When ABC approached Dani Johnson about starring on a new show called Secret Millionaire, she said no. When they tried a second time, she said no. Ditto the third time and the fourth.

Dani Johnson

Dani Johnson

Not until ABC asked for a fifth time did Johnson, a self-made millionaire, finally say yes, and the results can be seen on Sunday's primetime premiere (8/7c). The premise is simple: Take a millionaire to "the other side of the tracks" and let them live in poverty for a whole week. Arrange for said millionaire to volunteer in local outreach organizations, places that are usually operating on a limited budget. At the end of the week, reveal the secret identity of the millionaire as he/she writes big checks to these organizations. Cue the violins, and let the tears roll.

It's that last part—writing the checks—that bothered Johnson the most. Not that she can't afford it, and not that she's stingy. Johnson—who earned her millions as a motivational speaker, author, and founder of a financial advising firm —is a devout Christian and quite generous. She and husband Hans run King's Ransom, a non-profit foundation dedicated to giving and serving people in need around the globe.

But Johnson prefers to write her checks in private, based on Matthew 6:1-4, where Jesus says not to do our "acts of righteousness before men," but to do our giving "in secret." So why'd she ultimately say yes? Because Scripture (Matthew 5:14-16) also calls us to "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

For Sunday's episode of Secret Millionaire, Johnson 42, traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., and lived in a scuzzy apartment for a week while doing volunteer work with several charities. We spoke with Johnson about her experience.

So, ABC contacted you, and you said no four times. Why?

We have a personal philosophy. We use our business to generate millions of dollars so we can give to those who are in need, but we give in secret. We also believe we're supposed to be the hands and feet of these organizations, so we're not just ones that cut the check. We go in as volunteers, not as successful millionaires. I've worked with the homeless and with orphans, washed their feet, trimmed their fingernails, served hot meals, spoken into their lives. We've done it in our hometown [Dallas], in Idaho, in San Francisco, in Belize, in India. Why do we need a camera following us around to show that? I told ABC, "I'm not your girl. I could care less about having my face all over television." But quickly we found out that we were fighting God and not man.

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How do you figure that?

It was crazy. We said, no, no, no, no, no, and God made it obvious that he had opened up this door. Like Gideon, we laid out a fleece before the Lord—four fleeces, in fact, and asked for the impossible … and he did it.

Did what? What was the fleece?

Without compromising my relationship with ABC, I shouldn't say. I'll just say they were impossible things that had to come together; there was just no way it was going to work. But every single one of those things worked out. It was God, that's the bottom line.

So, how do you reconcile writing these big checks on camera with the Scripture about doing good deeds in private?

The Lord convicted me that it's the heart of the giver that he's after. When you give in public you've received your reward in full; you got what you were after. That's an issue of the heart. But I don't give for recognition. That's what the Lord showed me.

Johnson cooking at the Love Kitchen

Johnson cooking at the Love Kitchen

God wants to put his people in influential places to influence our nation back to him. Never in a million years did I imagine that I'd be one of those, that God would open up a platform to put one of his on ABC on a Sunday night to proclaim who he is. When he showed me This is by my design, and you will glorify me on that show, that's when I said yes. The Bible says we are supposed to be a light on a hill for all the world to see, and what better way than primetime network TV on a Sunday night?

You're outspoken about your faith, but that's not clear on this episode. We see you praying in one scene, and reading your Bible in another, but don't hear you talking about your faith.

I was very vocal about my faith, but that definitely was edited out. However, I think they did a good job making it palatable for everybody so that it did not exclude anyone. But let's look at the Love Kitchen [one of the Knoxville ministries where Johnson volunteered] and Helen and Ellen [the 82-year-old twins who run it]. They were completely outspoken about their faith, and that comes through very clearly.

When you got to Knoxville, ABC took you to a rundown apartment building where you would spend the week. What were your initial thoughts?

That apartment was disgusting. I scrubbed for three hours with bleach. And I was mad as a hornet—not at ABC for putting me there, but at the owner of that property. I don't care if you rent to low income people. That does not give you a right to not have excellence in your property. He clearly treated the poor poorly, instead of giving them a clean place to live. I wanted to belt him one … and I even said that on camera!

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Did you really live in that apartment the whole week?

Oh my gosh. Not only did I really live in that apartment, but it was the only one without an air conditioner. Every other place in that neighborhood had an air conditioner but me. It was a hundred degrees, and the whole time the cameras were running—from 5 in the morning till 11 at night—I couldn't have a fan on because of the noise. It was so hot, I almost passed out three times. I was a sweaty, disgusting mess the whole time. I washed out my clothes in a filthy bathtub every night.

What was the hardest part about your week in Knoxville?

Being away from my family. The second hardest part was handing them the checks, because I really did not want them to know it was me. It was an awful moment for me. For ABC, I had to say, "I have a check for you." But I also told each person, "I normally give in secret and I give in the name of Jesus. This is from him, not from me." But they cut that part out.

Cutting a check for those in need

Cutting a check for those in need

Why would they cut that?

If Christians didn't have such a bad reputation, it wouldn't be a problem.

What do you mean?

We as Christians have not set the right example. The truth is that Christians give to big giant buildings, to churches that cost a hundred million dollars, and we put our pastors on jets to fly them around the world where the money should really be going to those listed in Matthew 25:31-46—the orphan, the widow, the hungry, the cold, the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. And we have failed to do that.

Reality TV makes viewers skeptical, so I have to ask: You gave away $100,000 on the show. Was that really your money, or was it put up by ABC and its sponsor?

One hundred percent of the money was mine. And actually, unfortunately, it came out of our personal account, versus out of our foundation that use for these purposes. So that was another major sacrifice—it was our personal money. ABC insisted on that.

What do you hope viewers will take away?

What I took away. I left that experience completely passionate about mobilizing others to get involved. DaniJohnson.com is about helping people make more money, annihilate their debt, and use their influence to help others that are in need. We teach our clients to give and to uphold the cause of the poor and the orphan and the widow.

What about viewers who don't have much money?

Look at Ruth, who was one of the homeless but was also working at the Love Kitchen. [Ruth is shown in several scenes in the show.] She now serves. She's precious, man. She made such an impact on my life. So, yeah, I hope people get mobilized and not only go and serve, but bring their families, bring their children. That's what we've always done in our family. Imagine if everyone did that. What a wild thing that would be!

Photos from ABC