As a continuation of my previous post, today’s offering is both more of the same and really long. I’m not attracting a lot of people these days anyway, but I can at least be on the record with some of the more troubling aspects of the When Helping Hurts book and phenom. When Helping Hurts is a terrible book doing enormous damage to the Gospel of Jesus, and I want to refute it. I make careful arguments with this, not just kneejerk reactions. However, this series of posts is copied from my notebook of notes I kept while reading and critiquing the book as part of my own writing project. It never was meant to be the finished product, but the notes are so full of specific details that I hated to let them just go too waste too. So here they are.
From March 25, 2019
“How To Use” (page 15+)
The next section heading in ALL CAPS says “HOW TO USE THIS BOOK.” The opening sentence says, “We want this book to be used by God to affect your heart, your mind, and your actions” (p 15).
Sadly, I believe the sentiment is real and heartfelt on the part of the authors, but the reality of their work is rather pitiful despite that. Thus, I will not fault the writers for purposeful deceit, but the road they pave with good intentions leads to the same place anyway. And that makes for truly a sad situation.
Let it be the cautionary tale. We may mean well “at some level” and still just really blow it. Of course, that is exactly the point of the book. They want to tell us Christian types that our charity, though we mean well by it, is causing disastrous harm to the poor (and ourselves). Thus, I call it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
[Consider the passage of Scripture Corbett and Fikkert put forth as a “biblical mandate” (as we discussed in the previous post), the passage found in 1st John 3:17-18. The writers of the book, When Helping Hurts, have found in this passage a “mandate”! I don’t actually oppose them for this; on the contrary, I think they are right to say it! But then not only do Corbett and Fikkert IMMEDIATELY proceed to pull the rug out from under that mandate IN THE VERY NEXT BREATH, but they offer a whole book counseling us against the dangers of it. So, I’m wondering why, if there is so much harm to be had from taking that passage at face value, why doesn’t John also caution us right there! What about in Matthew 25? Why doesn’t Jesus take that moment to caution us against the harm our help might cause??? Corbett and Fikkert found so much harm there, they wrote a whole Christian Best-Seller on it, but the Bible itself shows no such concern!]
Here me carefully here:
Am I saying there is no such phenom like what we call “enabling”?
No. I’m not saying that at all. In fact, the passage in Proverbs 31 that instructs the one who has to give booze to the destitute shows no sign that this gift will heal the needy one at all. Thus, there is no sense that it will “be effective” in the way Corbett and Fikkert would hope. Nor does it show any attempt to “get to the root cause of the problem” at all. It quite literally only treats the symptom!
AND THAT”S BIBLE!
Thus, it is the Word of God that I can trust even if I don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.
So, we will, from here on, not treat Corbett and Fikkert as evil masterminds, but as bumbling, absent-minded professors. Yes, they should know better, and depending on how they react to being confronted with facts bearing on the case (as opposed to insults, which would provide further reasons to resist this challenge), they may move into repentance and redeem their status that way, attempt to argue the facts again (and maybe maintain their respected following), or they may dig in their heels and then at that point become evil.
Meanwhile, we will give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s not good to beat up people for their mistakes, though pointing them out (so as to stop the hemorrhage) is an important thing to do.
Okay, well… back to “HOW TO USE THIS BOOK.”
The writers want God to “affect your heart” as a result of reading When Helping Hurts, but they don’t think that is actually “likely” if you “simply read through” it. So, they request a more interactive engagement. The book is designed with “pre-chapter questions” and “post-chapter ‘Reflection Questions and Exercises.'” They tell us, “It is very important that you take the time to prayerfully and thoughtfully complete all of these questions and exercises, as they are an integral part of engaging with the material and applying it to your own life.”
Look, I’m all for being prayerful and thoughtful [AND I APPRECIATE THE FACT THESE WRITERS DIRECT THEIR READERS TO BE AS WELL, finally], but how do you think… what words do you imagine a cult leader uses to convince converts?
Think about it.
