The Problem of Poverty

INTRODUCTION—THE PROBLEM OF POVERTY

           Despite the lifestyle of most modern Christians, poverty is an ethical problem with which Christians need to deal. At least 80% of the global population lives on less than $10 a day.[1] Where most Americans would consider making even $10 an hour as outrageous, the majority of the human race considers that kind of wage an abundance. This is certainly a Christian problem—and more heavily, it is an American Christian problem. Specifically speaking about American Christians, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert remark that “by any measure, we are the richest people to ever walk on planet Earth.”[2]

The Bible offers at least two reasons why we should be concerned about this issue: first, there is the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22.39). The term “neighbor” extends even (and especially) to those who are impoverished. If we were to truly try and sympathize with the plights of those who are living in poverty, we would surely desire to do whatever we could do to assist them. Loving our neighbors as ourselves would compel us to try all that we could to alleviate their hardship. Second, the Bible offers several specific commands to help the poor:

            If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of the towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be (Deut. 15:7-8).

           For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore, I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in your land (Deut. 15:11)

            Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him (Ps. 41:1)

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors Him (Prov. 14:31).

Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do (Gal. 2:10).

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:17).

The scriptural precedent is clear: one of the Christian’s most important duties is to assist the poor in their affliction. It should only come natural to those who are made in the image of God to want to preserve and maintain the sanctity of that image. Part of reflecting the image of God in the world is to care for that very same image in others. Love is what urges us to consider the poor. This love should be stirred whenever we understand exactly the effect that poverty has on those who suffer from it. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out that while North Americans tend to think of poverty in terms of “a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.,” this is not how the poor themselves evaluate their situation:

While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. Low income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation, and depression that are simply unparalleled in the lives of the rest of humanity.[3]

Poverty is seen here to not only be a barrier to economic fulfillment, but also spiritual fulfillment. Countless individuals are bound and shackled by the chains of “shame, inferiority, [and] powerlessness” that invariably prevent them from truly believing that Christ can offer them a life of abundance (John 10:10). So therefore, poverty is a problem of the utmost seriousness as it is a strong barrier to the advancement of the Gospel, the only hope for all of humanity.

INCORRECT APPROACHES

There are ways that Christians throughout history have attempted to solve this problem—most frequently, the Church has resorted to offering welfare. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is often done so unwisely. Too often we are only giving the poor some fish rather than teaching them how to fish. Scripture does not tell us to help lazy people meet their needs; rather the Bible says that the lazy person’s lack is a result of his sinfulness (2 Thess. 3:10; cf. 1 Timothy 5:5).  “The worst thing that we can do for the poor is to neglect them. The second worst thing we can do is to subsidize them.”[4] Admittedly, this approach is not wrong as a means of loving your neighbor as yourself and caring for the poor.[5] However, it is unsuitable as a long-term strategy for alleviating poverty.[6] Welfare is not effective wither when administered to individuals, or when provided to nations as a whole:

Foreign aid is not a very effective means of dealing with the failure of nations around the world today. Far from it. Countries need inclusive economic and political institutions to break out of the cycle of poverty. Foreign aid can typically do little in this respect, and certainly, not with the way that it is currently organized.[7]

In a similar way, redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor is not an effective solution. The majority of economists agree that the way to increase prosperity is to increase the amount of goods and services that one can offer.[8] When wealth is redistributed from the rich to the poor, no new goods and services are created or offered, resulting in the same amount of wealth being merely readjusted instead of increased. “It is wrong to say that justice requires an equal distribution of resources as such. It does not.”[9] The Bible promotes working hard and being able to enjoy and preserve what you earn. Taking from the more prosperous to give to the less is not at all a biblical principle and should be avoided.

BUSINESS MISSIONS AS A SOLUTION

What the world needs is a solution that provides both long-term sustainability and has the capacity for multiplication. The way to alleviate poverty is not to offer short-term welfare packages or to take from the rich and give to the poor, but rather to provide a means for people to move beyond welfare and not need assistance from the rich. The most obvious solution to these problems is business missions. “Business” because, as was seen above, the amount of goods and services one can offer is directly tied to prosperity and goods and services are most effectively generated through business. And “missions” because no matter how many goods and services are produced, if those that produce them are lazy, selfish, corrupt, etc., then the effort is in vain. The point of alleviating poverty is to free the impoverished from the chains of inferiority, shame, and powerlessness that prevent them from fully experiencing an abundant life in Christ. If corrupt business leaders are keeping all the profits for themselves, paying their employees poorly, providing unsafe working conditions, and so on, and that business is then multiplying and those problems are spreading, we are only spreading the kingdom of wicked men, not the kingdom of God. No, business owners who have been transformed by the Gospel and that have the glory of God as their motivation are the prime candidates for running and maintaining long-term, sustainable, multipliable businesses.

The Effectiveness of Business in Alleviating Poverty

Business is the most effective means of alleviating poverty in several respects, most importantly because it is through business that one is able to produce goods and services. Grudem says that he believes

the only long-term solution to world poverty is business. That is because business produces goods, and business produces jobs. And businesses continue producing goods year after year, and continue providing jobs and paying wages year after year. Therefore, if we are ever going to see long-term solutions to world poverty, I believe it will come through starting and maintaining productive, profitable businesses.[10]

In another way, starting businesses in poor nations and poor, undeveloped areas of productive nations will alleviate poverty by increasing effectiveness and productivity of the goods produces, lowering the cost of these items so that poorer people can utilize them and then in turn become more effective and productive contributors to society themselves.[11] In many ways, business is extremely effective in helping to alleviate poverty.

