Seeing Dignity Instead of Misery Among the Poor

by Amy Straub

I used to assume that life must be joyless for those without all the material comforts that were commonplace to me. When I considered people who had only the clothes on their backs and just enough food for each day, my first and strongest reaction was pity. I felt it often in our early years in Zambia, and that revealed a lot to me about my true priorities. When we equate poverty with misery, our core values are exposed. 

In speaking of poverty, I’m not referring to a life-threatening lack of resources (absolute poverty), but to the many people around the world who are deemed “poor” in comparison to Western standards. People in relative poverty have their basic needs met, but they have a smaller than average income for their society. It’s easy to assume that people in these circumstances must be miserable when we view them through the lens of our own experience. It requires deeper insight to explain the unexpected joy and laughter that are so often found in places of material emptiness.

Our western worldview clashes with the scripture that plainly affirms, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 6:8). These words force us to acknowledge that contentment, satisfaction, and even outright joy are possible with very little. Maybe they’re even most possible with very little. But those of us who were born into privilege can’t internalize this through personal experience. We have to learn from those who understand this paradox because they live it every day. The ones with limited resources who embrace their lot with joy can teach us that poverty offers a different kind of fullness that is invisible to our eyes. 

This is not to minimize the adverse effects of poverty on individuals and families or to gloss over the depth of human need around the world. Poverty in itself is not a virtue, and making light of the suffering of others is irresponsible and potentially even harmful. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of poverty simply because kids in the slums flash beautiful smiles. God takes suffering seriously, and he calls us to align with his heart for those in need. Like him, we must accurately name poverty and its effects. And when we acknowledge its true weight, we see that the burden of poverty is directly proportional to the measure of respect that we owe the poor for their joyful endurance.

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Several years ago near our home in Kitwe, the water main to a high-density neighborhood broke. For weeks, hundreds of people lost access to running water in their homes. With a heavy heart I watched young and old carrying buckets from the Kafue River back to their houses, and I wondered how they were coping. One day I found myself driving behind a pickup truck that was carrying several men with large barrels of water into this neighborhood. I felt a wave of pity for the massive inconvenience they were experiencing. 

Then the truck hit a pothole, and water from the barrels splashed all over the men, soaking them from head to toe. My pity deepened at this added difficulty, and I fully expected to see signs of frustration. But instead of getting angry, the men erupted into laughter. As they laughed they caught my eye, giving me the opportunity to laugh with them. I will never forget that moment or the impact it had on my perspective, and they will never know how much their joy taught me. Over the years, as I have had the privilege of observing hundreds of moments like this, my pity has been transformed into deep respect. 

When we have the honor of knowing people in poverty who radiate joy and bubble over with easy laughter, we become uncomfortably aware of our own misconceptions. Our view of the world is often clouded by our privileged (and therefore limited) perspective. Those who are content in their poverty demonstrate that the less a person has, the greater their ability to treasure each good gift that comes to them—however small it might be. A cup of water, a glowing lightbulb, a filling meal, family and friends. Maybe it’s those of us in the wealthy minority world, trapped in an endless cycle of consumerism, who are most to be pitied. “One who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry soul, every bitter thing is sweet” (Proverbs 27:7). Excess quickly becomes a burden, but those in need are able to receive everything as a gift. 

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Pity is a common reaction to poverty, but there’s another response that is worse, and that’s judgment. Assuming that people in poverty must deserve their condition also reveals how wrongly we rank material things. If poverty is a punishment and we are well off, then we must be upstanding people who deserve the comforts we have. While it might feel good to view ourselves so highly, scripture condemns this attitude as an insult to the God who intentionally became poor. 

From his example of poverty, Christ taught that living for both God and money is an unattainable goal. We have to choose which will rule us. Scornful religious leaders mocked Jesus for this teaching because of the discomfort they felt when they heard it. In their hearts they knew they loved money more than God. His response to them was a sharp rebuke: “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Contrary to many human assumptions over the centuries, wealth does not equal decency. Christ goes even further than this and describes poverty not as a punishment, but as a spiritual advantage (Luke 6:20-26). In contrast, he warns that wealth can be a spiritual hindrance (Mark 10:23-25).

