Peter Greer has long recognized that our help can hurt instead. As the president/CEO of HOPE International—a network of microfinance institutions and savings and credit associations—Greer has seen firsthand how Christian charity can unintentionally erode dignity and exacerbate poverty. HOPE seeks to create enterprise instead of aid, affirming the skills, talents, and abilities of the poor in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
Greer's most recent book, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, is a seasoned—and seasonally appropriate—meditation on ministry and leadership in Jesus' name. "Jesus continually returned to the motivation of doing good work," says Greer. "Is your work a response to the grace you've received, or a way to manipulate God?"
Joseph E. Gorra interviewed Greer about savior complexes, "Christian karma," and how to ensure the gospel is the impetus for our giving, at Christmas and throughout the year.
In what ways are you challenging paternalism in the global relief and development industry (e.g., Bill Easterly's White Man's Burden) on the one hand, and reimagining "Christian activism" (e.g., Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's The World Is Not Ours to Save ) on the other?
The backdrop to the book are my experiences working in international development and missions. I've seen how easy it is for a church to go on a short-term trip to Burundi, see incredible needs, and think, We can fix that!
We rush into service but slowly begin to think we're the solution, which unintentionally sabotages our impact and undercuts long-term capacity building.
The book is a call to reexamine our motivation for our service and to think less about ourselves and more about the people we serve.
You'd think a Wall Street investment banker would have a bigger ego than a humanitarian aid worker in Africa. But I have been around do-gooders my entire life—and am one—and know there's a desire in all of us to be the hero. A preoccupation with heroism means we serve 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.
Why we serve makes all the difference. It's not to gain leverage over God. It's not to make a name for ourselves or create a successful organization. It's out of a heart posture of gratitude to a God who knows we aren't perfect, who recognizes 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.
It seems that most Christians want to do good toward others, and perhaps want to be known for that, especially in light of negative perceptions about the church. But is this veering toward a kind of Christian "do-goodism"?
In the past decade, the church has had a renewed passion and a greater understanding of the needs of the world. We want to be known for what we are for, not just what we are against. We celebrate this renewed emphasis on love and service and want to encourage even more outrageous good deeds.
But to sustain our service, we must never become so excited about our good works that we begin to believe we're the hero of the story … Good deeds are most meaningful when they are undertaken by people who have experienced love and forgiveness, and are merely pointing others to the Source.
Several years ago, I found myself on a stage. Up high on a platform, I was handing out blankets to refugees in Congo. They had fled their homes because of the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo.