Peter Greer says service and ministry can be spiritually dangerous.

The spiritual danger of doing good: An interview with Peter Greer

Peter Greer says service and ministry can be spiritually dangerous.

Peter Greer says service and ministry can be spiritually dangerous.

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. 

JM: All leaders are vulnerable to corruption. Are there particular temptations for leaders who are engaged in Christian service? Aren’t those failings “outweighed” by a ministry that’s successful?

Book cover courtesy of Bethany House Publishers

Book cover courtesy of Bethany House Publishers

PG: Although rarely verbalized, people doing good work sometimes think that God must love them more because of all their good work. But that’s just not the message of the Gospel.

Jesus says many service-oriented, creative, talented, religious people will come to Him on judgment day and say, “Look at the works we have performed in your name, the miracles, the prophecies.” But Christ will say to them one of the most shocking statements recorded in all Scripture, “I never knew you.”[1]

So how do we know if we are in the wrong rut with our service? Looking back, I see some of the subtle warning signs. My focus was on what I was doing instead of who I was becoming. Time in prayer and study of Scripture were less important than the good work I had to do. A pursuit of recognition overshadowed my pursuit to grow closer to Christ. I thought more about what people thought of me and little of my Savior. Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves, "Are we growing in love toward Christ and toward others, or are we doing our work in a way that is all about our image and what it does for us?"

Jesus clearly said, Apart from me you can do nothing.  Jesus didn't say little. He said nothing.

Service and ministry are important; but let’s not get so wrapped up in our calling that we forget this—we are not the savior.

JM: You’ve been pretty transparent about how your own role as the head of Hope International threatened your marriage. When did you know something was wrong, and how did you respond?

PG: One evening after the kids were in bed, my wife Laurel said one of the most frightening sentences I’ve ever heard: You are choosing your ministry over me—and I feel nothing for you.

I give Laurel an incredible amount of credit; it took courage for her to call attention to our marriage issues. Looking back I see I was giving her and the family leftovers: Traveling over 100 nights a year, I was often more interested in the welfare of “my ministry” than my wife and kids.

After Laurel’s words, I went into crisis mode: I canceled my business trip I was planning to take to Peru. And I cleared my work schedule. But trust was loss, and it has been a journey to regain that intimacy in marriage again. Long-term, Laurel and I have developed guardrails, including limited travel, praying together, among others, to prioritize our marriage. For example, periodically now I do “impact assessments” for my marriage. This may sound crazy, but I realized I monitored key performance indicators on the health and welfare of our programs, yet I rarely asked my wife how she was doing.

Now we regularly go over ten simple questions that help me know how I can better support her:

  1. Do my actions show you that apart from Jesus Christ, I have no higher love?
  2. How well are we serving together?
  3. How well am I encouraging your spiritual growth?
  4. How well am I maximizing the “little moments” we have together?
  5. How is our prayer life together?
  6. How well am I supporting you to grow in your gifts/skills?
  7. Are we discipling our children well together? How convinced are you that parenting is truly a partnership?
  8. How well am I caring for your friends?
  9. How is our physical expression of love [the language of this question has been edited]?
  10. What can I do to love you better?

It is simple practices over time that have had the greatest accumulative impact on our marriage.

JM: Peter, why does the ministry of the church need smart businesspeople today? What do they bring to the church’s ministry to the world God loves?

PG: Today, in some places, a false hierarchy of service exists—it says that those in ministry or service are elevated above those in secular jobs.

In Romans 12, Paul exhorts the believers we are to serve according to our gifts in the body—“we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.”

In the church, ministers often have the gift of teaching. But we can’t all be teachers. We need those with gifts of encouragement, service, and hospitality and so much more. A church relying only on the minister is an unhealthy church.

At HOPE International, I have seen the beauty of the business community rising up in places of extreme poverty, providing employment, giving back, and impacting the world for Christ. I long to see the Church understand impact comes only when the full body is fully engaged.

JM: Young Christians in particular seem to have an activist impulse. What's your advice for the TOMS-shoes-wearing, water-well-building, fair-trade-coffee-drinking generation?

PG: I have two pieces of advice. First, don't think your service makes God love you anymore. Ultimately service is a response to the most radical gift of grace the world has ever known ...“For God so loved the world that he gave …” We serve because we see the example of Jesus washing feet. And we offer our lives in sacrifice to others because of Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

And second, recognize your own limitations. Pop the illusion that you are the solution to the world's problems. When we turn our eyes away from ourselves, we see we’re not the superheroes—but we’re part of a much bigger story than we ever could have dreamed. And this opens the door to real lasting impact that can be sustained for a lifetime of service.