I have been very thoughtful about every paragraph in this book all through the foreword and the preface so far. I have prayed about this book and the damage it does for years! But I am not thinking the things shown on the guided tour alone, but thinking for myself. I am thinking about how this stuff matches up with (or contradicts) the Bible. And I am finding it to be very unbiblical so far, yet using rhetorical effect to suggest otherwise.
So, when the next sentence suggests its use in group studies, and the sentence after that suggests which groups to consider, it looks like the writers are banking on the group dynamic to help God “affect your heart.” I can’t help but think of that sociology experiment we studied in college in the introductory class where the group claimed the short line on the chalk board was the long one and thus persuaded the test subject to go along with the obvious mistake despite his/her better judgment.
When Helping Hurts has already proven to be fatally flawed in the first few pages as far as being faithful to God’s Word is concerned. I doubt very much the “affect” the writers hope for is that you see through it. Why write the book if they did?
No wonder Corbett and Fikkert need to suggest so much rich engagement rather than simply reading through it; the book, without gimmicks, is just too weak.
Maybe I am actually getting a bit nit-picky on this point. I must say that if I were enthused about When Helping Hurts otherwise, this point would be weak on my part – too weak to be worth its mention. My criticism on this point is not a deal-breaker. Yet, when making the case that the rhetorical force of the book actually manipulates the reader to NOT think critically about many of the things said, then this point is shown to dovetail with the other, nonetheless.
The rest of page 16 very purposely sets out the agenda for how to use this book – all the time it wants groups to devote to each question and answer period, answers should be written, some of them saved in a safe place for re-examination at a later point.
I have read many impactful books in my time, but I rarely find them directing my thoughts with such micromanagement and manipulative ploys. No. A thorough and exegetical examination of the BIBLE usually facilitates God’s “affect on [my] heart” quite adequately.
Make a good persuasive argument/case, show its foundation in God’s Word, and I am generally convicted to adopt the message. I don’t need smoke-n-mirrors to manipulate me. So, why does Corbett and Fikkert need all of this?
I say, because their message is not nearly as biblical as they claim. It is in fact very weak and/or counter-biblical at many points along the way.
OPENING EXERCISE (page 19)
Consider the following scenario presented in When Helping Hurts:
The tsunami that hit Indonesia in December 2004 wiped out many of the small businesses. These small businesses are owned by poor people and serve as their primary source of income. Most of the shops, equipment, materials, and inventory were destroyed. Four months after the tsunami, your church has decided to send a team to assist with the restarting of these small businesses.
Discuss the following questions in groups of approximately five people. If you are reading this book individually, then consider these questions on your own.
- What will you do to plane and prepare for your trip?
- What resources will you bring with you?
- Whom will you choose from your church to go on this trip?
- What will your team do once it gets there?
- What will be the specific components of your ministry?
- How will you implement each component?
Please write down your responses to these questions and store them in a safe place. You will be asked to reflect upon your responses later in the book.
(end of page 19)
Let’s analyze this!
By way of preface to our analysis, let me say: I was not present the day When Helping Hurts was first introduced to my home church back in about 2009-2010, but I recall that the main preaching minister, a few months later, told the congregation of about 200-250 people, that this book had been circulated among them recently, and had begun to “really change” their thinking.
I heard, at some point, that it was (the still fairly new) youth minister on staff who first introduced the book to the rest of the staff. This young man proved to be very influential in the church over the next few years AND in recent times has gone into business in a small charity-based, “Christian” coffee shop. But back when he was still youth minster at our church, he had transformed the whole upstairs wing of classrooms in our church building into a youth group hub that had all the look and atmosphere of a trendy coffee shop. (That is a measure of his influence! Just think of all the money, time, and energy he mustered to get that remodeling done!)
