As the president of an international nonprofit and someone who’s devoted his life to doing good, isn’t it strange to be writing a book with this title?
Yes, but I’ve experienced the danger of doing good firsthand. In 2002, 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.” It turns out that doing good can be terribly narcissistic. In the wake of a renewed movement of service and activism, we are in desperate need to return to why we serve. Otherwise, we will continue to see many servants who are burnt out, with marriages crumbling, and with faith in shambles. It’s devastating in so many ways. I’ve seen firsthand the dark side of doing good and want to share ways to avoid many of the dangers lurking in the shadows of our service.
We hear a lot of how it’s dangerous to do good – When Helping Hurts is a popular book right. We think charity helps, but often it undermines local economies. Brian Fikkert, the author of When Helping Hurts wrote your foreword, so how is this book different?
Rather than looking at how doing good affects the people we serve, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good is an internal look at the havoc serving can do to us. 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. At its heart, this book is a call to rediscover why we serve.
In your chapter “When Ministry Becomes Your Mistress, ” you’re candid about the tension in your own marriage during your time of service. Why include such a personal story?
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 very bad place. I’m so thankful for my wife, Laurel, who was courageous enough to confront me. And I want to empower other leaders to see that transformational development begins at home. People who serve can miss the gift it is to serve at home as our first area of service. In this book, I also wanted to include practical guardrails to protect ministry leaders from becoming consumed with work.
How do you fight cynicism? We do good and as soon as we do, we hear that we’re stepping into dangerous territory. It would be tempting to throw up our hands and not even try. How do we combat that?
For me, remembering why we serve becomes the cure for cynicism. When you realize you don’t need to perform or earn anything for God’s approval, then you are free to serve out of a response to God’s love for you.
In the book you describe Christian karma? What is the concept of Christian karma, and why is it affecting the Western church today?
The concept of Christian karma goes like this: If I do good, then God has to reward me in return. It’s like we have a business transaction with God. He owes us if we perform. A toxic philosophy—breeding arrogance, entitlement, and resentment—Christian karma was at the heart of my attitude toward God. And I believe Christian karma is one of the most dangerous philosophies in the Church today.
You devote a chapter telling people not to join ministry. Why do that as a ministry leader?
Every day I meet with business people who tell me they want to join “ministry”—that they don’t find purpose in their jobs. That’s heartbreaking. A serious danger in the Church today is to elevate ministry over business. Through this book, I hope readers will feel encouraged to live out their God-given vocation in the secular workforce. We share stories of talented people who are making an incredible difference through business. They are not only capable; they are clearly called. Even Billy Graham said that he believes the greatest place for evangelism is no longer in revival halls, but in the work force. As a result, the spiritual dangers of doing good are not just for people in fulltime ministry, but for anyone actively living out their calling through their vocation.
How do you define success?
If you look at Scripture, you see that Christ had a different definition of success. He said simply to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” Luke 10:27). If you are doing those two things, then the God of the Universe sees your life as a success story. Period.
Peter Greer is president and CEO of HOPE International, a global nonprofit focused on Christ-centered job creation, savings mobilization, and financial training. He coauthored the first faith-based book on microfinance, The Poor Will Be Glad (Zondervan, 2009), and most recently wrote, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. Peter blogs at www.peterkgreer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @peterkgreer.