Peter Greer has spent his life doing good, from serving refugees in the Congo to leading HOPE International, a Christian-based network of microfinance institutions operating in 16 countries around the world. Yet as Greer argues in his latest book, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, “service and charity have a dark side.”

The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, Peter Greer

Pointing to a study by Fuller Seminary’s Dr. J. Robert Clinton, Greer notes that “only one out of three biblical leaders maintained a dynamic faith that enabled them to avoid abusing their power or doing something harmful to themselves and others.” From King David’s power trip with Bathsheba and Uriah to Jonah’s end-of-life anger and selfishness, the Bible is filled with examples of self-destruction amid service.

“When I looked to Scripture for guidance, what I found troubled me,” Greer writes. “Men and women who had heard from God—who even performed amazing miracles—were just as likely to blow it as everyone else.”

And alas, in all of our discussions about how to best serve our neighbors, how often do we focus on surface-level externalities to the neglect of the human heart? How often do we narrow down our “metrics for success” to exclude any discussion or contemplation about the motivations driving our actions or the potential for pitfalls along the way?

As Greer explains:

For several years, discussion has centered on charity and its effects on recipients. Does it hurt or help? Economists and authors have recognized that charity can be toxic; our help can actually harm those we seek to serve.

Largely missing from the discussion, however, is the damage that doing good can do to you and me…While charity can harm others, doing good can also wreak havoc on us…

What if the greatest threat to our churches and ministries and spiritual growth is not found in external pressures but within us? Proverbs says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Everything flows from the heart—our motivations, our desires, and our good deeds. Without evaluating our motives, it is possible to love our service more than we love our Savior. It is easy to pursue working to see ‘thy Kingdom come’ without having a vision of our King. It is possible to be so proud of all we’re doing for God that pride chokes our good deeds.

Indeed, as I’ve argued in the past, just as important as ensuring positive outcomes of well-intended service is the basic process of ensuring that our “good intentions” are actually good. As Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write, “The quality of stewardship depends on obedience to the Master’s will.”

Greer focuses mostly on the “non-profit” sphere, but in reading his book, I can’t help but notice how much of its wisdom also applies in the world of business, from the low-level employee to the board-room executive. If work is fundamentally about serving another, and business owners and employees approach things accordingly, it mustn’t be missed that any subsequent sacrifice and generosity is prone to similar dangers and distractions. The greatest threat to our churches and ministries may also be the greatest threat to cultivating our businesses toward services and products that glorify God.

I’m extremely grateful to Greer for writing this book, and I heartily recommend it. You can purchase it here.