I do not recall if the staff shake up at our church began BEFORE or AFTER his introduction of When Helping Hurts, but I note that the other (also formerly influential) church leader on staff, a member who single-handedly transformed our church into a major “outreach hub” of Lubbock, Texas at least the previous decade (and more). She had become a proficient grant writer, and funded major operations that far exceeded the financial abilities of that small church. But suddenly (either shortly before or shortly after) the introduction of the book, When Helping Hurts, she became disillusioned and left our church. [I have been unable, despite many inquiries, to determine whether the book played any part in that or if it was mere coincidence, but I can say the timing of both make it suspicious.]
This woman, though, has been a recovered addict, clean and sober for most of the two decades previous, but suddenly she was off the wagon and out. As I recall, she left in anger and bitterness.
The main preaching minister had not left yet, at that point, and he stayed on for a few more years, alright, but it was obvious that he was nearing retirement age. Thus, the youth minister who introduced When Helping Hurts to the ministry staff appeared to be a rising star, I am sure.
I do not believe, based on the way the insights were expressed at the time, that the whole staff participated in group readings and exercises from When Helping Hurts, but rather that the book got passed around. I expect that at least two paid staff ministers (and possibly their secretaries) and possibly a third staffer too, plus at least two of the elders read the book as well. It is hard to say how much impact READING the book and following the questions and exercises had, and how much just the word of mouth had.
I never was privy to how many meetings took place between these leaders regarding the book, but I am certain they would meet at least once a month as a matter of on-going policy already, and that at least a couple of those meetings (and likely countless personal conversations in between) were dominated by the sharing of When Helping Hurts and the ideas it contains.
At least three years before all of that – at least three years before the introduction of When Helping Hurts to our little church staff – and also before the influential youth minister was hired, I personally analyzed the curious dynamic at work in our church that had become a hub for “outreach” ministry and all the exhausting and imaginative work we were doing.
The outreach had grown so big, with so many people from our ailing and failing neighborhood coming to our church for services both in aid to daily life, food, clothing, and worship too, that we were employing off-duty cops for security. Wednesday night services had our little church building packed to the rafters with poor and needy people! The place was over crowded like a multitude following Jesus and pressing in on all sides! Like there was no more room in the house, not even enough to sit and eat – almost. And I was intrigued then (like I said, THREE YEARS EARLIER than the When Helping Hurts phenom) that a church in such a deeply conservative, Republican-minded, Fox News-watching town would pour sooooooooooooo much, time, money, energy, and resources (you know – our very selves and all we hold dear) into all these poor little brown and black people! (By far, most of them were children and a few of their parents.)
Yes! It was quite remarkable! Full of IRONY, and I knew it then – 3 years before. I knew that God was at work in us and through us and DESPITE us! I knew that the same people pouring out God’s love like this IN CHURCH would utterly chafe at the thought of public tax money even attempting to do what we were doing privately.
It occurred to me THEN – 3 years before I ever heard of Corbett or Fikkert – NOT to point out this incongruity to my church for fear it would sabotage the whole thing!
The introduction of When Helping Hurts did just that!
In fact, the church shut down everything for several months so as to revamp it all in light of the teachings of When Helping Hurts on the theory that all our help had in fact not been effective on the one hand and may have done harm on the other.
(By the way, that was ALMOST a decade back NOW since all that outreach ministry got shut down and revamped based on the principles and teachings of When Helping Hurts. That’s 10 years of When Helping Hurts influence on the outreach ministry to the poor of THAT NEIGHBORHOOD. I wonder if the poverty is notably “alleviated” and improved since then! Or… is the poverty about the same while the church is different.
I drive through that neighborhood sometimes even now, but I don’t see significant difference. I never saw the story on the evening news about how it suddenly found “effective” relief. The church, on the other hand, split a few years ago and now is fragmented and can’t even afford to pay the staff!!!
Also, that youth minister is now running a “small business” instead of leading a youth group or a church!)
Why am I saying all this???
Well, no doubt my insights are limited and anecdotal, but I do have real-world experience with When Helping Hurts and its aftermath to draw on as I make a few speculations, AND I want this picture to serve as a backdrop for such speculations. One or two influential people, especially if they are proficient at maximizing the political atmosphere can DOMINATE the thinking of many. That’s not actually a new idea, but now it is stated with this backdrop behind it.
