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The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good

Recently I asked this question: What would cause an entire civilization to pass on permanent things—such as truth, justice and liberty—and accept tyranny out of apathy? This question is in response to the admonition of conservative minds from the fields of art, literature, philosophy, political science and economics, that the real threat to our civilization is “not the atomic bomb” but boredom. Identifying this threat and addressing it is an important task, because as one of Whilhem Röpke’s main theses in “A Humane Economy” holds, it is morality more than the material wealth that keeps us free.
Totalitarianism gains ground exactly to the extent that the human victims of this process of disintegration suffer from frustration and non-fulfillment of their life as a while because they have lost the true, pre-eminently non-material conditions of human happiness. For this reason it is certain that the decisive battle between Communism and the free world will have to be fought, not so much on the field of material living conditions, where the victory of the west would be beyond doubt, but on the field of spiritual and moral values. Communism prospers more on empty souls than on empty stomachs. (Emphasis mine)
For many millennial Christians, the threat of communism seems distant and impertinent. Communism, we learned from history books, was atheistic and totalitarian. Surely, we think, we’re not at risk of losing on the field of spiritual and moral values because it is through our moral convictions that we seek to feed the empty stomachs. But it is that exact attitude, that confidence and idolatry of servitude, which threatens our souls with boredom and burnout. Peter Greer, president and CEO of HOPE International, describes this threat in his latest book “The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good.” Certainly Greer’s intention for this book is to be non-political in nature—as evident by the endorsement of Shane Claiborne. But as I read Röpke and Greer simultaneously, I found the connections striking and feel compelled to discuss them. Greer writes:
It is possible to be so proud of all we’re doing for God that pride chokes our good deeds. In my zeal for justice and mercy, I made service—a good thing—into the ultimate thing, opening myself to pride, doubt, and approval seeking… my concern is that in doing great things for God, we will forget who we are becoming. Without a clear understanding of why we serve, we risk a backlash of relational ruin, spiritual disillusionment, and personal burnout. (Emphasis original)
Peter Greer Book I share the sentiments of many of those who endorse Greer’s book and deeply appreciate the honest examination of his own life in ministry and the personal struggles that threatened his relationships, his ability to help others and his own soul. This isn’t talked about as much as it should be, because the reality is that most of us are burnt out to some degree. Most of us, even though we act under moral convictions, are suffering spiritually because we have made good deeds into the ultimate thing. Society tells us that what matters more than good results is to be seen doing good. Greer tells the story of passing out blankets in Africa, where they waited for several days for a news crew to film their good deeds while those in need of the blankets waited in the cold. “Hedonism and heroism (doing good) are brothers,” Greer says, “not polar opposites. Both are focused on ourselves.” Greer references the teaching of Jesus in Mathew 6:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
So often we forget this principle, and we worry that if others do not see us helping the poor we are not being effective. As Greer says, “unfortunately, it’s our natural inclination to forget about the radical message of grace and just keep trying harder.” Greer concludes with this advice:
We can’t live well on our own. Unless I have 3 a.m. friends, unless I surround myself with people willing to tell me the truth I don’t want to hear, unless I constantly reflect on my sin and my Savior’s love and forgiveness, I am just as capable of royally messing up as everyone else… At the core, we still need the Holy Spirit to guide us…
I sincerely hope that Peter Greer can forgive me for connecting this review with political ideas, but as I said, the connection seems clear. It is our pride in our good works leads to burnout without results. It is our pride that often leads us to believe we can craft policy to fix fallen humanity. When this inevitably fails, totalitarianism will invade, and we will be left bored, burnt out and enslaved. I could not recommend “The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good” highly enough, as it challenges all of us no matter our philosophical affiliations or religious conditions. In the coming days, I intend to continue this discussion with a review of Matthew Anderson‘s new book, “The End of Our Exploring.”