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The faulty concept of 'Christian karma'

An excerpt from Peter Greer’s <em>The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good</em>

Bethany House Publishers

The faulty concept of 'Christian karma'

In June, WORLD’s Saturday Series featured an excerpt from Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches by Peter Greer and Chris Horst, which was a runner-up for 2014 Book of the Year in WORLD’s analysis category. Today we offer an excerpt from an earlier book written by Greer (with Anna Haggard) called The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, a brutally honest look at international charity work.

Greer, who is president of HOPE International, knows firsthand the disillusionment and burnout Christian ministry workers face while serving abroad, and he isn’t beyond sharing the hard lessons he’s learned, including the faulty concept of “Christian karma,” which is detailed in the book excerpt below. —Mickey McLean

Chapter 1: Confessions of a Do-gooder

It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—“playactors” I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out. —Jesus (Matthew 6:1–4, The Message)

They carried everything they owned on their heads: old milk crates, soggy mattresses, pots and pans. All their worldly possessions amounted to what looked like throw-away items. Flowing to the rhythm of the rain, the people of Goma poured down red streets. Barefoot or in flip-flops, they streamed down the road to Gisenyi.

Behind them Mount Nyiragongo loomed. Lava oozed from the gash in its crater lake, swallowing entire homes in its path. Leaking through the center of Goma, the volcano forced a migration to the border of Rwanda.

Sitting in a white Land Cruiser, my wife, Laurel, and I watched refugees stream from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo) to the border. Just one of a few vehicles on the street, we could not move. People swarmed around our Land Cruiser, peering into it, making us feel even whiter and more out of place than normal. I turned the radio up, but the reggae beats of Lucky Dube, the African Bob Marley, provided no escape. Though momentarily stuck, I knew we’d leave soon. The crowd would clear. Driving away in an air-conditioned vehicle, I’d watch 400,000 people caught in this catastrophe in my rearview mirror.

They were the ones who were trapped. They had no real option for escape. And when they did return, a “normal life” meant living in extreme poverty, in shacks that seemed unsuitable for a family to call home.

My boss had wanted me to stay another week. I wanted out.

Whether I extended my stay a few days or not, I’d go—return to my job as managing director of a microfinance institution in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Unlike the refugees, I could escape this gritty reality.

When I had set out to serve in the refugee camp, I was eager to help and excited about the possibility of making a difference. But the problems were overwhelming. Refugees kept pouring in to the camps. Laurel seemed to cope better than I did, playing hand games and giving hugs to a burgeoning group of children.

I longed for Kigali. The rain never let up. I was weary, tired of wet clothes and sleeping on the floor. Exhausted from never-ending meetings with relief agencies, I was wearier of the politics pervasive among the aid organizations.

Most of all, though, I was tired of myself, having caught a glimpse of my true motives.

Power Play

When we arrived, the United Nations and powerhouse players in global relief assembled in Goma. With a flurry of media coverage, these organizations flew into action. To my surprise, the first “action” was to plaster bumper stickers in the refugee camps. Tacking logos on telephone poles and cars, the nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) marketed their image with New York ad agency efficiency. But somehow, it seemed, they forgot about the people.

Consider the blankets.

Even though we were in central Africa, the rainy season and elevation caused the weather to be surprisingly cold. People living in poverty—who were forced to leave their homes—needed warmer clothes. Between the unrelenting rain and constant chill, I was uncomfortable in my raincoat, long-sleeve shirt, and khakis. A lot of kids wore nothing but ripped t-shirts. And we had blankets to give—generously funded by churches in the U.S. and purchased locally. But we were unable to give them away.

The high-profile NGOs decided how and to whom goods and services were to be provided. Supposedly an American news crew would be following the story of a bundle of blankets arriving in Goma from the U.S. Each NGO wanted the spotlight; the leaders began debating who would give the blankets while being filmed.

Blankets were piled in our van, ready to go. Yet the refugees went without blankets for two days. Until the next shipment arrived, no blankets would be given. When the delivery finally came, there was no CNN news crew. It had been a rumor.

Because we were no longer competing for media coverage, the larger NGOs finally granted permission for us to distribute the blankets. Even then, it felt like we were under the control of the mafia. As we prepared to hand out blankets, our partner organization herded a few Congolese with the “right look”—those with torn clothes and emaciated faces—to elicit a compassionate response from foreign supporters.

To capture the perfect pictures, they made the Congolese repeatedly walk back and forth as we handed blankets to them.

It felt manipulative and phony. Organizations need to promote their causes and raise support, but why can’t they do so in ways that uphold the dignity of the people they serve? The aid industry seemed broken, but it wasn’t long before I recognized these same traits within my own heart.

The part of this story that still causes my stomach to churn is when I was finally allowed to distribute the blankets. This was my chance to be in the spotlight. Up on a platform, I bestowed my blankets on people who orderly shuffled through a line. The orchestration was almost perfect—we had roped off lines like at an amusement park—and I was the main attraction.

We had lists of the families so each family received their allotment. Here I was, on the front lines, personally handing out blankets and helping families that had lost almost everything. Noble cause. Noble mission. Noble actions of a twenty-five-year-old relief worker. A photographer snapped pictures, and I smiled wide for the camera as I did “God’s work.”

And the thought running through my head was not about the people receiving the blankets.

I thought, I can’t wait until the people back home see these photos of me.

