8:17; Acts 14:23; John 16:33). Paradoxically, Scripture also assures us that we can count such problems in a positive way since we understand that God is doing good to us by means of the negative things we suffer (James 1:2-5). I decline to give a facile explanation of the problem of evil (more needs to be said than what can be done here). I aim to take on difficulty of God’s providence in our sanctification by looking at the observation of Corbett and Fikkert about helping the poor in economic development.
In both sanctification and economic decisions, we might like it if God or some other wise and trustworthy individual would just take over and run the show of our lives properly. Or, as with parenting and helping people in deep poverty, we might wish we to be that trustworthy individual to make decisions for them. Obviously, coercive and paternalistic approaches are a fail, and we see this in God’s work with us also. Instead of coercing us, God kindly directs us forward while using the varied circumstances of our daily life to good ends. For example, God joined his providential intention to the great evil of Joseph’s brothers’ intention to sell him as a slave. By God’s involvement, the result was to use Joseph to avert the worst effects of the seven-year famine in the Mediterranean region. God upholds free choices (even for evil acts) while directing the outcomes to good purposes.
God’s people suffer daily all the same stuff that everyone does: sickness, car wrecks, earthquakes, injuries, ethnic discrimination, aging, interpersonal conflicts, disabilities, and myriad other afflictions that are ultimately rooted in the curse for sin. The difference for the Christian is that we are assured that some benefit of our conformity to Jesus is God’s intention mysteriously accomplished by means of the pain (Rom. 8:28-29). Knowing this surely can add to our hope despite the pain, and our ability to look through things to the goals God intends to carry forward (cf. Jesus’ focus on the goal on the other side of the pain, as noted in Heb. 12:1-3).
Now to economics. Corbett and Fikkert observe that in bringing people to try new things that can improve their situation, they must make choices for themselves. They explain:
“Three common triggers for change for individuals or groups are: 1) a recent crisis; 2) the burden of the status quo becoming so overwhelming that they want to pursue change; or 3) the introduction of a new way of doing or seeing things that could improve their lives. The role of the helper with respect to each of these triggers is different … [A crisis] may make them open to reconsidering their current lifestyle. The role of the helper in this situation may simply be to ask questions to get the person to examine themselves and to provide encouragement when they start to consider making positive changes … Fostering the second trigger might involve stopping the provision of “handouts” to people who are not destitute so that they can feel the burden of their current situation more acutely and be triggered to take actions that will improve their lives …” (208).
Economic choices and our faltering attempts to contribute to improved economic decisions for better quality of life in the Global south depend on people freely embracing new ways of doing things (not just embracing charity). Savings, entrepreneurial initiatives, collaboration, and experimentation are all new modes of living to surmount the poverty line of living on $2 a day. By continually mitigating severe poverty without working towards development, our well-intentioned charity efforts may have the unintended effects of sheltering people from what they need to embrace in new ways of doing things. Without economic crises or the pervasive burden of a status quo in severe poverty, people are less likely to detach from traditions and familiar ways. By analogy, if we stand in the rain holding an umbrella for our friend, all the while telling him that he needs to get his own umbrella, we are getting in the way of him feeling the need for obtaining his own shelter from the rain.
Obviously, we do not want to be cold-hearted and deserving of the rebuke of James 2:14-16; certainly we must do the best we may to provide assistance. Assistance must be discerning, since some situations require immediate relief, others need rehabilitation, and some would benefit most from development (99ff). The unintended damage of giving relief help is that sometimes we only give the poor man a fish to eat for that day, and we fail to leave him open to desiring to learn to fish for himself. We might try to teach him how to fish, but so long as we have done the fishing for him, we deprive him the incentive to seek anything different from that status quo. If we can be attentive to the way crises and the burden of the status quo can influence people to desire new ways of doing things, then we might find more people interested in learning how to fish.
This complicated interplay of choice and circumstances is the same as for a free embrace of new things in living with God generally, and specifically for engaging with providential renewal in sanctification. For example, when we have needs or desires and pray for God to care for us, he may see it is best to deny us a handout so that we feel the burden of the status quo and desire what God may be calling us to by means of our distresses. God may even distress us in various ways to accomplish triggering our willing acceptance of his alternatives to our familiar ways in living our own program (the flesh).
Clearly, divine revelation has provided “the introduction of a new way of doing or seeing things that could improve” our lives, but we are often so slow to embrace it fully. God then seems to use crises and the burden of the status quo to draw us out of the familiar and towards the strange, where he then meets with us and changes us bit by bit. We normally get frustrated when God does not protect us better, or when God withholds the provisions that we seek from him. The idea of using these crises and burdens as triggers to lead us to embrace change seems harsh, but perhaps we are just slow to learn and reluctant to leave familiar ways behind.
The analogy of economics and sanctification is that change and progress are complicated and difficult. The problems of poverty mirror to the wealthy our poverty in sanctification. We might see the abject hopelessness and intractable distress of people inhabiting the Global south, and we yet envision for them to experience a better standard of living. Similarly, God has visions for our well-being that are difficult for us to imagine and embrace instead of the status quo in our individualism, illusions of self-sufficiency, and seemingly intractable attachments to sin.
 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2009).