The spiritual danger of doing good: An interview with Peter Greer
When I think of those who are accomplishing "good" in the world, I think of Peter Greer. He's the CEO of HOPE International, a global nonprofit focused on addressing both physical and spiritual poverty through micro-finance, and author of The Poor Will Be Glad. Having observed Peter's work firsthand--the story of me and Peter being held at gunpoint by Haitian bandits is recounted in my forthcoming book, Jesus is Better than You Imagined--I know the level of passion and commitment he brings to the field. Under his leadership, HOPE has become a leading poverty alleviation ministry and their work affects tens of thousands around the world. As a professional "do-gooder," it is all that more surprising that he would write a book titled, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. But Peter began observing scores of people who dove headfirst into Christian service and ended up swimming in seas of burnout, pride, or worse. So he decided to take a critical look at the unexpected spiritual dangers that come with doing good. Here we talk about the pitfalls of ministry, how Peter's work negatively affected his marriage, and what advice he might give to young, service-oriented Christians.
JM: Peter, tell us about the first moment your eyes were opened to your own divided heart about “doing good.” How did you respond?
PG: 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.
In moments of honesty, I see how sometimes my good deeds were about me and how it’s possible to sacrificially serve God and be completely self-centered in the process. Unless we rediscover why we serve, our service becomes a way to promote our image, heightening vanity and pride.
While the experience in Congo crystalized the issue, writing The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good has opened my eyes to the fact that these weren’t just my own struggles. Rather, there are common dangers facing those who do good work and the lure of success and pride so easily derails many talented leaders.
In fact, Dr. J. Robert Clinton conducted a study that discovered only one in three biblical leaders finished well. It’s probably the same percentage today.
My hope is that in some small way this book will help friends to understand some of the most common pitfalls that derail those who do good, including the danger of doing instead of being, lack of 3am friends, not admitting our own vulnerability, moral lapses for a good cause, and Christian karma.
JM: Surely, among your professional colleagues, you’ve witnessed those who’ve given in to the spiritual dangers of doing good. What shape does that take? How is it recognized?
PG: I’m not I can comment about the paths others have taken, but looking at my own life, I see some of the small steps that take us to a place we don’t want to go, including:
- Entitlement. Often doing good things makes you believe, I deserve just this little thing because of all of my sacrifices. So you justify small compromises of integrity and character.
- Small steps. No one just wakes up in bed with someone other than their spouse. When you hear of individuals or organizations that have made major ethical compromises, chances are attitudes and decisions have been undermining them for years.
- Wrong definition of success. As a leader, it’s easy to get caught up in a delusion: As long as we have a growing ministry, a bigger congregation, larger amounts of giving and more good works, we must be on the right path. There’s nothing wrong with a bigger ministry or congregation, but a fascination with such markers is dangerous. Good things apart from God a threat to knowing our Creator.
- Ministry workaholic. We know the impact of workaholic behavior in the workplace, but it is so much easier to justify behaviors that trample those closest to us “because it must be God’s work.” In fact, our lack of Sabbath and never-ending work might be all about us.
Unfortunately, these small steps are terribly difficult to diagnose and it’s only the accumulation of all these small behaviors before you can see their impact. My hope is that we will be more aware of the cracks in the foundation and realize that all our good works are downstream from who we are in Christ.