Let’s look again at the “OPENING EXERCISE” on page 19 of When Helping Hurts:
The 2004 scenario suggested there is a real-world event, and was still fresh in a lot of memories when the book first came out. The tsunami was both a MAJOR DISASTER of almost unparalleled enormity AND was covered massively by all media outlets. No doubt lots of churches prayed for that disaster and those suffering it in the years just previous to the publication of When Helping Hurts.
A disaster of that magnitude turns both those who experience it and those who read about it into bewildered people. Where do you start, if you want to put the pieces of shattered lives back together again???
Very few people will encounter a question like that – especially when it pertains to a disaster like that – and not feel a sense of helplessness! The fears, the sorrow, the bewilderment of such an event are overwhelming for really the whole world! Any thoughtful person – no matter how disaster-ready – will have to deal with the thoughts and feelings of futility and helplessness. It will take time to restore confidence in anyone who deals with it.
I really don’t think I need a Ph.D in Psychology or Sociology to make the guess that even 5 years after that tsunami, if I put you in a small group of 4 other people and put you on the spot, right out the gate, in a discussion on the topic of how sometimes the help we provide seems to backfire or fail (as the title of the book clearly suggests), that at least 3 or 4 of the people in that group (if not all five) will feel a little bewildered at the prospect of where to start.
Seriously, the cards are stacked! The dominoes are set to tumble in a certain direction here. Am I really the only person in the world who sees this?
Who wants to go first? Who wants to suggest a possible answer to these questions… first?
I’m betting there are 2 possible KINDS of people who will go first:
- the person who is most willing to make a fool of him/herself and…
- the “expert” in the room
I’m betting the expert will not be as eager as the clown.
Yeah, it should be NO SURPRISE that the exercise INTENDS you to face cognitive dissonance and then to have to deal with it IN FRONT OF OTHERS. This is the desired effect Corbett and Fikkert were looking for when (on page 15, the “HOW TO USE THIS BOOK” page) they said they want “God to affect your heart.” Yet ironically, the effect here is not God’s (did you hear a Scripture citation or an instruction to pray? Did God audibly (or otherwise) speak to you here – AND ESPECIALLY – did the authors allow 15 minutes for this?) or rather some simple parlor trick!
And so the clown, the class fool/village idiot breaks the ice with some comic relief to the cognitive dissonance, and the group flailing about begins to cobble together some kind of answer to this most perplexing disaster…
We are going to preserver these off-the-cuff responses for review at a later date after the authors hopefully have thrown you a life line of what by then FEELS like an appropriate response.
Thus, at the later date, you can look back and see just how stupid your initial respons was compared with the new-found wisdom incurred from reading When Helping Hurts! Surely the psychological effect of that kind of exercise could be used to promote nearly ANY political agenda. So why on earth appeal to God to have this affect? Unless it’s Evangelical politics in particular that you have in mind????
Again… where is God in this exercise?
Did we consult his Word? Did we pray for his guidance? Or did we just proceed with the parlor tricks???
And these parlor tricks go hand-in-hand with the rhetorical effect too. Think about all the levels and layers of impact that tsunami had on Sri Lanka and Indonesia – not to mention the whole world! Think of the PTSD, the fears and worries, the loss of life, the loss of property, the impact of grief, fear, and other psychological matters, the impact of looting, crime, recovering dead bodies, cleaning up debris and a host of social matters, the economic impact, the cultural impact, the questions all of this raises for faith and for God, the impact on education, on feeding survivors, on clothing and sheltering survivors, on supplying diapers for the motherless babies left behind!
And I bet I’m just scratching the surface!
But what is your church tasked with doing in the scenario we get in the OPENING EXERCISE on page 19 of When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert?
We gotta help those “small businesses”!
As the authors tell us (and no doubt its true), that tsunami “wiped out many small businesses.”
I have this vision in my mind of an incoming trauma at the local trauma center. The radio crackles to life as the EMT’s announce their approach with a victim of a gunshot wound who also was in a car accident during a tornado.
