empty-cup I had dinner with a group of our Indonesian staff members and met a new member of the local leadership team. She told me about her many experiences working with the poor before she came to work for our ministry, and I was truly amazed at all the things she had done.

I asked her to share her best advice for someone who wants to work with the poor, and she had four words for me:

“Bring an empty cup.

“Most people come to help the poor with only a full cup.

“Their cups are full of all the things they want to do for the poor, all the things they want to give to the poor and all the solutions they have for the problems of the poor. These things can sometimes be very good, but if people only bring a full cup, they can’t accept anything in return. They can give, but they can’t receive. They should bring an empty cup.”

I was humbled by her comment. How many times had I visited some of our church partners with only a full cup? How often had I spent time with the poor assuming that I had all the answers for their problems and that I was the only one who had anything to offer in the relationship?

As we talked, I began to realize that my heart needed to change about the work I was doing. While my intent had always been good, I had to admit that I thought the poor needed me more than I needed them. I have since come to appreciate just how much the poor can teach me if I come prepared to receive from them.

When I come with an empty cup, the poor teach me about the faith required to truly depend on God rather than for me to try to solve all their problems by reaching for my wallet. When I come with an empty cup, the poor teach me how to get the best use of the resources around me instead of wasting so much.

When I come with an empty cup, the poor teach me about the joy of giving to others even when I can’t “afford” to give. They teach me about the beauty of simple living, about the importance of relationships and human contact, and about finding God in the little things.

Working with the poor isn’t about doing things FOR them; it’s about doing things WITH them. Those of us in developed nations might have the financial and material resources, but the poor are often rich in spiritual and relational resources. This is no accident.

I believe that God has arranged things so that we can both benefit when we work together to address the needs of the poor, but it won’t happen unless we are intentional. We’ve got to bring an empty cup.

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  • Michael lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand and is our Learning & Support Director for Southeast Asia. He leads staff development training primarily in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

23 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Lindy
    Jun 29, 2011
    at 4:41 am

    Wow! This is so powerful, and so true!!! Thank you for such a beautifully written reminder! You are a BLESSING!

  2. Jun 29, 2011
    at 6:33 am

    What a wonderful and timely reminder for all of us working with the poor. I have forwarded a link to this article to all of my colleagues at The Leprosy Mission England & Wales.
    Thank you.

  3. Jun 29, 2011
    at 7:58 am

    Awesome post. Thank you for this. :)

  4. Jun 29, 2011
    at 9:47 am

    This is so true — I understand exactly what you mean because I’ve experienced this very thing! I love this illustration — what a great way to explain this concept — thank you so much for sharing what this woman explained to you. It IS powerful!

  5. VeronikaC
    Jun 29, 2011
    at 10:34 am

    I would add that to receive from the poor preserves their dignity, too.
    (Note that I said it preserves, not gives, because they already have dignity!)
    Posting this on my FB page.
    Thank you!

  6. Jun 29, 2011
    at 10:51 am

    great post! it’s so easy to make it one sided.

    but we find this principle even in the bible–
    “by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality.” [2 cor 8:14]

  7. Jun 29, 2011
    at 11:34 am

    Oh wow. This was SO GOOD. I am so thankful to have read this today. Bless you.

  8. Jun 29, 2011
    at 1:37 pm

    Great thoughts… The image of being a full cup seems to imply we have not been giving out enough. We are meant to be poured out to the world around us, constantly being emptied and then filled to continue the cycle. A full cup if left alone goes cold, if poured out it is of use and refreshing to others! The poor have so much to give us by love, lesson and example, I feel I have come back from visits to my kids with so much more than I have given them… does this make sense to any of you guys? M

  9. Jun 29, 2011
    at 1:51 pm

    what a great reminder for all of us! I definitely first approached sponsorship this way – thinking I was doing something great for someone else. I quickly realized that God was using sponsorship to change ME.

    As we fill others with love, encouragement and prayer, we must remember to also let ourselves be filled.

  10. Jun 29, 2011
    at 3:59 pm

    Oh my gosh, great post.

  11. Joseph Alba
    Jun 29, 2011
    at 6:53 pm

    I think “Bring an empty cup” as a perfect metaphor for Compassion’s way of fighting poverty in the lives of children, and this is what makes it so powerful.

    Many think that giving free meals, free vaccination, free school supplies, or even free housing will solve the problem of poverty. Unfortunately, in most cases, it only worsens the problem because it creates a mindset of entitlement and complacency, since the intervention ends at the point of giving things.

    It is like giving the poor a full cup, and taking the cup away after the food is consumed.

    Compassion children attending the student center programs, as well as mothers and babies of the Child Survival Program receive such benefits – including housing in case of disasters, but they also undergo age-appropriate curriculum based trainings at the center. They get an empty cup – tools – which they can now use to change their lives for the better, in Jesus’ Name.

  12. Jun 29, 2011
    at 7:22 pm

    My husband and I experienced the filling of our cup when we went to Haiti with Compassion. It was truly enlightening.

  13. kalah
    Jun 29, 2011
    at 7:40 pm

    This is such an ecouragement!! Our cups are being filled with joy!! God is always working and we are getting blessings from our sponsor children!

  14. Kim Edge
    Jun 29, 2011
    at 9:45 pm

    What is in the cups in the photograph?

    • Jacquie Parella
      Jun 30, 2011
      at 10:11 am

      Hi Kim! I checked and wasn’t able to find out what was in the cups. Sorry about that.

  15. Jun 29, 2011
    at 11:52 pm

    this is one of the most impressive “real” stories that I’ve ever worked with people who are in hard time..
    I even decided to transform my mind about low-income households.
    Thanks.. A LOT.

  16. Jun 30, 2011
    at 8:17 am

    Thank you for this! Such helpful insight — I leave for Africa next week.

  17. Jun 30, 2011
    at 2:45 pm

    I definitely don’t always come to my ministried with an empty cup, but many times I do. I think it is those times that I feel so filled up! People will say, “God bless you!” and I’ve started replying, “He already has!”

  18. Rod
    Jun 30, 2011
    at 6:46 pm

    There are innovations and new directions, new products in fact that have benefits for developing economies, cultures, and circumstances. Such things usually are presented to first world bankers, and the effort becomes one that ultimately trickles down to a cheap labor force in the right environment that has simple distribution logistics. Perhaps the innovation and/or direction should be brought to the end source and brought to fruition first. Working on just that angle. Thanks Deb!!!

  19. Willy Rawung
    Jun 30, 2011
    at 9:25 pm

    Terima kasih ! Work WITH them instead of work FOR them, really inspiring sir.

  20. Jul 6, 2011
    at 4:23 pm

    God’s economy is so different to ours. I have always felt that I have received so much more FROM my Compassion kids than I have given TO them. I’d say, bring an empty cup the first time, next time you’ll need an empty bucket :)

  21. Julie Barker
    Jul 10, 2011
    at 2:23 pm

    Really thought provoking stuff and I totally agree. I have found the whole experience completely humbling and have been blessed more than I ever thought possible. I am going to share this blog with my youth group as we travel to Uganda to work with a school and see my child’s project

  22. Bled
    Jul 11, 2011
    at 10:04 pm

    Thank you so much for this. It definitively changed me

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