Darrow Miller and Friends

What is Poverty, Really?

Poverty as seen in Jakarta
“Jakarta slumhome 2” by Jonathan McIntosh – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“A lack of money.”

That’s probably how most people would define poverty. But those who actually live in poverty may be more qualified to answer. If so, what might they say?

A few years ago, someone from HOPE International interviewed 20 people, most of whom lived on less than $2 per day. How would they define poverty?

Their answers momentarily; first, a related observation.

Our Bible teachers—professors and pastors—have told us that “poverty” in the New Testament should not be understood as merely financial. For example, Jesus is talking about more than material want when he says, announcing the launch of his earthly ministry, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19 ESV).

Poverty is more comprehensive than the lack of money because imago Dei humans are more complex than piggy banks. People who endure extreme financial scarcity experience brokenness in multiple ways. So we should not be surprised, really, to read how people living on less than $2 per day responded when asked, “What is poverty?”

Poverty is …

  • An empty heart.
  • Not knowing your abilities and strengths.
  • Not being able to make progress.
  • Isolation.
  • No hope or belief in yourself. Knowing you can’t take care of your family.
  • Broken relationships.
  • Not knowing God.
  • Not having basic things to eat. Not having money.
  • A consequence of not sharing.
  • A lack of good thoughts.

Can any true Christ follower read that and not grieve?

To understand the implications, read Peter Greer’s article, “How People Who Live on Less than Two Dollars a Day Taught Me to Redefine Poverty” at The Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. He points out that these responses illustrate what we have heard from writers such as Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett (authors of When Helping Hurts): handouts are rarely effective.

If poverty is not only a material deficit, but also not knowing one’s potential, abilities, and strengths—as well as having an empty heart—then traditional charity neglects to address the root causes of poverty.

Handouts will never enable individuals to recognize their abilities, maximize their potential, or believe their situation will ever change.

Unintentionally, aid can leave people still caught in despair, hopeless, and powerless.

We who profess to follow Jesus need an accurate understanding of poverty. Without that, we cannot effectively contribute to its end.

If we don’t know what poverty is, we cannot truly offer the shalom of God.

  • Gary Brumbelow

See these posts on this subject:

Poverty: It’s Not Too Late to Win the War

How a Welfare Mentality Crushed the War on Poverty

Ideas, Not Money, Transform Communities

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Gary is the Disciple Nations Alliance editorial manager. He manages Darrow Miller and Friends and serves as editor and co-writer on various book projects. For eight years Gary served as a cross-cultural church planting missionary among First Nations people of Canada. His career also includes 14 years as executive director of InterAct Ministries, an Oregon-based church-planting organization in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Gary is a graduate of Grace University, earned an MA from Wheaton College and a Graduate Studies Diploma from Western Seminary. He lives near Portland, Oregon with his wife, Valerie. They have two married sons and twelve grandchildren. In addition to his work with the DNA, Gary serves as the pastor of Troutdale Community Church.


  1. Nathan Miller

    January 29, 2015 - 11:39 am

    I am reminded of a quote from the late Mother Theresa which some years ago reshaped my view of poverty. She said:

    “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

    I often rail against the redefinition of words to suit a new generation’s purposes and I try to apply the same standard to those with whom I agree – so at first I struggled with whether this use is a perversion of the original intent of the English word “poverty.” Enter Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the English Language – a portion of his 2nd definition helped with clarity:

    “Poverty – 2. Barrenness of sentiment or ornament; defect; as the poverty of a composition.”

    As much as I love and agree with Mother Theresa’s statement – it became a trigger for thought about poverty in my country, the US. If poverty is not simply the absence of material wealth – what is it? Noah Webster representation of the word as representing “defect” or defectiveness is the root of this new understanding of the word. If we look at the word this way, and we look at the inverse of “defectiveness” as being “in alignment with God’s will and purpose” what are the pervasive and systemic poverties in the midst of our America’s material wealth?