Business is also helpful because it is a means to enter into closed countries that normally would not allow a missionary. “Only tentmakers [businesspeople] can reach that 80% of the world that is largely closed to regular missionaries.”[12] There are far more places that a businessman can enter into rather than an “English teacher.” Also, there is the added benefit of having no ulterior motive and being deceptive about why they desire to enter the country, which is a moral and ethical concern to some. And of course, also being able to do this type of mission work without having to receive assistance from the local church is a plus, allowing the church’s resources to be used elsewhere. The benefits of business are many and its effectiveness to reach the lost is too often overlooked.

The Effectiveness of Missions in Conjunction with Business

In Barry Asmus and Wayne Grudem’s “The Poverty of Nations”, the authors note that “governmental law and entrenched special interests in a nation can be ‘structural’ forces that make it impossible for individual people to rise out of poverty. The laws and the powerful elites in a country may keep all the power and retain all the wealth for themselves.”[13] In other words, corrupt governments can be difficult barriers to overcome in alleviating poverty amongst the common people in some areas and nations. This is where missions done in conjunction with business is most effective. The big picture behind business as missions is that if you infiltrate a community with enough honest Christian businessmen, then you can radically transform the economic and spiritual climate of an area. Business works great with missions in a number of ways:

One, the pioneer businessman/entrepreneur/missionary is going to need to spend a lot of time with his employees. These of course are going to be locals that are going to be trained by this businessman. The businessman will need to oversee his startup until it is self-sustaining and the employees are competent enough to administer the responsibility of the business without the owner’s presence. Obviously, this is going to take a substantial amount of time—and that is the purpose. The missionary is going to be able to share the Gospel, biblical principles and morals, and honest trade skills with these individuals on a daily basis.

To be successful [in starting successful “kingdom businesses”] we also need to teach some basic business norms in cultures where they do not exist. Capitalism by itself, which is based on self-motivation, is not always enough. The good news is that basic business principles and norms are also good scriptural principles. We can teach these principles openly as we train people in the basic concepts of how business works.[14]

This will go a long way in seeing that any conversions and salvations that happen are legitimate and solid by allowing the newly converted employee to be disciple and help accountable during the early stages of his walk.

Two, by bringing locals into the business, especially men, the missionary will be able to teach these people honesty, integrity, and a good work ethic. So the biblical principles that are instilled into them will be put to immediate use in the workplace and will also be displayed and utilized in a family context. This allows the men in the area to faithfully fulfill the calling of a man that is given in the Bible: to work hard and provide for his family, to lead his family in truth and wisdom, and to teach by example these qualities. This has the effect of carrying on through generations so that over time they will become basic cultural ethics. This will help to eliminate the poverty-inducing cultural influences of some nations, as John Frame points out:

In general, it seems to me that in the poorest parts of the world people work very hard, or at least are willing to work hard when given the opportunity. One related problem, however, is that in many cultures people are not taught to save for the future, to educate themselves and their children for higher income, or to provide an inheritance for their children. They are taught to work for daily subsistence. Here religion plays a role. The Bible has taught people in the West a “future orientation”, a concern for later generations.[15]

Similarly, economist John Kenneth Galbraith says that the main problem in poor nations is accommodation to poverty, the perception of the people that nothing can be done about it and that they should resign themselves to a destitute future.[16] It is easy to see how these ideas are so detrimental to a people group, but it’s also easy to understand just how strong an effect biblical teachings mixed with business can have.

So not only is business going to improve the economic climate of an area, but will also provide benefits for the institution of the family, the personal character of the locals, and the overall mood and atmosphere of the area.

And many other things could be said about the usefulness of business in allowing the missionary to rub shoulders with city and government officials, garnering respect and influence within the community that he serves, and many other things.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, a few things need to be said about the ethic behind business missions. Obviously, a successful business missionary needs to be of the strongest moral fiber. It completely defeats the purpose for a business missionary to be a lover of money, for instance. It also is contrary to the Gospel if the businessman does not pay his employees a fair wage and treat them with dignity and respect. A business missionary needs to set the example, both as a boss and as a Christian, that he wants his employees to emulate.

And most importantly, what people need most is the Gospel, not money. “Since Scripture promises relative prosperity to those who obey the Lord, and since much of the prosperity of Europe and America comes from the influence of the gospel, I would say that the best thing we can do for the third world is to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to them.”[17] Improving the economic climate in an area is a means of creating a more receptive environment for the spreading of the Gospel. The poverty that we are trying to combat is one of “shame, embarrassment, and confinement”, not necessarily the lack of material possessions. It gains a man nothing to obtain the whole world and lose his soul.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats,” Global Issues: Social, Political, Economic, and Environmental Issues that Affect Us All, January 7, 2013, accessed May 13, 2015, http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats#src1.

 [2] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2009), 41.

[3] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2009), 52-53.

 [4] David Platt, Counter Culture (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015), 47.

 [5] The above is in regards to welfare given by the church. In respect to government support, I think John Frame has wise words here in his Doctrine of the Christian Life: “For the poorest of the poor, there is a place for government support. But that support should be light-handed. It should, when possible, prepare recipients and their children to earn their own living. It should encourage them to find work when they are able. It should turn their care over to families and religious bodies whenever possible.”

[6] Wayne Grudem, Business to the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 80.

 [7] Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fall: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 452-54.

 [8] Barry Asmus and Wayne Grudem, The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 103.

 [9] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 815.

[10] Grudem, 80-81.

 [11] Ibid., 81.

 [12] Ruth E. Siemens, “Tentmakers Needed for World Evangelism,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, A Reader, 3rd ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1999), 736.

 [13] Asmus and Grudem, 85.

 [14] Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth A. Eldred, On Kingdom Business (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 25.

 [15] Frame, 823.

 [16] John Kenneth Gilbraith, The Nature of Mass Poverty (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979),

[17] Frame, 824.

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