What is true poverty?

My wife and I have now been on six different “vision” trips with Compassion International—to Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Peru. Each trip was eye-opening in different ways. The first trip was the most impactful, as I had never witnessed poverty to that degree before. I had heard stories and seen pictures, but I had never seen it for myself.

I remember feeling outraged about what I saw. A 13-year old boy should not have to raise his 6-year old sister in a very small concrete-walled and mud-floored room, drinking water that I would not allow my dog to drink, hoping that their alcohol-addicted parents would occasionally come home with some food. Why doesn’t the government do something about it? Simple answer — it can’t, because there are hundreds of thousands of people in that country living in the same, or worse, conditions.

On one of our social media posts about the trip, someone commented that, “we need to solve poverty here in the USA before we try to solve poverty in other countries.” What this person does not understand is that there is very little true monetary poverty in the USA. Yes, there are some very poor people here in the USA. Yes, there are people in the USA who live in very poor conditions. But, compared to people in many other parts of the world, even the poorest people in the USA have it very, very good. In most areas of the USA, churches and governmental agencies are available to assist those people who will accept it.

Clean water, food, electricity, employment, access to transportation, access to healthcare, and education — as Americans, we often take these things for granted. Not so in many other countries. Those basic needs are not met. In the USA, there are many government aid programs, church/religious programs, and social programs available to assist; if people go without basic necessities, it is often because they choose to go without. Because of pride, or because of foolish decisions, some people avoid the help that is available to them. And that is the difference…in many third world countries, there is no help. There is virtually no way out of poverty.

True poverty is much more than a lack of money. True poverty is a lack of the necessities of life and an inability to do anything to remedy that lack. Mental poverty is knowing that your grandfather was poor, so your father was poor, so you will be poor, and so your children will be poor. A once thriving sugar mill shuts down, leaving thousands of people jobless and an entire town barren of job opportunities. What do you do? There are no jobs anywhere nearby. You don’t have the means to travel anywhere else. Your entire family has lived in the town for generations. What can you do? Nothing, so you perpetuate the cycle of poverty. You can’t even imagine that there could one day be a way to change your circumstances. You give up hope.

And then there is spiritual poverty. In reality, everyone without Christ is experiencing spiritual poverty. Without Christ, there is no abundant life (John 10:10). The abundant life has nothing to do with the abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15). In the six countries we visited, I was amazed at how joyful the followers of Christ are, even though some of them live in deplorable conditions. They can be dirt poor and still experience the joy of the Lord. There is a distinct difference in the spirit of an extremely poor follower of Christ and an extremely poor person who does not know Christ. What is the difference? In my observation, it is hope in the truth.

• Knowing the truth that you are a child of the King (Galatians 3:26).
• Knowing the truth that this world is not your home (Philippians 3:20).
• Knowing the truth that you can do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13).
• Knowing the truth that your life has meaning and purpose (Matthew 16:24-25).

The reality of true poverty in many parts of the world is why GotQuestions.org so strongly endorses and promotes Compassion International. As a ministry, they strive to address all the various aspects of poverty. They seek to relieve financial poverty by providing the basic needs of children and teaching them skills they can use to earn a living. They seek to relieve mental poverty by helping children to understand that they do not have to accept the plight in life that was handed to them. They seek to relieve spiritual poverty by leading children to faith in Jesus Christ and then teaching them the truth of God’s Word and who they are in Christ.

I think every citizen of the USA, preferably as a teenager, should have to visit a developing country and see how a lot of the world lives. It truly would make a difference in the greed, impatience, selfishness, and self-indulgence most of us are plagued with.

But, since that is highly unlikely to ever happen, the best solution I know of is to sponsor a child with Compassion International.

S. Michael Houdmann

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What is true poverty?