    As I think through examples I find that most of them at some point roll back first to selfishness and self-centeredness and this out of either an outright rejection of the reality and authority of God and his word, or out of a failure to take seriously the application of Christ’s teaching and example in our lives. This is at the heart of Mother Theresa’s statement. The “poverty” is not necessarily that a child must die. The greatest poverty is that a human would chose to kill their child so that they may continue their life, uninterrupted by the need to be responsible for the child that in most cases they created through their intentional actions and in all cases was created by God for his purposes and glory. This decision is selfish – it is about protecting the mother and father’s lifestyle, reputation, finances, and other “valuable” elements of our increasingly materialistic and hedonistic western lives.

    Abortion is a searing example of our culture’s willful rejection of Christ’s teaching – but there are others. Divorce – particularly the casual “no fault divorce” that is increasingly prevalent in our society. The replacement of the “pursuit of truth” with the “advancement of agenda” as the preeminent goal of many of our academic and media institutions. The rejection of the unique and wonderful nature of man and woman as complementary creatures both created in the image of God, both of equal value but not the “same” – and the resulting dimming of the beauty of the maternal heart and vocation in our society. The replacement of the beautiful wonder of sexual relationship within marriage with the veiled and later unveiled suffering resulting from promiscuity, infidelity, pornography, homosexuality, and other sexual deviations from God’s intent which our culture increasingly champions. The replacement of the idea that all people should have equal rights and opportunities – and that individuals are both free to pursue prosperity and responsible for doing so, with the idea that all people “deserve” equal material possession (or at least some state determined degree of financial solvency) and that it is society – the state – that is responsible for this provision.

    While we are materially wealthy, we are increasingly impoverished in terms of the alignment of our ideas with the will of God. Darrow has quoted “Ideas have consequences” – and they do. These poverties, these defects, these chasms between our culture and the will of God do not portend well for the future of our nation. When Theodore Roosevelt was asked to write an inscription for the inside cover of bibles to be given to soldiers heading to WWI he penned a not based on Micah 6:8. He concluded his statement with a warning – one that rings prophetic today given the nature of our nation’s poverties. He understood that the measure of the health of a nation – of its real wealth – was not found only in its material prosperity but in the ideas which permeated its society. He wrote:

    “… And Remember; the most perfect machinery of government will not keep us as a nation from destruction if there is not within us a soul. No abounding of material prosperity shall avail us if our own spiritual senses atrophy. The foes of our own household will surely prevail against us unless there be in our people an inner life which gives its outward expression in a morality like unto that preached by the seers and prophets of God when the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome still lay in the future.”

    Americans – please pray for your nation. Beyond this, please recognize the poverties in our culture and our lives, and begin working today to reclaim the riches of God’s kingdom, through lives conformed to his will. If we begin this personally, then in our households, neighborhoods, cities, and ultimately in our nation we can bring glory to God and shrink the poverties that are shaping the future of our nation.

    • admin

      January 30, 2015 - 3:55 am

      Hi Nathan
      Thanks for your reflections. Let me respond with some of my own.
      If poverty is a result of defectiveness, than wealth is the product of alignment with God’s purpose. This parallels the NT concept of sin as “missing the mark.” Being righteous is to then hit the mark. We see in these pictures that poverty is dynamic, affecting so much of life, not static, simply being lack of material things. In fact someone can be poor in material possessions and rich in health, contentment, happiness, family, etc.

      Similarly your point that poverty flows from self-centeredness; there is a relationship between poverty of spirit and material and multiply other forms of poverty. Conversely a person who is self-sacrificial, other serving, is a person who is rich in spirit and so many other things.
      Nathan, thanks for your very thoughtful reflections.
      Whenever one person stands against the tide of a culture, there is hope. I am reminded of Jeremiah 5:1. God wants to redeem the city of Jerusalem. The requirement for him to act, one person who seeks justice and peruses truth.