Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in byFaith’s fall 2019 issue.
Our God Is a Relational God
What was God doing before He created the world? Was He bored? More importantly, was God able to be loving even before He made angels, people, or trees?
Christians believe that God was never bored, nor was there a time when He wasnt full of love. How can that be? Because this one God always has been a Trinity. From all eternity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have existed in loving, intimate communion. At the very core of Gods triune being is love, for God is love (1 John 4:8). It may sound strange, but it is true and right: God loves Himself. This is only possible because of the distinctive truth that this God is eternally Father, Son, and Spirit.
God did not create the world in order to become loving. Rather, He created because He is loving. If were ever going to reflect Gods heart to a hurting world, we must start with this basic truth: God is love. And since He creates the physical world out of His triune love, He doesnt reluctantly love the goldfish, clouds, mountains, and elephants. He does so freely and joyfully. Similarly, no one has to convince God to look with compassion on a hurting child or homeless person. God loves each and every one of us as His creations. And because the loving Creator loves all His creatures, it makes sense that we should too.
Because God loves before He creates the physical world, love precedes matter. We need to be careful with this truth, because matter really matters. In fact, the Western churchs underappreciation of the physical realm has created all sorts of problems. Yet while the material world is deeply important to God, there is a sense in which loving relationships are even more ultimate, more foundational, and more solid to the working of the cosmos than the sidewalk under our feet. Gods love is more trustworthy than the very ground we walk on.
Because God is so intimately involved with His creation, the entire cosmos reflects the Creator (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:20). How could the pottery not in some ways reflect the Potter? All of creation the flowing streams, the majestic mountains, the roaring waves, and the babys giggles reveal something about Gods nature. And since human beings are the pinnacle of Gods creation, humans reflect the nature of God in a special way.
What Is a Human Being?
No single Bible verse outlines precisely what it means to be human. Through the centuries, therefore, Christians have looked to the Scriptures as a whole to discern the nature of this noble creature. Understanding what it means to be human, though not the easiest of tasks, matters for what we do when a woman walks into our church, asking for help with her electric bill. To truly help her, we need to understand how God made her.
The Human Being As Body and Soul/Heart
According to Scripture, our bodies really matter, but we are not merely physical objects. Theres something more to humans than simply mixing together oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. For Christians, the word soul has often been used to signify this something more than the physical. The Bible indicates that humans continue to exist even beyond the experience of physical death (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4-5; Romans 8:35-39; Revelation 20:4). When a person dies, the body may be lying on a bed before us, but we sense they are no longer with us. Their life or soul is gone. That is partly why we ache so deeply when loved ones take their last breath. Their bodies are still with us, but they are no longer present.
Highlighting the soul should never devalue our bodies but rather help us present a richer and truer picture of human existence. The Bible presents a holistic view of being human. While its helpful to distinguish between the body and soul, we should avoid separating them. A key Hebrew word (nephesh) commonly translated as soul literally means throat or neck. This nephesh represents our life, our very being. Interestingly, the Bible uses earthy language in reference to our souls. Why? Because you cant easily separate the body and soul. Similarly, the Hebrew word leb, which the Bible often uses to refer to the inner human being, is commonly translated as heart, a physical organ! The body and soul are not easily disentangled in Scripture.
Economists think that human flourishing comes from greater consumption. But … happiness in America is actually now in decline. Our incomes are going up, our happiness is going down and its not unique to America.
This has huge implications for the design of our poverty-alleviation ministries. People are whole people. So, partial solutions that address either the body or the soul will not work as well as solutions that address both the body and soul. The effectiveness of an after-school tutoring program for low-income children might be hindered if the children are so hungry that they cannot pay attention to the lesson. And a job-training program that increases a husbands income and physical well-being without addressing his spiritual condition could simply create a workaholic whose mental health deteriorates over time. The body and soul are highly interconnected. In fact, they arent really two different things but refer to two aspects of one person. And together, these two aspects capture the fullness of the whole being.
Theologians have sometimes found it helpful to speak of three facets of the soul: the mind, affections, and will. For our purposes, we define these terms as follows:
- The mind points primarily to our understanding or rationality;
- The affections focus our attention on the importance of desire, emotion, and longings;
- The will highlights the importance of human agency, what we decide to do or not to do.
