What is “the good life”?
A newly renovated Joanna Gains home with a farm-style kitchen sink? A vacation to the family cabin every summer? A fresh-off-the-lot SUV with all the bells and whistles? Private schooling for your kids? A safe and financially secure retirement?
Some of us are living that life right now while some of us are still striving for it, but most of us already enjoy (and take for granted) the day-to-day comforts that underpin that good life. Hot water and electricity. Convenient and tasty meals. Advil for our aches and pains. A clean and orderly home. Up-to-date gadgets and highspeed internet. Unlimited entertainment. Indoor climate control. Comfortableness. Convenience. Pain-free living.
I thought about these things as we bumped down a pothole-ridden road in my brother’s old Jeep. It had been nine years since I was in in rural, sub-Saharan Africa. The bright red clay earth, the radiantly green crops, the expansive blue sky stretching to embrace a flat horizon—it was breathtakingly beautiful.
But also, strange.
I couldn’t help but notice that the young crops were haphazardly planted on any available patch of land, including garbage heaps on the edges of town. It was also the middle of the rainy season; the sky should be crowded with rolling thunder, cracks of lightning, and a daily deluge of life-giving rain. Instead, Zimbabwe is straining through its worst drought in one hundred years. The people are staggering under the weight of an economy devastated by corruption and decades of mismanaged infrastructure. There is suffering in the present and little hope in the future.
We drove past a cluster of worn-out mudbrick homes. Tattered clothes flapped in the breeze on a makeshift laundry line. A woman sat in the dirt with her two toddlers by the doorway of her house. They looked aimless and bored. I thought about my good life and felt suddenly sad.
As a North American I am surrounded with messages that the good life is one of comfortableness, free from lack or struggle. It’s a lifestyle we organize our priorities to achieve—modern home, a secure job, a reliable car, a savings account, holidays at the lake cabin, and the resources to buy things we need as well as things we want. To the contrary, the mother we passed was living a day-to-day struggle against poverty that was sure to be painful. Her family likely lacked sufficient food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, and more. She must be miserable and unsatisfied, I thought. Her experience of life in poverty was surely less worth living than my good life of ease and convenience. I felt sorry for her.
Whether we see it in run-down farming towns on the Prairies or thousands of miles away in Africa, poverty often leaves us feeling sad and distressed. In their paradigm-shattering book, “When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor...and yourself”, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert affirm that there is something “uniquely devastating about material poverty. Low income people,” they assert, “daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation, and desperation that are simply unparalleled in the lives of the rest of humanity (Corbett and Fikkert 2012, 66).” Not having enough food in the cupboard to feed your child breakfast. Not knowing where the rent money will come from. Not having a doctor when you’re sick.
Yet while Corbett and Fikkert acknowledge this painful plight of the poor, they don’t define poverty as a lack of money or things. They don’t define it as sitting on the ground outside your home watching the laundry dry. Instead, they take what we normally think of as poverty—not having stuff—and place it in a subcategory designated “material poverty”. This is the demographic living on less than $2 a day.
The families who don’t have access, who don’t have options, who struggle to meet their basic physical needs. It’s real and it’s painful. But it is not the be all and end all of poverty.
Poverty, they boldly assert, is ultimately broken relationships.
As Christians, they frame our experience of life in the context of four foundational relationships—with God, self, others, and creation. “The triune God is inherently a relational being, existing as three-in-one from all eternity. Being made in God’s image, human beings are inherently relational as well. … These relationships are the building blocks for all of life. When they are functioning properly, humans experience the fullness of life that God intended (Corbett and Fikkert 2012, 54).”
Poverty, on the other hand, is anytime one or more of the four foundational relationships is broken. “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings (Corbett and Fikkert 2012, 59).” One of the radical things about this perspective is that, under such a definition of poverty, a person can be materially poor but living the good life to a much greater extent than a materially rich person. The good life, they assert, is biblical shalom—peace in all areas of our lives, not just the material. “In the New Testament, shalom is revealed as the reconciliation of all things to God through the work of Christ.” It is an experience of life where nothing is broken and no one is missing. Social connectedness. Happy marriages. Helping neighbours.
According to Fikkert, our Western culture has predominately failed to produce this good life. “The goal is not to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness.” Instead, poverty alleviation is to do the hard work of seeking shalom, of reconciling relationships. And that takes our humility, time, commitment, personal sacrifice, and wisely invested donations.
But Fikkert warns, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good (Corbett and Fikkert 2012, 61).” In other words, we have to start not by trying to “fix” the mother sitting on the ground with her children, but with a long, hard look at our own lives. Do we have shalom? Do we experience the presence of God in all areas of our lives? Does all of the shiny stuff we accumulate really deliver “the good life”?
According to recent studies, Canada, in spite of our economic success, is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Acute loneliness resulting from our lifestyle choices is causing “heightened rates of depression, anxiety and irritability [and] is now being associated with potentially life-shortening health issues such as higher blood pressure, heart disease and obesity.” Persistent loneliness may even be more harmful to our bodies than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In 2016 Statistics Canada reported that nearly one third of our population lives alone. And in spite of our technological ‘connectedness’ researchers found the more time we spend on social media the more likely we are to feel socially isolated. Mental illness is also on the rise with 41 percent of Canadians from all ages falling into the “high-risk” category. And an average marriage today lasts only 13.7 years.
These findings point to incredibly high levels of relational brokenness in our communities, meaning high levels of poverty even among the materially rich. “Every human being,” Fikkert maintains, “… is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship (Fikkert and Corbett 2012, 59).”
Myself, included. In spite of years of working on it, my own anxiety is not entirely under control. I live tens of thousands of miles from family and move too frequently to develop long-lasting friendships. I drive a fossil fuel car, use a cell phone, buy single-use plastics, and throw away unnecessary food waste every week. I have brokenness in my relationships with God, myself, others, and creation. I must now sit down in the dust next to a fellow mother and count myself among the poor.
But I can’t stay there! Corbett and Fikkert assure us there is hope. If I as a privileged North American Christian can overcome the materialism of Western culture in my own life and learn to see poverty in more relational terms, I can help open a door for mutual transformation.
One way to begin is simply by recognizing that a person’s material poverty does not mean their lives are necessarily less meaningful, less full of joy and purpose, less dignified than ours simply because they don’t have stuff. Those suffering material poverty— particularly in the Global South—are experts in many areas where we—the relationally and spiritually poor—fail. They have so much to teach us about prioritizing family and community. They have so much to teach us about faith—trusting God when the future is uncertain. They have so much to teach us about creation—conserving natural resources and getting the most out of what we already have.
We, in turn, can recognize this wealth they have and give them the dignity and respect they deserve. We can share our friendship and sacrifice our resources to help them create a sustainable environment to alleviate their unique and unjust suffering.
All of us are on the spectrum of poverty. You, me, and the mother in Zimbabwe. We are each in the midst of being reconciled, of becoming more whole, more the people God created us to be. The good life, I think, is not the pursuit of a newer car or a bigger house or a secure retirement. It is not convenience or comfortableness. It can’t be. We were made for relationship, to love as God loves—passionately, radically, unreservedly, sacrificially, until the last broken bit is mended and the last little one brought safely home. Relationships are costly. They are gritty, and demanding, and sometimes painful. They are far from convenient. But when reconciled through Christ, they produce a deep, and lasting experience of purpose, joy, and shalom. And that, my friends, is the good life we’re really after.
 Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert, "When Helping Hurts," Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012