Brian Fikkert is an economist and an expert in economic development, dedicated to helping people do good – and not harm – when trying to help the poor. But almost every time he starts talking about helping people who are poor, he winds up talking about the kingdom of God. Why is that?
By Brian Fikkert
It might seem weird for me to talk so much about God’s kingdom. After all, I’m an economist, not a theologian. I love things like numbers and charts and graphs – not studying Greek and Hebrew texts. And I love seeing material progress: economic growth, wealth accumulation, and improved physical health.
But as I’ve studied poverty and listened to the voices of others, I’ve become convinced that the problems poor people face aren’t solely material in nature.
The material poverty that shows up in our world is really the result of something much deeper: broken relationships. Human beings are wired for relationships with God, self, others, and creation. But since the Fall, our relationships haven’t worked the way God intended. And for some people, this relational brokenness bubbles up in the form of material poverty.
So why is the story of the kingdom of God so important for our work with people who are poor? Because the way that we work with poor people reflects the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to live the “good life.” And if we get the story wrong, our efforts to help the poor can do more harm than good.
If we get the story wrong, our efforts to help the poor can do more harm than good.
What does the good life look like?
When we talk about the “good life” we’re really asking two questions: What does success mean to you? And how can you achieve it? Throughout history, every culture has attempted to answer these questions in different ways. For many 21st-century Christians in America, success looks something like this: Get your soul saved and enjoy material prosperity now.
On the surface, that sounds like a pretty good story! We get the best of both worlds. We get to live the “American Dream” now; and when we die, our souls will go to heaven.
But there are multiple problems with this story.
More stuff doesn’t automatically make us happier
In particular, research is telling us that consuming more material goods doesn’t always make us happier.
For example, in the US, we’ve experienced sustained economic growth throughout the post–WWII era. Today, most Americans have greater material prosperity than any human beings throughout history! But when Americans are asked to rate their happiness, they don’t report being happier. In fact, in the last 10 years, the level of self–reported happiness has actually gone down.
And more objective measures tell an even more sobering story. From the 1930s to the present, a period of unimaginable economic growth in America, levels of mental illness such as anxiety and depression have steadily increased, particularly among young people. For an economist like me, this is baffling. Economists believe humans beings are supposed to experience greater happiness when they consume more material goods. But that’s not what’s happening!
More stuff alone is not what poor people need
All of this creates some dilemmas. As globalization spreads Western–style economics to the rest of the world, poor countries are enjoying many of the same benefits from economic growth that the West has enjoyed since the industrial revolution. In fact, the spread of markets and economic growth has reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty by 50 percent over the past 25 years.
On the surface, this seems like a tremendous success. And it is! It’s one of the most remarkable developments in all of human history, and it is something we should celebrate.
But we also need to have some caution, because there is also evidence that – just as in the West – having greater material consumption doesn’t automatically increase human flourishing. For example, consider the case of China, whose move towards a more market-based economy has resulted in both mind–blowing economic growth and colossal reductions in poverty over the past 25 years. As noted economist Richard Easterlin explains:
In the past quarter century China’s real (income) per capita has multiplied over five times, an unprecedented feat. By 2012, virtually every urban household had, on average, a color TV, air conditioner, washing machine, and refrigerator. Almost nine in ten had a personal computer, and one in five an automobile. Rural households lagged somewhat behind urban, but these same symptoms of affluence, which were virtually nonexistent in the countryside in 1990, had become quite common by 2012. In the face of such new–found plentitude, one would suppose that the population’s feelings of well–being would have enjoyed a similar multiplication. Yet …(self–reported) well–being today is probably less than in 1990.
Man does not live by bread alone.
Unfortunately, the story of the Western church can’t solve this problem. When the gospel is reduced to “get your soul to heaven and live your best life now,” we are encouraging people to live like the surrounding, highly materialistic culture from Monday through Saturday. And we’re inviting materially poor people into the same story that we find so dissatisfying. We’re inviting them to join us in the very thing that enslaves us: living like self–centered materialists now and resting in the fact that our souls will go to heaven later.
We all need a better story.
Discovering a different story
As Christians, we often think that Jesus came to earth to solve our legal problems: dying on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins so that our souls can go to heaven. This story is true. Hallelujah!
But as wonderful as this story is, it doesn’t address the problems that poor people are facing in the here and now, problems like hunger, cold, and illness. And it doesn’t give the rest of us anything to do when the alarm clock goes off on Monday morning other than pursue the American Dream.
Fortunately, the gospel story that Jesus teaches is different.
At the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He says, “I have come to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43).
The kingdom of God is the good news that Jesus Christ now reigns over every square inch of the cosmos, and that he is using the power of his death and resurrection to make all things new. He is ushering in a new heaven and a new earth, where his justice and peace abound.
Jesus’ central message was that the kingdom was coming, but that it was also at hand! He is reigning right now. His work of making all things new is already underway!
Jesus communicated this message with words, but he also showed it with his deeds. He preached the gospel, and he healed people, restoring them to their place as his image bearers, people who spread the knowledge and fragrance of his kingdom as far as the curse is found.
This is a much better story for this life than the American Dream! Jesus is restoring people – including materially poor people – as his ambassadors, people who participate in his kingdom work of making all things new (2 Corinthians 5:20)! That is Jesus’ vision for you. And that is Jesus’ vision for materially poor people in China, for homeless people in downtown Atlanta, and for people walking into your church asking for help with their electric bill.
The story of the kingdom of God changes everything. It involves different goals and different ways of achieving those goals than the story of Western Civilization and the Western Church. And we need to press into this story, because it’s the only story that is actually true.