While distinguishing between these three aspects can be useful, they should not be thought of as distinctly separate components of the soul in the way that the tires, brakes, and clutch are different components of a car. Rather, the mind, affections, and will are different characteristics of one whole human soul, which is itself deeply integrated with the body. Sadly, sometimes churches or denominations distinguish too sharply between these features, pitting them against one another in problematic ways. For example, one church values the mind, while another highlights the power of emotions; one community concentrates on stimulating the will to action, while another emphasizes emotional self-control; one denomination emphasizes material prosperity, while the other acts as though only our souls matter. But we should never pretend that only one aspect of the human person is important. The Bible assumes that all aspects of the human being are highly important and deeply integrated, and so should we.
In fact, the three features of the soul are so interrelated that the Bible uses the word heart (leb) to describe all of them. In Scripture, heart can refer to our minds as well as our emotions, to our actions as well as our desires. We intuitively know this; thats why we often ask about the condition of peoples hearts. And when we do, we arent asking about a particular organ in their bodies. Rather, were asking, How are you doing? What are your deepest longings and fears? How is your life going? How is your attitude toward God? How are you feeling? Normally, these questions are concerned not just with peoples emotional state, but with the very essence of their being. The simple word heart takes us to the center of the human creature.
Hence, its not surprising that Scripture commands us to pay special attention to the state of our hearts: Above all else, guard your heart [leb], for everything you do flows from it (Proverbs 4:23; see also Matthew 12:35). This verse doesnt merely state that we should guard our hearts so we can go to heaven someday, but that everything we do in this world the way we work, eat, play, date, raise kids, vote, spend, give flows from our hearts. Whatever our heart loves most the thing that commands the ultimate allegiance of our minds, affections, and will determines our actions. Just as love is at the heart of the triune God, so love is at the heart of human beings. And just as the creation flows out of Gods love, so too our actions flow out of what we love.
As Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith has emphasized, this understanding of human beings starkly contrasts with that of Western civilization, which tends either to doubt the existence of the soul or to reduce it to the mind (think of Descartes statement, I think, therefore I am.). Although the ability to think and reason is vitally important, human beings are primarily lovers. We are driven by what our heart our mind, will, and affections loves most. Hence, the way to a persons heart is to capture their imagination (mind), move their emotions (affections), and challenge their actions (will). While we can play a role in shaping peoples hearts, ultimately such transformation requires the miraculous work of a sovereign God.
Poverty Alleviation for Whole People
What do these truths have to do with poverty alleviation? Everything! Consider three key points:
First, when a woman walks into your church asking for help with her electric bill, her behaviors both before and after that moment will fundamentally be driven by what she loves. Thus, if her need for financial assistance is a result of her own behaviors and it might not be then effectively helping her material condition requires addressing her heart condition. There are no shortcuts or alternatives; her heart is at the center of her personhood and drives her behaviors.
Second, as you attempt to minister to this woman, you must treat her as an integrated whole. Unfortunately, some poverty-alleviation efforts reduce this woman to her mind, believing that education alone will solve her problems. Others concentrate on her will, using carrots and sticks to spur her to action. Still others focus solely on the body, pouring all their attention into meeting immediate physical needs while failing to appreciate the emotional and spiritual challenges that are also present. Even secular poverty-alleviation experts (such as Robert Chambers) recognize that these partial solutions often fail, because people are multifaceted creatures with multifaceted problems.
Third, your own heart drives your response to this woman. Do you create a narrative about her that belittles her so that you dont feel obligated to help her? Do you create a story in which your possessions are indicative of your moral superiority when, in fact, both her story and yours are far more complicated? What will be key, both for the woman and for those responding to her, is love. And central to this love is discovering the biblical truth that God first loved us, well before we loved Him.
We need to make two important points of clarification.
First, there are many situations in which the poor persons own behaviors are not the cause of their material poverty, in which case their own heart condition is not the key to alleviating their poverty. For example, it is entirely possible that this womans husband has been negligent or abusive, leaving her in a desperate situation through no fault of her own. In most cases, there are multiple causes for poverty some that are internal to the person and some that are external requiring careful analysis and multifaceted approaches.
