Q&A: Peter Greer on Heroism, ‘Christian Karma,’ and the Dark Side of Charity
Religion & Liberty Online

Q&A: Peter Greer on Heroism, ‘Christian Karma,’ and the Dark Side of Charity

SpiritualDangerGreerPeterPeter Greer has spent his life doing good, from serving refugees in the Congo to leading HOPE International, a Christian-based network of microfinance institutions operating in 16 countries around the world. Yet as he argues in his latest book, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, “service and charity have a dark side.”

As a study from Fuller Seminary concluded, only one out of three biblical leaders finished well, despite the good they accomplished during their lifetimes. How can Christians avoid the spiritual dangers that persist in pursuing the good of our neighbors?

Greer’s book offers plenty of answers, and in an interview with On Call in Culture, he was kind enough to offer a glimpse.

As a young man, you noticed a certain brokenness in the aid industry—manipulation, phoniness, failure to uphold the dignity the human person. Yet you began to recognize these same traits within your own heart. Why does the position of the heart matter? Why isn’t it good enough to get busy?

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.

That moment helped me see how it’s possible to appear to be serving God but actually be making our service all about us. Unless we rediscover why we serve, our service can become a way to promote our image, heightening vanity and pride.

When our service becomes all about us, we sabotage our impact by patronizing those we serve. We provide ill-fitting solutions because we haven’t learned to listen well. Also, we become unwilling to consider partnerships, ignore succession planning, and engage in other actions that undermine our long-term effectiveness. Plus, we get really tired in the process. We simply weren’t meant to be the hero.

What is “Christian karma” and how can it distort our view of service?

Christian karma is the false belief that if I just do a bit more, God will simply have to bless me.

For people who do good with the faulty foundation of Christian karma, when cancer hits or relationships fall apart or financial challenges come, faith is easily destroyed. God’s not keeping His end of the bargain, we think.

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

One of your chapters focuses on the spiritual danger of “giving leftovers to loved ones.” How can Christians maintain a proper balance or integration between “doing good” in the world around them and fulfilling other basic commitments (family, vocation, etc.)?

Peter Greer, President & CEO of HOPE International
Peter Greer, President & CEO of HOPE International

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 in a conversation I will not easily forget. And I want to empower other leaders to believe that our ministry and service must begin at home. People who serve can miss the gift it is to serve at home as our first area of service.

I also wanted to include practical guardrails to protect ministry leaders from becoming consumed with work. If you’re interested in learning more about practical ways to balance work and life, here is one guardrail my wife and I put into place: 10 Questions That Will Transform Your Marriage Forever.

Pointing to the parable of the prodigal son, you detect in the elder brother a self-righteous heroism. “It’s possible to sacrificially serve God and be completely self-centered in the process,” you write. What can self-centeredness do to our service?

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—I am one—and know there’s a desire in all of us to be seen as the hero. This preoccupation with heroism means we serve but only when we get the credit. We give, but only when people see our generosity. We go on trips, but only if we can post the pictures on Facebook. This approach destroys friendships and undermines our impact.

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. If we forget this, it is just a matter of time before we self-destruct.

You dedicate an entire chapter to the danger of “doing instead of being,” writing that, if done apart from the Holy Spirit, all of our “giving, serving, and going” amounts to “a garbage pile of good intentions.” How so?

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.

Another danger you point to is that of elevating the sacred over the secular, or what some might call “full-time ministry” over “secular vocation.” How can overly simplistic sacred-vs.-secular dichotomies affect the witness of the church?

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 no matter where they serve. 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 “full-time ministry,” but for anyone actively living out their calling through their vocation.

On that note, much of your book focuses on service in the realm of what many would call “full-time ministry,” but what you just said would indicate these dangers also apply in the world of business and beyond.

Yes, these dangers aren’t just targeted to ministry leaders; rather they are challenges that I believe all of us face. At the heart of the book’s message is that what we do is a response of gratitude, not of guilt. Should is not our motivator. Being appreciated is not our motivator. Having people say we’re good people doing good work is not our motivator. True gratitude is the strongest motivator I know; we love because Christ first loved us.

This book is a call to the larger Church that we need to begin 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 for a lifetime of faithful and joyful service.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.