They report multiple lacerations to the head and a bullet hole in the face. There seems to be internal bleeding as well, and multiple fractures to both arms and the thorax. The victim has a sucking chest wound.
Two minutes later, the EMT’s wheel the patient in to the ER where the doctor notices the patient has a hangnail on the third digit of the right hand.
“GET A BANDAID … STAT!!!
Feel me yet?
Maybe – JUST MAYBE -if we weren’t so caught up in the group dynamics and /or the politics behind all of this, we might just see the elephant in this room! We are set up for this!
Who cares more about the “small businesses” of Indonesia in the aftermath of the tsunami – those small business owners who suffer the loss of family, friends, property, and ANY SENSE of PEACE or American conservatives who imagine we are probably going to have to pay for it all?
The fact of the matter … AT ROOT… my purpose here is not merely to make sport of When Helping Hurts. Yes, I find the parlor tricks disturbing; yes, I believe the politics here are driving the pseudo-theology; yes, I see the rhetorical effect is the method by which the problem with this book is propagated (and, yes, I am troubled by the contradictions we find – sometimes in one sentence and/or paragraph), but quite honestly, I wouldn’t bother quibbling with ANY of these things IF I FOUND the book When Helping Hurts to actually be biblical.
It’s easy to take all these cheap shots at the opening exercise, and they do matter “at some level” I think. But if these guys pulled all these stunts while being faithful to Scripture, I would sooner promote the book than oppose it.
So, let’s get back to the task of holding When Helping Hurts accountable to THAT.
The church in the scenario in the opening exercise is going to save “small businesses” rather than souls, and I wonder what biblical support Corbett and Fikkert have for that notion. The problem is… they don’t offer any. Perhaps it was meant to be implied, but I get no rhetorical sense of that, and anyway, implying such is just not a good idea when speaking to God’s people about doing God’s work. None of the conservative Christians I grew up with ever cut me that slack!
I’m wondering if my answer to question #1 with the word “Pray,” if that will look smart or stupid when we review this exercise later.
What if in response to question #2, I say, “A Bible, some songbooks, and communion supplies”?
How about for question #3 I suggest we “draw straws” and take “3 men/women that God chooses from us”?
I’m quite certain that 4 months after the tsunami, I will want to hold a worship service there! That would be my answer to question #4.
Question #5 sounds very specific, probably because it uses that word, but it makes no effort to define “components” for me. Still, this early in the book, I’m thinking my answer states with: Prayer, song, communion, (worship), maybe even preaching. I might do like St. Paul and raise a collection from several churches I know and take the money to a church near the devastation in the aftermath of the tsunami. (But, I’m thinking that despite the biblical support for that, the idea will appear stupid to my group when we review these questions at a later date.
I think I will just skip question #6 since by now it has become clear that biblically speaking this whole exercise is irrelevant.
My problem, of course, is that we are only on page 19, yet already my critique of When Helping Hurts has killed it. If I never heard of this book, but read this review of it, I most likely wouldn’t bother giving it any more attention (or I might indulge a morbid fascination and look into it based on that). But this book is wildly popular among my church friends and has profoundly influenced many decision makers in our ranks. I do not want to shortchange all that impact by only looking merely at pages 11-19!
And anyway, as I pointed out above, the tsunami scenario, though realistic enough, is an EXTEME case study. While I am sure there are logistics involved for a relief effort there that I will not foresee or be able to cope with, that says more about the fact that I am not qualified to run FEMA than whether I should give a dollar to a bum on the street corner.
This book has translated into a critique of THAT VERY THING. In fact, though I answered quoting Luke 6:30 and Mark !0:21 (among others) at my job interview, I failed to get the job at the local outreach ministry (one influenced by When Helping Hurts and its enthusiasts) when I answered, “Yes. I would give money to a beggar.”
So, maybe I need to keep going with this critique. However, I cannot continue to pick apart every single paragraph on each page. I’m going to have to get a bit more selective.