“We should do what Jesus did,” said one member of the Bible study group. Heads nodded all around the circle. “Does that mean we should die on a cross?” Well… it took a good deal more discussion before everyone thought through what it meant to be like the Saviour of the world without being the Saviour of the world.
In the book, When Helping Hurts*, Jayakumar Christian, CEO of World Vision India, argues that the economically rich have ‘god-complexes’, a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe that they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves. You can feel some of the impact of being on the receiving end of Western ‘god-complexes’ in Christian’s words. Try thinking about yourself dying on a cross for the sins of the world for a minute – just to give you an idea about the dangers of a saviour complex in helping the poor.
For starters you would not be effective – you wouldn’t have the sinless life or the anointing from God to back it up. Your solution for the community would not be as perfect as you think it is. Next up, you may realise that your sacrificial actions are more for your own benefit than for the community. Sacrificing yourself and being involved makes you feel good and important – like you have real purpose in your life. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself, but if that takes over from serving people, then you aren’t helping anyone but yourself.
People look up to a saviour. It is a great feeling to visit poor communities and feel some sense of reverence and importance, but this too can lead us down the path of serving ourselves and not others. People rely on saviours and we are often motivated by the need of those in poverty. So if it becomes about our need to be needed or we work in a way that doesn’t help people out of their need, we are hurting instead of helping.
A story from When Helping Hurts*:
Creekside Community Church reached out to a nearby public housing community, delivering toys each Christmas. After a few years, volunteers were hard to find. They were disillusioned because the people they were helping were still as poor and dependent as when they started the program. Also the deliverers noticed that there were few men in the houses they delivered to. Later they found out that the men often made themselves scarce when the delivery came because they were embarrassed that they couldn’t provide Christmas toys for their own children. Creekside’s strategy, developed from a sense of being the saviour of the public housing community, didn’t help people out of poverty. It only made them feel worse (in the case of the men anyway) about the difficult situation that they were in.
At GMP one thing we do to try to get our eyes off ourselves is keep out of photos. If you look at GMP publicity there are very few photos with GMP staff or other Australians alongside our overseas or Indigenous partners. The absence of the helpers in the photos is intentional. It stops us congratulating ourselves and draws the focus toward our partners and the participants in their projects. And we hope too, that it draws attention to the one who is really working the miracles in our lives and in theirs.
Recognising the true Saviour of the world, as our own saviour, and the saviour of anyone we reach out to, is the only correction for a ‘saviour complex’ or any other distorted view of ourselves (Hebrews 2:2).
Colin Scott, COCOA Director
* Corbett, Steve & Fikkert, Brian 2012, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, Moody Publishers, Chicago.