You have a friend who has been sick for many years. He’s a quadriplegic, so he can’t move around on his own, and he has to rely on his friends and family to care for him. You and the rest of his friends care deeply for him and have long been hoping that a cure or treatment would be found to help him, but his health has been fast deteriorating and it doesn’t seem like there are many chances left for him.

Now, in assessing your friend’s situation, what would you say is his greatest need? A cure? A new medication or other form of treatment?

Presumably, the friends of the paralytic man in the Bible would have said the same. Read Mark 2:1-5. There are so many people gathered together to listen to Jesus preach that the friends had to literally remove the roof from the building to lower their friend down into the center of the room. They probably expected Jesus to heal their friend from his illness; how strange it must have been to hear Jesus’ first words to their friend: “My son, your sins are forgiven!”

Jesus knew the man’s greatest need, and it was much deeper than physical healing, though He dealt with the man’s physical needs later. How often do we step back and ask ourselves, what is the problem in this situation? What is the greatest need?

We have a tendency to view problems through a lens of financial and material dilemmas, believing that if we just give enough money, buildings or other resources, then we have helped the poor. Not everything is as it appears at face value, however, as poverty is not solely about lacking financial or material resources.

There are different types of poverty, which are certainly not mutually exclusive and more often operate in tandem one with another.

  • Spiritual poverty refers to the absence or lack of knowing Jesus, lacking a personal relationship with God, or worshiping a false god such as money, power, prestige or other material things. Each of us experience spiritual poverty in different seasons of our lives when we lose sight of Jesus and allow the temptations and the worries of the world to creep in. What are ways that you experience spiritual poverty in your own life and where do you need to return to Jesus for His guidance and provision?
  • Internal poverty has to do with individuals’ views of themselves – whether they have low self-esteem, self-hatred, shame, pride and/or a god-complex. This type of poverty is influenced by people’s relationships to themselves; do they think too highly or not highly enough of themselves? How can you and your team come alongside others to help them have right views of themselves?
  • Community poverty refers to illness within a community that allows depravity to persist. Community poverty may take the form of the persistence of exploitation and abuse, whereby community members, even “good ones”, stand by as women and children are bought and sold for sex. In Svay Pak, Cambodia, for example, there were many “good” people who were not buying or selling children and who were not participating directly in the abuse. However, they knew exactly what was happening in their neighborhoods and behind closed doors; yet they did nothing to make the problem stop. This is a problem of self-centeredness, whereby community members are not willing to put their own necks on the line to address wickedness within their community.
  • Material poverty is probably what is most commonly referred to as “poverty” – the lack of finances, resources or other material things. There are times when what a person needs is food to feed her family, some start-up capital to launch a business, or money to pay for schooling or medical care or other needs.41

Just as the paralytic’s need for physical healing was real, so too are people’s material needs. When you go to Cambodia, you will see dire material poverty: people who are physically hungry, need medical care, and who are struggling to get by making $15 a month working at a brick factory. It will be easy to focus on their material poverty as the problem at hand, but it is important to ask first: what are the other underlying forms of poverty and, more specifically, what are the problems God has you there to address?

People working in the brick factories in Svay Pak are confronted with a combination of material poverty, spiritual poverty, and community poverty in their lack of education and opportunities to work in better conditions. While it may be tempting to “rescue” children by buying them out of the brick factory, if these children aren’t simultaneously receiving education and opportunities for other work, they will end up back working in the factories. AIM conducts outreach to the brick factory workers every weekday, providing showers, naps, clean clothes, food and educational programs to their children and medical care and discipleship for their parents. In approaching their poverty from a holistic level, AIM has been better able to serve them and address their problems.

It may be that you are there to help build a new housing facility for the girls being rescued from trafficking, but it may also be that you are there to give words of encouragement to the AIM staff, to build them up so that as they continue the work going forward, they are re-energized to keep fighting for exploited children day in and day out.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my preconceived notions about what “the problem” is in Cambodia?
  • How would I feel if the problem God is calling me to address during my time in Cambodia is that one of the AIM staff is feeling discouraged about the work and needs to hear words of truth and encouragement?

Spend some time in prayer to ask that God would open your eyes to the problems and the types of poverty that He would have you work on, both within your own life and during your time in Cambodia. Ask that you would be ready and willing to do the work He calls you to do, even if it is not how you initially imagined it might be.

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41 Definitions of four types of poverty loosely adapted from Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), chapter 2.

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