Material wealth isn’t wrong in itself, but it comes with unique blind spots and temptations. God doesn’t require us to repent of our wealth, and material blessings shouldn’t incite feelings of guilt. But in order to thrive spiritually, we must reject the belief that wealth brings joy, and instead trust the God who says we can be content without it. 

We grasp and affirm the truth of scripture only as much as we participate in it. If we are blessed with abundance, we have the opportunity to hold it with open hands and practice letting it go easily. Contentment grows in a heart that doesn’t clench its fists. We do not live to serve our wealth, consumed by our focus on and protection of it. Rather, we live to serve with our wealth, looking outward to find needs and meet them. Through the spiritual practice of generosity, we become steady streams of goodness to others. 

And if we are granted a life of poverty, we have the privilege of walking with the One who had nowhere to lay his head. Contentment grows in a heart that knows solidarity. Christ chose a life of poverty, and because of this, those who have nothing of material significance in this life are able to identify with him, lean on him, and receive from him in ways that are beyond the grasp of the wealthy. It’s the needy who are driven to ask, seek, and knock. One of the beautiful mysteries of scripture is that God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith (James 2:5). This truth is displayed around the globe, and it has been a privilege to see it firsthand in Africa. 

My husband and I are part of a ministry that trains African church leaders to plant churches and equip believers in their own languages and communities, taking the gospel into areas of Africa where foreign missionaries would be ineffective. We’ve met rural pastors who have so few spiritual resources that they travel for days, sometimes on foot, to attend our ministry training conferences. Their hunger for theological education, Bibles, and ministry resources is profound, and it is matched by an equal volume of joy when those resources are secured. Witnessing this deep faith and passionate love for God and his word has challenged and encouraged us again and again throughout our years here. 

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We owe a debt of honor to our brothers and sisters in the developing world who are actively growing vibrant communities of faith with far fewer resources than we enjoy in the western world. The center of global faith has shifted away from the affluent west, which reveals that it’s not an abundance of resources, but a deeper dependence on God, that ultimately turns the world upside down. 

Instead of pitying or judging those with less, we can de-center our own perspective and learn from the experience of others. We can lay down our assumptions and take up humility. We can learn to recognize and avoid false comparisons. I might be miserable in certain circumstances, but that isn’t necessarily true for others. Many people have developed far more fortitude than I have. It’s ultimately unhelpful to measure the majority world by minority world standards.

Furthermore, if wealth hasn’t rendered the West content and grateful, why should we assume it is – or should be – the ultimate goal of those without it? The comforts of this life are a gift, and we should seek to relieve suffering whenever possible. But the need that drives us into community and into dependence on God is not ultimately an enemy to be defeated. Treating it as such reveals what we believe is most important in this life. 

Poverty does not equal misery or failure any more than wealth equals contentment or success. Rich and poor alike are marked by the image of God, and it is this imago dei that endows each person with intrinsic and sacred value. This is what shines through when joy and laughter are found among those in poverty. They are not oblivious to their suffering; they are putting it in its proper place. It is momentary and fleeting, and it will someday be overshadowed by a weight of glory. Not having treasure on earth, they have the opportunity to see the eternal with unclouded eyes. 

May we honor the poor as Christ did. May we recognize their dignity and value them for their personhood rather than their possessions. And may the words of our savior in Luke 6:20-21 remind us of his heartbeat for those in need:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Together we have the opportunity to carry this heartbeat into our global communities, while looking forward in hope to that kingdom where the hungry are filled and the weary rejoice. 

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Amy grew up in Minneapolis, MN, where her idea of travel was her family’s annual trip to Kansas. That all changed when she married Ben, a Canadian TCK with a travel bucket list as large as the globe. Together they moved to Kitwe, Zambia, where they have served for the past 10 years at Central Africa Baptist University and in their local Zambian church. They have four kids, two dogs, and five guinea pigs. Amy enjoys reading, having people over for shared meals, exploring new countries with her family, and the year-round sunshine and gardening of the Southern Hemisphere. She sometimes enjoys homeschooling, and has permanently retired from Minnesota winters.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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