Second, even if the woman is fully responsible for her own predicament, that does not automatically imply we should not help her pay her electric bill. The gospel is about grace, not merit. Considerable wisdom and judgment are needed to handle this situation, and interested readers are encouraged to read Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015) by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.
Still, any effective and sustainable poverty-alleviation strategy must consider the condition of peoples hearts. At the foundation of communities are individual people, and according to Gods Word, at the foundation of individual people is the human heart.
Most of us think the goal is to turn Uganda into the United States or to turn urban ghettoes into wealthy suburbs, but the goal should be
to turn Uganda and the inner city and suburbs into something that better resembles the New Jerusalem.
The Human Being As a Relational Creature
Because the heart is at the center of the human being, humans are necessarily relational creatures; love must be expressed toward someone or something. As creatures who reflect the triune God, human beings are hardwired for relationship. As Smith says, we are made to be lovers. We are not created to live as autonomous individuals. In fact, when humans live in isolation from others, the effects are devastating.
Theologians regularly point to four fundamental human relationships emphasized in Scripture: relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation (see Deuteronomy 6:4-6; Genesis 1:26-28). The relationship with God is central, as it is the foundation for the other three. Part of the way that we both love God and experience His love for us is in our relationships with self, others, and the rest of creation. When we hold our daughters hand as we walk along the beach, for example, we express the love of our heavenly Father to her and experience His love back to us in her adoring eyes. Our relationship to God is integral to how we experience the other three relationships.
Its important to understand that the nature of these relationships is not arbitrary. God has designed them to work in a certain way, and humans flourish only when we experience these relationships the way God intended. Further, these four relationships are highly integrated with a persons body and soul so that the human being is a mind-affections-will-body-relational creature.
No analogy is perfect, but we can illustrate some aspects of this mind-affections-will-body-relational creature through the image of a wheel. The boundary of the human being is not the hub in the middle the persons body and soul. Rather, the human being is the wheel as a whole, including both the persons body and soul (the hub) and relationships (the spokes). Remember, the relationship with God is more foundational than the other three, so that spoke is more important than the others.
Each part of a wheel impacts all the other parts. If one spoke is misaligned, enormous pressure will be placed on all the other spokes and the hub itself, and they all will eventually bend or break. For example, when a person loses his job, this results in far more than the loss of income, as it entails a broken relationship with creation. As the spoke connecting the hub to creation is bent or broken, additional pressure will be put onto the rest of the wheel, onto the person as a whole. The other spokes may weaken, as there will likely be marital stress (relationship to others) and a low self-image (relationship to self). And the hub itself will be damaged, as the person may experience mental and physical health issues.
A wheel is shaped by both internal and external forces. Even a strong wheel that hits a pothole can end up with bent spokes and a damaged hub. Similarly, human beings are shaped by both internal and external forces. Internally, our mind, affections, will, and body play a huge role in determining the nature of our relationship to God, self, others, and the rest of creation. However, external forces shape those relationships as well. For example, the unemployment experienced by the person above could have been caused by the financial system collapse in December 2007, which plunged the global economy into the Great Recession. Some people couldnt find jobs no matter how much they desired to work. And this broken relationship with creation impacts their other three relationships as well as their minds, affections, wills, and bodies. Human beings are highly integrated, mind-affections-will-body-relational sorts of creatures.
While our description of the human being as a mind-affections-will-body-relational creature is based on the work of biblical scholars spanning thousands of years, considerable research in the natural and social sciences supports a similar characterization of human beings as integrally connected creatures with facets that may be characterized as mind, affections, will, and body. And research in the fields of business, economics, education, neuroscience, positive psychology, and sociology supports the notion that humans are intrinsically wired for loving relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.
The Goal of Poverty Alleviation
The first question in any story of change is: What is the goal of life?
From a biblical perspective, the goal for all humans including the materially poor is to be what God created us to be. And as we have seen, human flourishing is to be a well-balanced wheel. Thus, true human flourishing can be stated as follows: The goal of Gods story of change is for people to experience human flourishing as their mind, affections, will, and body enjoy loving relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.
Adapted from Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isnt the American Dream, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019), 39-50. Used by permission of Moody Publishers.