More Than Good Intentions

The story of philanthropy—both Christian and nonreligious—is often one of noble intention that accomplishes little.  Sometimes, it’s even made matters worse.  I remember hearing Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf put words to this dilemma a few years ago at a gathering in Washington, DC.  She described billions and billions of western aid dollars spent on her home continent “with shockingly little result.”

Aid and development efforts motivated by Christian love should never excuse sloppiness simply because “our intentions were good.”  Less so because we have an eye for eternity.  Rather, our sense of eternal values and conviction that the Imago Dei stamped on every soul should drive us to be the most diligent in pursuing excellence, most interested in true best practices, most committed to both the physical and the spiritual good of those we serve.

Christians who hear the Bible’s clarion call to seek justice and love mercy should become the foremost students, and the foremost practitioners, of effective love.

This month’s Christianity Today carries some great articles on this theme, well worth the read.  Cost-Effective Compassion: The 10 Most Popular Strategies for Helping the Poor offers ratings of popular anti-poverty efforts from a collection of economists.  Although its conclusions are certainly debatable, the article’s call to thoughtful analysis of how to wisely invest finite resources is invaluable.   Likewise, Mark Galli provides incisive reflections on the unique strengths and weaknesses of the church in addressing global need in The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really.   (Another well-written series of articles came in a recent issue of Mission Frontiers magazine.)

Of course, Christians have much to garner from thinkers outside the Christian community as well.  This ranges from insightful books like Dead Aid and The White Man’s Burden to articles like last week’s “7 Worst International Aid Ideas.”  Each of these has plenty to agree and disagree with, but each spurs serious consideration of what really betters the lives of the destitute.

Christians who serve, as well as those who give, have every reason to make readings like these a regular part of their mental diet.  (Remember—givers influence doers by what they support.)   We are called not merely to love, but to love well.  Or, perhaps more accurately, true love will always seek to love well.  Paul’s words to the Philippines captures the thought.  “And this is my prayer:  that your love may about more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may discern what is best…”