Peter Greer on the Spiritual Danger of Doing Good

peter greer

Peter Greer is president and CEO of HOPE International, a global nonprofit focused on Christ-centered job creation, savings mobilization, and financial training. Peter coauthored the first faith-based book on microfinance, The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty, and recently released The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. Peter blogs at www.peterkgreer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @peterkgreer.

KW: Tell me about some of the experiences that led you to realize there were spiritual dangers to doing good.

PG: One  evening after the kids were in bed, my wife Laurel said one of the most frightening sentences I have ever heard: “You are choosing your ministry over me—and I feel nothing for you.”

I was the CEO of a Christian nonprofit—doing “great things for God” and “building a successful ministry” —yet I was giving my wife and kids leftovers. We were in a bad place. Unintentionally, I had turned my ministry into my mistress. I’m so thankful for my wife, Laurel, who was courageous enough to confront me and remind me that ministry starts at home.

Another experience that opened my eyes to the spiritual danger of doing good was after a volcano erupted in Congo. I went to help. Up high on a platform, I handed out blankets to refugees. And a photographer was snapping photos. But I wasn’t thinking about the refugees. My thought was, I can’t wait until people back home see these photos of me. That moment helped me see how it’s possible to appear to be serving God but actually be making our service all about us.

When our service becomes all about us, we steam roll over our families and sabotage our impact by patronizing those we serve.

KW: Your book discusses many of these spiritual dangers – what is one you’d like to highlight?

PG: Christian karma is the false belief that, If I just do a bit more, God will simply have to bless me. When cancer hits, relationships fall apart, or financial challenges come, faith is easily destroyed for people who have the faulty foundation of Christian karma … God’s not keeping His end of the bargain, we think.

A dangerous philosophy in our service today, it’s simply untrue. God owes us nothing – and our service is a response to what he has already done.

KW: In one chapter, you focus on the danger of doing instead of being. Why is that a danger today?

PG: A few years ago, the ministry I serve with was thriving. But I was so focused on what I was doing, I forgot who I was becoming.  This is at the heart of The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. It’s so critical that we not only focus outward, but also inward—toward prayer, the spiritual disciplines—and, ultimately, toward Jesus.

Jesus clearly said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”  Jesus didn’t say “little.” He said “nothing.”

KW: Why do you think people are often unaware of the downside of doing good?

PG: It’s often subtle. You’d think a Wall Street investment banker has a bigger ego than a humanitarian aid worker in Africa. But I have been around do-gooders my entire life—and am one— to know there’s a desire to be seen as the hero in all of us.

It’s possible for us to be “selflessly serving,” but to be completely self-centered in the process. We serve—but we serve to get the credit for what we have done. We give. But only when our generosity is trumpeted. We go on trips. But only if we can post the pictures on Facebook.

Unless we rediscover the foundation of our service, good work can be all about us: promoting our image, heightening our own vanity and pride. Families can be neglected in pursuit of doing “great things for God.” And we can become more obsessed with all we’re doing instead of who we are becoming in Christ.

Ultimately, good things apart from a foundation of gratitude can become spiritually toxic.

KW: What encouragement would you offer for people working on the front lines, facing these spiritual dangers?

PG: I  hope they come to a greater understanding of their own motives and brokenness. Even the Apostle Paul recognized, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21). When we acknowledge our brokenness, we can find freedom to truly serve for a lifetime.

Why we serve makes all the difference. It’s not to gain leverage over God. It’s not for the purpose of making a name for ourselves or creating a successful organization. It’s out of a heart posture of gratitude to a God who knows we aren’t perfect, who recognizes that we are a mess, and who loves us anyway.

Our service is downstream from the Gospel message. Simply, it’s a response to God’s generosity. We forget this and it is just a matter of time before we self-destruct.

KW: How do these things affect those who aren’t necessarily working on the front lines of relief and development or other similar work, but are working out their faith on a daily basis in their everyday lives?

PG: Yes, these dangers aren’t just targeted to ministry leaders; rather they are challenges that (I believe) all of us face.

This book is a call to the larger Church to reexamine our motives and heart posture, be open, vulnerable and broken—because that is the space where we experience God and can rediscover a foundation of faithful and joyful service.

My hope is that in some small way this book will help friends to understand some of the most common pitfalls that derail those who do good, including the danger of doing instead of being, lack of accountability in the Church, not admitting our own vulnerability, moral lapses for a good cause, and Christian karma.

KW: What are some of the prevailing misconceptions Americans have about poverty and the poor? How would a better understanding challenge us and deepen our spirituality?

PG: One of the largest misconceptions we have about poverty is that it solely a financial issue. We define it by a dollar per day figure. Yet, when the World Bank carried out a study where they asked the financially vulnerable to define poverty, most used sociological terms. To those living in financial poverty, they described it in terms of feeling voiceless and powerless, rather than just a lack of material things.

At HOPE, we asked the same question to a sample of our clients. They responded that poverty was not knowing one’s strengths or potential.

This is why a handout model of charity can actually make the situation worse. Too often, charity tells the financially poor “you are incapable.” Over time, this causes even more hopelessness.

KW: What are some recent trends you’ve seen through your work at Hope International that encourage you?

PG: The Church is awakening to the power of enterprise to be a key part of the solution to poverty. Increasingly, people want to truly help people help themselves through business activity. Microfinance, microenterprise development, social entrepreneurship and impact investing are all on the rise.

We are awakening to the power of patient investment, hard work, community solidarity, all built upon a bedrock foundation of faith.

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