I think of myself as a fairly mature Christian. I have been following Jesus now for over thirty years. I entrusted my plans for my future with him when I decided to abandon a promising career in music and apply to seminary. I have traded the pursuit of wealth and career success for the path of service and sacrifice in ministry.
But as soon as my faith is tested, I prove to be a spiritual wimp. When the threat of loss stares me in the face, I scream like the kid whose parents told him they had eaten all of his Halloween candy (cf. YouTube). As soon as our great enemy starts whipping me around and pummeling me with his lies and adversity, I panic like a scared pup in a thunderstorm.
I have come to realize that the measure of maturity for Christians in the Western world must surely differ from the rest of the world. Brian Fikkert discovered his spiritual wimpiness when he traveled to Nairobi, Kenya. Fikkert teaches economics at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He founded and directs the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.
Although he had traveled to many poverty infested slums of the world, Fikkert thought that the Kibera slum of Nairobi may be the pit of hell. The second largest urban slum in Africa, third in the world, houses over 170,000 people in mostly cardboard huts. Children rummage through garbage heaps for scraps of food. Open ditches transport human sewage between shacks.
Walking around rubbish and trying not to slip on the wet brown substance that covered the ground, a cloud of despair settled on Fikkert as he observed this God-forsaken mass of humanity. Here was poverty on steroids.
Then he heard voices singing, singing a familiar hymn. Thinking some Western missionary must be conducting an open-air service, he was shocked to find a church of about thirty Kibera residents. Every Sunday they jammed themselves into a ten-by-twenty foot “sanctuary” of cardboard stapled to studs.
Someone immediately asked Fikkert to preach for them that Sunday morning. As a well-trained Presbyterian, he began jotting down notes for a message on the sovereignty of God. He thought this would be a choice opportunity to teach these poor people on one of the great doctrines of Scriptures. He soon discovered that this divine appointment was for his benefit, not theirs.
Before the sermon, the worshipers usually enjoyed a time of sharing and prayer. Fikkert heard the desperate pleas of these Christ-followers. “Jehovah Jireh, please heal my son, as he is going blind.” “Merciful Lord, please protect me when I go home today, for my husband always beats me.” “Sovereign King, please provide my children with enough food today, as they are hungry.”
Listening to these children of God cry out to their Father for the most basic needs of life, he reflected on his comfortable home, his two cars, a health insurance policy, life insurance policy, retirement fund, his substantial monthly salary and a long list of personal resources. Humbled by the contrast, his perspective experienced a major transformation.
“I realized that I do not really trust in God’s sovereignty on a daily basis, as I have sufficient buffers in place to shield me from most economic shocks. I realized that when these folks pray the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer – Give us this day our daily bread – their minds do not wander as mine so often does. I realized that while I have sufficient education and training to deliver a sermon on God’s sovereignty with no forewarning, these slum dwellers were trusting in God’s sovereignty just to get them through the day. And I realized that these people had a far deeper intimacy with God than I probably will ever have in my entire life.”
This experience unraveled a basic belief that most Western Christians secretly, and probably unconsciously, embrace. Fikkert continues, “I was still amazed to see people in this Kenyan slum who were simultaneously so spiritually strong and so devastatingly poor. Right down there in the bowels of hell was this Kenyan church, filled with spiritual giants who were struggling just to eat every day. This shocked me. At some level I had implicitly assumed that my economic superiority goes hand in hand with my spiritual superiority. This is none other than the lie of the health and wealth gospel: spiritual maturity leads to financial prosperity.” (When Helping Hurts)
I was confronted with this same smug arrogance for the first time when I spent two weeks teaching pastors and local church leaders in Tula, Russia. These men and women were far from poor by most standards, but they lacked the kind of wealth and education that I bask in daily. They traveled long distances and stayed in hostels or church members’ homes so that they could improve themselves to better feed their congregations with the bread of heaven.
My delusional superiority was unmasked again when I helped with a dental mission trip to Haiti. Many of the people we treated were poor by any standard. Yet these people worshiped the God of creation with a joy and faith that shamed my shallow Christianity. They are forced to rely on God for the basic essentials of life, the things I never have to ask God for. Their joy reveals a depth of spiritual strength I rarely experience personally.
The Scriptures never condemn wealth, but always treat it as a blessing of God. Biblical authors do, however, repeatedly warn against the “deceitfulness of riches” (Mt 13:22), which will surely bring disappointment to those who trust in them (Prov 11:28). On the other hand, James points out, “… has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5).
Most of us need to work tirelessly to uproot the pernicious superiority that stunts our spiritual growth. One way to do that is to find ways to serve the poor. They have much to teach us.