A Greater Poverty

Posted on: March 14, 2012 Written by
A Greater Poverty
      Photography by: PeJo29 from iStock    

I stand next to my sister at the sink. She may not look like my sister, with her long black hair and brown skin, but in all essentials—in Christ—she is my sister. It is a companionable task; she washes the dishes, I rinse them off, and we talk as we work together. She tells me of what it was like to spend the night of the flood last July perched on the roof of their home while the waters reached to the door frames and her brother swam to rescue his elderly mother-in-law; I tell her about the cold Canadian snowdrifts that rose to the door frames in my childhood. We talk of her desire to learn dress making, and we laugh over my failure to sew zippers.

Then we talk of housework: she tells me that she loves to wash dishes, and I silently remember how nice it was to wash dishes in the hot soapy suds of my American sink. I tell her that I like to see dishes come clean, too. She then admits with an embarrassed shake of her black hair, “I don’t really like to wash clothes, though.” I quickly try to encourage her, saying that I like washing clothes, and that to make the drying and folding more enjoyable, I try to pray for the family members whose clothes I am handling as I work.

It is then that I am bowled over by my lack of cultural sensitivity. You would think I would be just a little more aware after two-and-a-half years in this country. She sweetly turns to me in reply and says, “It is just such tiring work, scrubbing the clothes, and trying to get the stains out.” I have a sudden mental picture of her, my sister, squatting at a tub of sudsy cold water, scrubbing the family’s clothing between raw knuckles. In stark contrast, I envision myself effortlessly tossing dirty laundry into our automatic washing machine, spoiled beyond belief.

How is it that my sister in Christ toils hard over the washing while I push a few buttons?

How is it that she should perch on a roof in a flood, wondering if they would survive the night, while I am cozy in my house, safe from all the elements?

How can it be that learning dressmaking might mean the difference between not enough or subsistence for her, while failure to master sewing in a zipper is just a laughing matter for me?

I have no answer. These are the lives that God gave to each of us. He ordained, and here we are, next door to one another in vastly different spheres.

Yet somehow this sister of mine, who labors long and arduously, who faces peril with no financial buffers, is infused with a joy that I do not see often enough in my own life. Somehow her radiant smile of contentment and trust in God outshines the smiles of many of her affluent western counterparts.

How in the world could that be?

Is it just possible that in a life jam-packed with challenges, her daily desperate dependence on the faithfulness of God has cultivated beauty of character that is worth far more than the luxuries of a washing machine and flood insurance and running hot water?

God has lavished me with incredible luxuries.

Has He lavished you with luxury too?

I wonder…have those luxuries done anything to cultivate fruit for His glory in my character?

Have they increased my thankfulness, my contentment, my faith?

Or…am I the one struggling with the greater poverty?


©2012 Thrive.

Question to Get the Conversation Going: For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17). What are your thoughts?

About the author

Barbara lives in the Philippines where her family serves with SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translators, and she blogs a http://us5earthenvessels.blogspot.com

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  • Great questions! I’ve been thinking about this myself with two different books I’m reading bouncing around in me — one by Yancey on prayer and our belief that we never have enough (and trying to actively pray in the “I have enough” vein and not the “I have so little”). The second book is an Indian novel — oh the poverty (in so many ways, materially, relationally). I’m going to post about it next week, these thoughts need to develop more. Thanks for adding to the mix.

    • amen…the ever-elusive contentment is a key, Amy – for both rich and poor. i’m so grateful for the opportunity to live here, in a place that knows more economic hardship than i’ve ever known before, so that i’ll grow – in compassion and in awareness of the poverty in my own life. thanks for commenting – let us know when you write that post!

      by grace…

  • Stephanie

    So good. I have always struggled with the “tension” between the cultures here. To see my neighbors barely having the basic staple foods and we have so much more. We don’t have an American level of living–yes, for us it’s the basics–I want my children to at least have some fruit and vegetables and a simple healthy diet, but my neighbors don’t always have that. Sometimes I think it would be easier to live in a big city, not on a small mission compound, but God has not placed us there. I have no answers, just a lot of stress sometimes to know how God wants us to live in this culture. Thanks for the article with the reminders!

    • hi Stephanie!
      yes, this grappling with the ‘tension’ between cultures, struggling with the chasm between what i have and what others don’t is a tougher wrestling than i ever imagined. there are so many dimensions to the whole topic of poverty, and i so want to learn what God has to teach me through it. like you, i have no answers either. may God strengthen us to live faithfully, to give thanks, and to find His perfect direction for each day right where we are!

      by grace…

  • Last summer we had a local family (one struggling financially) offer to pay for our son to attend a Christian camp with them. We hated to rob them of the blessing of giving, but it was difficult to accept when we knew how much more we had than they did. We finally asked if we could pay for half of it, and they seemed okay with it. It still put them in the position of blessing us.

    I’ll never forget either when my El Salvadoran maid, a dear friend, bought clothes for our kids that cost her about 3-4 days wages. So humbling to accept.

    • hi Betsy! it sounds like your friends may have been poor in finances, but RICH in generosity!! oh, for more of that kind of wealth…

      by grace…

  • Barb, Thanks for sharing your thoughts and questions. I see that too, in my Filipino friends, a joy and deep contentment despite the hardships of their lives. I pray for that joy and seeing His Grace in ALL circumstances for myself and my family. Thank you for writing. Keep it up!!!!! I am blessed to know you as my sister in Christ and friend!

    • hello, dear Beth! i know that your Filipino friends are learning from you, as well, as you pour yourselves out in love. this is an honor, isn’t it…to even begin asking the questions, to be challenged as we see God’s grace in unexpected places? grace to you, friend.

      by His grace…

  • Oh, Wow. Yes, I struggled so much with such questions when I worked in Africa with SIL–so many questions, so much soul-searching. I wrote about it in my memoir. I’ll share one incident with you. My househelper, Elizabeth, like millions of other Kenyans, struggled to put the most basic of foods on the table for her two daughters; she was widowed at age 26. They lived in one of the large slums with no running water or electricity or plumbing. One Monday morning, the day after Easter, she arrived at my house and said, “My daughters and I have had nothing to eat all weekend! Nothing!” I yanked open my cupboards and gave her food and asked her what was going on. She said she and her sister Agnes sold nearly everything they owned to cover another sister’s hospital bill (they had to pay the bill in order to get her out of the hospital). I was astounded. In Matthew 19, Jesus told the rich young man to sell his possessions and give to the poor, and Elizabeth and her sister Agnes had done just that! I’d never known anyone to do that. And I had to ask myself, “Would I do that if one of my brothers had a need?” I’ve never had the courage to put the answer in writing. I’m afraid I would struggle and maybe even say “no.”

    I could say so many things in response to your blog post but suffice it to say I struggled a lot over such questions and attitudes and still have very few answers.

    I witnessed a kind of faith and joy in my African friends that we better-off people cannot comprehend. I learned so much from my African Christian friends. I am humbled and so thankful for the opportunity to know them. They are my role models, my heroes, genuine saints.


  • Paula

    Hmm, poverty… I am surrounded by it here in CAR. We are living through a coup d’etat so it is much more pronounced right now. I was brought up short when I realized that many of them have the added stress of not knowing where their next meal is coming from! Makes my ‘stress’ seem rather hollow.