What Diabetes in China Reminds Us about Poverty

There’s a surprising new global leader in cases of diabetes: China. And the problem is larger than previously thought. National prevalence more than tripled in a decade; as of 2010, 1 in 10 Chinese adults had diabetes, with 16 percent more pre-diabetic. This nearly equals the rate of disease in the United States and exceeds that of other Western nations. One pharmaceutical executive calls China “the world’s capitol for diabetes.” Most of these cases are Type 2 diabetes, developed in adulthood and linked to poor eating habits, obesity, and sedentary lifestyle. This is a natural result of more Chinese people adopting an excessive and sedentary–some might say Western–diet and lifestyle.

In a sense, this bad news contains a seed of good news: a startling growth in prosperity in our lifetime, not only in China but around the world. Remember when your mother told you to eat your peas because the hungry children in China would be grateful to have such a meal? Well, far fewer of them are going without a meal. The downside–and a terrible irony–is that a place which once served to embody poverty now is a land of excess (and its attendant sicknesses) rivaling our own.

At this point in history, if we’re honest with ourselves as we watch newly affluent nations like China choose lifestyles of excess, we see that overconsumption and self-indulgence are not Western problems–they are human problems. We don’t seem to know how to steward abundance. With access to the healthiest foods on the planet, we choose McDonald’s. When we have leisure time to keep our minds and bodies active, we lie around and watch TV. When our income rises and we have the resources to share with others, our tastes become more expensive–so we spend more to keep ourselves comfortable.

If comfort is our chief purpose, we should be the happiest people in history. Yet we are far from it. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, was the third-largest cause of the global disease burden in 2004–and is expected to be number one in 2030. Since the late 1960s, worldwide suicide rates have increased by 60 percent. And at least one study found that worldwide–among prosperous nations, developing countries, and those in transition–there is no long-term relationship between happiness and economic growth.

Wealth and education can change the world, but they can’t save it. Our appetite for self-destruction is predictable. Our corruption is unavoidable. As material needs are met and economic growth gives us physical security, our sin problem is even more apparent in relief. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

The idea of sin has never been fashionable, but in the 20th century, it became an object of ridicule. In the light of great demonstrations of human strength and achievement, we became certain we could save ourselves. Our philosophies and plans may have differed, but we were all sure the solution belonged to us.

In this new century, as the world wakes up to the impotence of prosperity in the face of meaninglessness, self-destruction, and despair, perhaps as a species we will wake up to the fact that salvation lies beyond ourselves. And perhaps God’s great redemption plan, featuring the hopelessness of the human condition, will find new purchase.

Lifting people out of material poverty is the right and Christ-like thing to do, and it is worth devoting ourselves to. But people who struggle daily for basic survival are affected by the same spiritual deprivation we see in the eyes of super-rich celebrities, reality TV stars, and our neighbors who turn to self-indulgence in a desperate search for happiness. Material wealth does not eradicate spiritual poverty. Never has this been more obvious.

After all, it is spiritual poverty that causes people to hoard what they have, build larger garages to store all their goods, and spend much of what they have protecting it. On the flipside, it is spiritual wealth that motivates relatively well-off people to forego gifts at Christmastime, share with strangers, or intentionally curb their appetites so they can be more generous. It is a commitment to live as God has always told his people to live. And even more, it is the counterintuitive, counter-impulsive work of the Holy Spirit in us.

As the world becomes more prosperous, some people will be surprised to discover, as many of us already have, that material wealth does not bring ultimate satisfaction of any kind–least of all the spiritual kind. It may provide relief, but it never sates our appetite for more. Realizing this may fuel a new openness to the Living Water that satisfies so that those who drink “will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14).

A Christian who points to Jesus and ignores physical needs is not preaching a complete gospel; but the reverse is also true. In our quest to meet the world’s physical needs, will we miss the opportunity to tell newly open people how our own thirst was satisfied? Has our work to lift others’ standard of living–sometimes without an acknowledgment of spiritual poverty–left us without an answer for the dissatisfaction that material goods leave in their wake?

Against a backdrop of growing global prosperity, may we fully demonstrate that the ultimate solution for human need is rooted in who God is and what he has done for us, not in what we can do for ourselves.

This article first appeared here on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.