When Charity And Selflessness Are Harmful

Giving is something that has become a universal emblem of our identity. When the Clinton administration failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, outcries of our failure to our civic duty as an American country reverberated throughout the public arena. Now, a similar outcry is heard about the Syrian refugee crisis. We ought to be a giving country, we ought to be selfless, and we ought to be loving… Right?


(the answer to the above is yes in case you were wondering)

But what does this look like? How are we selling ourselves short? I want to argue that it’s not only inaction that fails at fulfilling this duty, but also the wrong type of action.

This idea of giving is not only constantly reinforced through public discourse, it also permeates our personal and social consciousness as well. When you check out at the grocery store you are usually asked if you want to donate to a charitable cause, when you walk down the street you may feel obligated to offer donations to the homeless, if you attend a church service you are reminded of the importance of tithing and offering.

Spread love people

Now please don’t get me wrong, I whole-heartedly believe in selflessness. I whole-heartedly believe in the fundamental goals and belief of charity. I whole-heartedly believe in stepping outside self-centeredness and living a life of other-centeredness, but I think there is a point where selfless acts are actually fundamentally selfish. What appears to be charity is actually simply a mask, behind which you will find self-serving outcomes, selfish fulfillment, and an inward (not an outward) focus.

What do I mean by all this? Well… Let me give you some examples to flesh this out (I hate that expression by the way)

The archetype of this idea might be the “building a church” mission trip. I in no way want to belittle this act, or this service. These people are definitely committing their time, money, and personal lives to this mission, and that deserves its due credit and does mean a lot! But building a church in an impoverished area isn’t really ideal charity. It doesn’t serve the people in need in the way they need (confusing, I know).

For more on this topic… Please read https://www.csm.org/articlewhymost.php

These people know how to build a church, these people are probably far more capable than we are at building a church, and they’re probably far more spiritually developed than us to the point that we are learning more than giving. What we need to offer them is strategy, resources, opportunity, and etc. that is sustainable. But that wouldn’t be as fulfilling as going there, doing something yourself, and coming away with a story to tell and a personal reflection of how this act of service changed YOU, would it? Many times, this act of going somewhere and building something is simply to make others feel better without offering any tangible solutions and sustainable growth, progression, and development in these countries.

serve.600.jpgMany times I’ve heard people come back from mission trips telling me what they learned, how they were changed, and how fulfilling it was to help others. Which is great! But these stories all had one thing in common to me – they revolved around the person telling them, not the people in these actual situations (it also reminded me of the story in the bible where Jesus praised the woman who gave her last few cents a thousand times more than those who were making huge contributions so they could be noticed).

Note: I don’t want to stereotype or generalize that all people who do these types of missions, acts, etc. are like this… Certainly a lot of good comes out of it and all that jazz).

Let’s create sustainable change together

For another interesting article on this… Click me!!!

 I want to step away from this example for a second though because I realize this is a huge idea to tackle, and something that is probably really touchy for a lot of people because it challenges strongly and long-term held beliefs, assumptions, and ideas. So let me offer a personal example of what I’m trying to convey.

When I was younger, whenever I wronged my friends or family in some way, I would come to them and apologize. In these apologies I would always offer justification of my behavior, and I would usually still place partial blame on the other in order to bolster this justification.

This was me except less cute

In thinking about this process, I realized this did one of two things. One, by shifting blame and justifying my unjustified (that’s a lot to swallow I know) actions, it made me feel better (yay!). I didn’t want to feel like I was a bad person, so fully admitting blame to the other person would concurrently be admitting something to myself I just didn’t want to face. Secondly, even the act of apologizing to the other person in and of itself was subconsciously a way to, again make myself feel better. I couldn’t stand the fact that someone I was close to thought less of me because of something I had done.


So, by apologizing I could alleviate this guilt and this strained relationship and make things better again. I didn’t do this for the other person though, I did it for myself. Why? Because I wanted MY relationship with others to (at least seem to) be okay, and I wanted MY relationship with my inner-self to be okay. This apology which by definition is a selfless act, was actually incredibly self-centered. I didn’t apologize because I stepped outside of myself and into the perspective of the other, I apologized because I felt tension within me and wanted to relieve this tension.

I didn’t fully understand the flaw in my apologetic thought-process until I was offered one of these “apologies” by a friend. I was sent the apology via email and the rhetoric-major in me began to analyze the wording of this apology. I realized it was whole-heartedly couched with self-serving language and a selfish agenda. The phrase “my feelings” and “your actions” were laced throughout the whole apology, which set the tone for shifting blame and bolstering self-image.


I was taken back by this exchange, but then realized what was beneath it when I began to analyze it from a rhetorical and philosophical standpoint and this is where I began to pinpoint what really irks me. This is where I began to make connections to these small exchanges and larger acts of charity that aren’t actually helpful to our society and to serving the purpose of helping one another. There is no problem with charity and selflessness. There is no problem with building a house or church in an area of need. In fact, I live my life around the purpose of serving and loving others.

The problem begins when we act without questioning ourselves, others, and our motives. The problem begins when we focus on acts of charity that allow us to perpetuate a society that gives without truly giving. The problem begins when our acts of selflessness benefit us more than they truly benefit others.

I want to challenge you to address these problems in society, in your relationships, and within your inner-self. I want to challenge you to truly and whole-heartedly step outside yourself and step into the eyes of the others – whoever the “others” may be.  I want to challenge to give of yourself in a way that is genuinely beneficial, and think about what this means in your life.



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