At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Book Review: The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good

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“I have seen friends and mentors throw themselves into the causes of justice and do extraordinary work for Jesus. I admired their passion, their devotion, and their sacrifice. But despite their extraordinary dedication, things went wrong. Burnout. Personal meltdowns. Infidelity. Lost faith. Financial compromise. Personal meltdowns. My heart breaks for these friends and for the ministries they worked so hard to build.” 

Peter Greer, President and CEO of HOPE International, a global microfinance nonprofit, has personally struggled with the problems that he describes. In The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, he draws from his own mistakes and successes in order to help others to identify and address spiritual pitfalls that they may encounter while doing “God’s work.”

The book is aimed at those working in ministry or charitable nonprofits, and it certainly points out that there are struggles that are particularly difficult for those in full-time ministry. Yet its warning about placing one’s deeds above one’s relationship with God is relevant to Christians in any profession.

Each short chapter of Greer’s book addresses a different spiritual danger, ending with a short list of thoughtful discussion questions. The first topic that he brings up is the importance of achieving a reasonable work/life balance. Remembering how his work almost destroyed his family life he says,

I was so focused on the demands and feelings of worth at work that I missed both the joy and significance of my key role as a husband and father.

No matter how important your work is, he argues, it must not cause your relationship with Christ, your obligations to your family, and your deep friendships to fall by the wayside. Your primary calling is to follow Christ. Your work is an important, but secondary, calling. That also means that if we are letting our jobs shape our identities, we are worshiping the wrong god.

Greer is also careful to note that mission and nonprofit work is no better than any other profession. After an unsuccessful first attempt to get involved in nonprofit poverty relief work in Africa, Greer had to reevaluate God’s plan for his life. He explains,

I had bought into a false and hazardous hierarchy of service. In my hierarchy, overseas ministry was at the top of the pyramid. Next was full-time Christian service in the U.S. Then came the honorable professions, like being a doctor, teacher, or social worker…but an elevated view of full-time ministry is thoroughly unbiblical.

Through his time outside of the nonprofit sector, Greer came to understand that one can serve others and glorify God through any type of job. That means that those in business, medicine, customer service, etc. are doing “God’s work” just as much as those in full-time ministry.

Another helpful point that Greer makes is that the worldly definition of success is not always God’s definition of success. Yet even the most dedicated Christians can make human recognition, statistics, and appearances into an idol. Greer reminds his readers that Jesus’ earthly ministry did not look particularly successful during the crucifixion. He adds that,

One of Jesus’ biggest criticisms of the religious is that they adopted the wrong definition of success…no longer was their desire for Scripture about wanting to be close to God; it had translated into desiring notoriety for themselves. Success had become an obsession, and idol, their object of worship.

Likewise, good deeds and hard work do not guarantee earthly success. Greer warns that the “Prosperity Gospel,” or what he calls “Christian Karma,” is an ancient but disappointing lie that promotes a sense of works-based salvation. He says, “Affluence has insulated us from a theology of suffering and leaves us open to the belief that good people deserve only good things.”

In fact, Greer concludes his list of spiritual dangers with the acknowledgement that while we want to appear as if we “have it all together,” we really need to depend on God’s redeeming grace and mercy.

God already knows you don’t have it all together. You haven’t earned the gift of grace. He’s given it to you. You just have to recognize you’re messed up. You get to stop pretending.

The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good has a very humble, conversational tone, managing to persuade and convict without appearing self-righteous. It also useful helping Christians to identify the danger areas in their own lives and jobs.

It’s a message that every Christian will find helpful to hear on a regular basis, regardless of their profession.

Is it dangerous to do good? Is this a special challenge for those in the ministry and non-profit work? Leave your comments here.

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