I recently wrote on the implications of “pathological altruism,” a term coined by Oakland University’s Barbara Oakley to categorize altruism in which “attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.”
In a segment from the PovertyCure series, HOPE International’s Peter Greer offers a good example of how this can play out, particularly in and through various outreaches of the church:
Oakley’s paradigm depends on whether such harm can be “reasonably anticipated,” and as Greer’s story indicates, far too often the church isn’t anticipating much at all. Ship the stuff, check the box, and sing our merry songs.
Yet the need for “anticipation” is fundamental. We are called to sacrifice, yes, but first and foremost, this springs from obedience to God, part of which involves active observation and prayerful discernment. Arbitrary button-pushing is not an activity particularly suited to Christian mission. As Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write, “The quality of stewardship depends on obedience to the Master’s will.”
So when our charitable activities result in the temporary flooding of markets or the destruction of otherwise meaningful work, how are we to view the driving motivations behind our actions? Is the Holy Spirit leading us to such meddling? Reason? Emotion? Dysfunction?
Whatever the answer(s) — and I’ve got some hunches — I’d submit that we’re failing to even ask the question. When we falter, we need to re-think the solutions. But we also need to question the deeper impulses we’re yielding to, actively challenging the very “intentions” that got us there in the first place.
The way of the Christian is one of altruism. But only when our love for others is rooted in the love of God, enacted according to ways that are higher than our ways, can we expect ends that are higher than our ends.