Generosity and the Subtle Desire for Power

Almost Generous

Let me tell you something that will make you think highly of me: the other day I almost did a good deed.

I was driving at night, and I saw someone walking along the side of the road. I thought that I should give him a ride.

Before you praise me for my compassion and the heights of holiness that I have achieved, you should know that I did not actually pick up the person. But I thought about stopping. And I even lightly pressed the brake pedals to slow down and give me more time to consider it. (That matters…right?)

What Were My Motivations?

Putting aside that I actually didn’t help the person (stop fixating on my failures!), what was my fleeting motivation when I saw the person on the side of the road? What made me even consider stopping and helping a stranger late at night?

Photo Credit: SkyFireXII via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: SkyFireXII via Compfight cc

I’d like to say that I simply wanted to help the person. It’d be nice to be able to write that I was moved with the compassion that moved the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33), or the compassion that Jesus had for the crowds (Matt. 9:36). But I wasn’t.

Instead, what motivated me in that moment was what motivated me in similar moments: I wanted to do something that someone else needed to thank me for.

I know that I’m a minister and it’s dangerous to admit such things. But often my motivation to do good deeds––whether or not I end up doing the good deeds––is not the compassion for the other person, but the desire to be in a situation where I am helping someone out, where they owe me thanks. It feels good to be in a situation where I had the power to rescue someone or aide them. It feels good to know that someone depended on me, even if it is just that one moment.

The Subtle Desire for Power

That seems like a harmless feeling, but Henri Nouwen points out that it isn’t. At one point in Creative Ministry, he writes:

The most subtle desire for power, and the most difficult to overcome, is the desire for thanks. As long as people keep thanking us for what we have done for them, they are, in effect, admitting that they were at least for some time dependent upon us. (p. 77)

I think that Nouwen is right. The desire for power often lies behind the motivation to help people. Don’t you feel more important after you help someone? Yet, in our world, importance is usually connected with power, not compassion.

If you are doubting this, then think about it from the other side. Why are we often reluctant to get help from others, especially those with whom we are at odds? Because it would put them in a position of power. We avoid getting help from others because we view generosity as an expression of their power over us.

So, despite this insight being counterintuitive, sometimes our drive to serve others is a “subtle desire for power,” a drive to be in a position where someone owes you a “Thank you”.

Vigilance in Generosity

This insight requires more vigilance from us. It’s not enough to do good deeds. As Jesus explains in Matthew 6, in the core of the Sermon on the Mount, the motivations behind the actions matter tremendously.

Despite this being a basic teaching of Jesus, we easily forget. We like to think that helping others is always good. And, in one sense, it is. If we successfully help someone or serve them, then we have brought about a good change. But as Aristotle pointed out millenia ago, there is more than one way for an action to be bad. In this case, when the “subtle desire for power” motivates our good deeds, then the action is certainly bad.

Christians need to be aware of how the desire to hear thanks and appreciation for their services can turn into a desire for power, influence, and leverage. These aren’t good characteristics. But they are dangerously close at hand when we aim to serve others. If we aren’t careful, we can fall to the temptations. And then, in the course of doing great deeds for others, we can do great damage to ourselves.

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