Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt. 26:11). Two millennia later, 815 million people lack enough food to lead a healthy, active life.[i] Nine million people die every year of hunger or hunger-related causes.[ii] These numbers are down from forty years ago—that’s good. But this level of human suffering is unimaginable, and certainly not a victory.
Even in the West, where prosperity is more normal, poverty lingers, in relative terms. Author and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently,
By many criteria, 21st-century California is both the poorest and the richest state in the union. Almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Another fifth is categorized as near the poverty level — facts not true during the latter 20th century. A third of the nation’s welfare recipients now live in California. The state has the highest homeless population in the nation (135,000). About 22 percent of the nation’s total homeless population reside in the state — whose economy is the largest in the U.S., fueling the greatest numbers of American billionaires and high-income zip codes.
What causes poverty in all its forms? Are people poor mostly because of their physical circumstances, or for reasons found elsewhere?
Poverty comes from the inside and the outside
The evidence clearly shows that poverty is caused by both external and internal constraints. External constraints are those outside the control of the individual or community. Two major external constraints exist: structural evil and natural evil. The biblical prophets were well aware of structural evil. They repeatedly condemned injustice, one of the prime causes of all forms of poverty and human brokenness. Likewise, natural evil—earthquakes, droughts, floods, disease—causes poverty and hunger on a massive scale.
The good news of Christ must speak to both kinds of evil, for Christ came “to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8). The cross of Christ points not only to the salvation of individuals. God’s merciful justice at the cross radically critiques unjust social, political, and economic institutions. As the great missionary and social critic Lesslie Newbigin has said, “A preaching of the gospel that calls men and women to accept Jesus as their Savior but does not make it clear that discipleship means a commitment to a vision of society radically different from that which controls our public life today must be condemned as false.”
The world is full of stories. But one ancient story encourages human flourishing. It’s the one completely true story, a narrative that aligns with reality. It’s a story about a King, his kingdom, his stewards, and their task.
The King is the personal, rational, moral, triune God of the universe. The kingdom is the entire creation, both physical and spiritual. The kingdom has laws that govern the stewards, humans made in the King’s image. These stewards are tasked to glorify the King by serving in his household. But they have rebelled, plunging themselves into decay, destruction, and death.
The story has a beginning and an ending
The story does not end there, for the King’s subjects are all unique and important, even in this broken world. The subjects who come into relationship with this King through the sacrifice of his Son are called to steward the King’s household, both preserving it and bringing forth its latent bounty. And they are to spread the knowledge of the King, thus developing the world and advancing the kingdom.
The biblical story begins in a garden (Gen. 1–2) and ends in a garden city (Rev. 21–22). It is a story of glory, corruption, restoration, creativity and flourishing. It depicts sweat and frustration but also progress, the flourishing of the creation.
Human flourishing comes through work, but more than merely working, even working hard. Millions of people work hard without recognizing, or benefitting from, the true nature of human work. Human work is part of the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28–30. My friend Christian Overman says our work is about governance: “Work, at its core, is an act of governance. Governance over wood, metal, cows, cotton, and carrots. Governance over sound waves, electrical currents, and wind. Governance over computer keyboards, fiber optics, and digital images. Governance over people. Governance over things. Governance over ideas.”[iii]
Humans either flourish or languish according to their thinking. What we think inevitably shows up in our behavior, our social institutions and policies. These thoughts include our assumptions about how the world works and what is important in life. Taken together, these assumptions constitute our worldview.
Our story impacts our lives
According to Christian philosopher Dallas Willard,
Worldview, simply put, consists of the most general and basic assumptions about what is real and what is good—including assumptions about who we are and what we should do. . . . There is nothing more practical than our worldview, for it determines the orientation of everything else we think and do.
Moreover, worldview is unavoidable. . . . What we assume to be real and what we assume to be valuable will govern our attitudes and actions. Period.[iv]
Our worldview or story has everything to do with human flourishing. Just as the soil where a tree is planted will shape the growth of the tree, likewise the values, attitudes, culture, and ethos of a people will determine whether its development is healthy, stunted, or nonexistent.
Our story says a war is underway between life and death, good and evil, God and Satan. This spiritual conflict is not confined to the Bible, however. It intrudes into our everyday world of ideas and ideals, shaping our history, determining our future, controlling our lives. There is no neutral ground in this war. You stand either on kingdom ground or enemy-occupied territory.
God’s story makes the difference
When it comes to fighting poverty in all its forms and working for the flourishing of our communities, we must understand and apply the proper story. Good intentions alone don’t lift people out of poverty. Economist Walter Williams calls for dispassionate analysis: “We have to think with our brains instead of our hearts when we approach the problems of poverty.”[v] Unfortunately, too often Christians who are committed to working for justice and the common good have simply followed the latest trends in the poverty industry. Anthropocentric and ethnocentric approaches will bring us up short or lead us off the path. God must be the source, the means, and the end for all we do in our efforts to work for just, flourishing communities and nations.
– Darrow Miller
[i] “Zero Hunger,” World Food Programme, accessed November 13, 2017, http://www1.wfp.org/zero-hunger.
[ii] “Quick Facts: What You Need to Know about Global Hunger,” accessed November 13, 2017, https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-global-hunger.
[iii] Christian Overman, “The Missing Curriculum: Part 3,” Worldview Matters (blog), May 21, 2010, http://biblicalworldviewmatters.blogspot.com/2010/05/missing-curriculum-part-3.html.
[iv] Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 43–44.
[v] “The Immorality of Our Welfare State,” an interview with E. Calvin Beisner, Christian Perspectives, Liberty University, Winter 1990, 6.
Jon Davis JrJuly 8, 2019 - 8:42 am
Is poverty caused by injustice and circumstance or by internal mindset, habit, and character?
Great article. Thanks.
adminJuly 10, 2019 - 6:22 am
Both/And! But the modern world, which lacks a moral framework, evil is primarily viewed as institutional and not personal. Thus to solve the problem of hunger and poverty requires public, read governmental, solutions rather than personal solutions.