When I saw the photos a few weeks later, I trashed them. With a flaky smile plastered on my face, I could only see the photos as incriminating evidence of an unhealthy heart condition. Captured on film, I recognized myself as playacting for people far away, not thinking about loving the people in front of me.

My friend who took the picture emailed it to me with the caption “cheese.” That’s exactly how I felt—like artificial Cheez Whiz.

Although I never would have verbalized this, I had wanted to be seen as the good guy, the person my parents could brag about to their friends, the do-gooder, a masculine Mother Teresa who served the poor. All my life I thought I had been on the right road; I had maintained a clean record and was the “good pastor’s kid.” But there was a disconnect between my heart and my outward appearance. And I didn’t want to talk about it.

Doing good turns out to be a lot more difficult than I originally thought it should be, both in designing programs that really make a positive impact, as well as serving with the right attitude and motivation.

Perhaps that is why, while sitting in the white Land Cruiser that last day in the refugee camp just a week after handing out blankets, surrounded by a surging river of refugees, I just wanted out.


I eventually took a break from Africa by returning to graduate school. For me and countless other young and tired humanitarian workers, graduate school is a socially acceptable way to leave the developing world.

Living near the Arlington/Cambridge town line in Massachusetts, I would ride my 1970 upright Schwinn bike along Massachusetts Avenue each fall morning with my laptop and books strapped on my back, breathing in the cold morning air. I began to feel refreshed. Being away from the messiness of real-life application and plunging into development theory provided an escape. It’s so much easier to know the right answers when you’re away from people and their situations. And being surrounded by passionate people eager to make a difference in the world was rejuvenating. The time of reprieve passed far too quickly.

A policy analysis exercise was the last major project my fellow students and I needed to complete before graduation. I returned to Congo to investigate how to combine clean water distribution with the work of HOPE International (HOPE).

HOPE, a nonprofit organization, was involved in microfinance— providing savings, loans, and biblically based business training—to enable the poor to start or expand a business and lift themselves out of poverty. Fascinated by its desire to implement a new program in one of the hardest places on earth to do business, I wanted to get a first-hand look at the ministry before they began to officially operate in Congo.

After a week in Kinshasa, I got an urgent email from my wife to call her immediately. I received the email at 4 a.m. and walked out on the balcony to hear my wife’s excited voice say, “Peter, we’re pregnant!”

I’m sure I woke the neighbors as we excitedly spoke about all the details—“How did you find out? … When is the due date? … What names do you like? … How will this impact our desire to serve overseas? …” I didn’t sleep the rest of the night. The hefty phone bill was worth every penny.

The very next day, I had lunch with Eric, the president of the organization, and his wife, Pennie, who happened to be visiting Kinshasa at the exact same time.

While sitting there, he asked me point blank, “Would you consider taking my position in Lancaster, Pennsylvania?” He explained that he was transitioning to another organization, and the ministry was seeking a new president. My head was spinning. New baby. New job. New place (isn’t Lancaster where the Amish live?). Little did I know that “head spinning” would be an apt description of my next stage of life.

Ready, Set, Go

I joined our ministry at just the right time. Not long after my arrival, Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microfinance—unintentionally awakening the North American church to this powerful tool that enables individuals to work their way out of poverty.

Since few faith-based organizations were involved in microfinance, our organization suddenly appeared on the map. With a supportive board, a very generous founder, and a clear vision of where we wanted to go, our ministry grew from its original country of operation, Ukraine, and its presence in China, to launch ministry in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In short order, we expanded into other underserved parts of the world, including Haiti and Afghanistan. We also partnered with many amazing Christ-centered organizations working all across the globe, including Esperanza in the Dominican Republic and the Center for Community Transformation in the Philippines. Due to an incredible group of dedicated staff members and supporters, we extended our network from serving 3,000 entrepreneurs to over 400,000 in eight years. Fundraising revenue grew tenfold. We celebrated our millionth loan. I wrote a book on microfinance with a friend, had speaking engagements, and traveled extensively.

But slowly, I began to feel the same way I did in that Land Cruiser a few years earlier—tired, disappointed, and as if God wasn’t holding up His end of the bargain. If I was doing all this good, where was the peace that passes understanding? Why was my wife emotionally pulling away and creating a life that didn’t include me? Why was I dealing with kidnapping, robbery, and murder in the places we operated?

This is not how the Christian life was supposed to work.

At that time, my friend Adrianne sent me an email describing the concept of “Christian karma,” and it almost perfectly described my source of discontent. In short, I thought God and I had a deal—what I sow, I reap. What I give, I get in return. When I do good, I get good results.

But when the returns weren’t what I had hoped they would be, I was disappointed. Christian karma wasn’t working. If you’ve served internationally or in your local church for any length of time, you eventually realize that doing good does not guarantee that only good things happen in your life.

Peering Over the Edge

Looking back, I was on a road leading to continual disillusionment and burnout, no matter where I served or how hard I kept trying to do the right thing.

I needed someone to help me see that I had a warped view of success. That I was becoming isolated and lacked real friends to point out my foolishness. That ministry was becoming more important than faith and family. That my attempts to do good were based on what it did for me and not in joyful response to God’s love.

Thankfully, an unlikely man entered my life at exactly the right moment and helped me uncover my faulty foundation for doing good.

For photos of the blanket distribution in Congo, see www.peterkgreer.com/danger/chapter1.

From The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good by Peter Greer and Anna Haggard. Published by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright © 2013. Used by permission.


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