Man in the Mirror
One of my professors in seminary was Dr. James Fowler, the author of Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. I thought of his teachings again this week while remembering a trip with donors to visit ministries in the Dominican Republic. I realized that in much the same way we mature in faith, we tend to grow as givers. We all start at the beginning, and each stage is important and necessary. In fact, we won’t develop fully if we skip a stage.
I’ve learned over the years that giving is more of a team sport than an individual pursuit, so I wanted to offer my perspective of what the stages of giving look like in hopes of helping others to grow and become better donors.
Stage One: Photographer. I have thousands of images of children and families from every country I have visited, and I love them. When I first began taking trips, the camera was my way of capturing the experience. It was only after a friend said, “I think you are using the camera as a shield and a device for distancing yourself from the people” that I realized I was using people as a way to create art but not relationships or understanding.
The extreme form of this is what we call “poverty porn.” Images are used to generate sympathy, guilt and pity among donors at the expense of the people we encounter. I had not reached that point, but I had become someone who enjoyed recording experiences rather than engaging in relationships.
Stage Two: Curiosity. Once we have moved beyond the emotional “capture the image” stage, we want to engage more, but it is often only at the information-gathering level. We compile notebooks of observations, facts and quotes. At this stage, I found myself uncomfortable whenever there was an awkward silence or the discussion did not produce enough new knowledge about the current topic – whether it was poverty, water, orphan care or disease. I wanted to know more and “get a handle” on the trending issue. I had an interest in everything.
Stage Three: Idealism and Solutions. This stage’s theme is, “We can fix this!” Donors believe that with enough knowledge, money, talent and focus, we can end poverty and injustice, provide clean water, care for orphans and eradicate disease. This is the stage best described by the term “scientific philanthropy” as I mentioned in last week’s blog. Yes, the world is broken, but it can be fixed. If we just figure out where the key leverage points are, we can solve the problem.
Stage Four: Complexity and Disappointment. Unfortunately, many solutions depend on people – and people are, well, people. Oswald Chambers wrote it this way, “You may talk about the nobility of human nature, but there is something in human nature which will laugh in the face of every ideal you have.” Soon we discover all problems are connected in one way or another. We cannot isolate any one issue without addressing a host of others that spread quickly to an entire network of economic, social, physical, medical and spiritual causes. It’s a complex web that is constantly changing.
When many donors come against the reality of how complex issues are and how often the very people doing the work are self-interested and deceitful, they walk away looking for another ministry with easier solutions and fewer flaws. This stage is the watershed for many donors. As New York Times opinion writer David Brooks wrote recently, “Great and small enterprises often have two births: first in purity, then in maturity.” We can choose to press on or walk away.
Stage Five: Revelation. In the final scene of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” she describes a vision of the main character, Mrs. Turpin, who always thought of herself as a decent person compared to others. Mrs. Turpin always tried to help others and was constantly astonished at their resistance: “Help them you must, but help them you couldn’t.”
In this vision, Mrs. Turpin sees the do-gooders and decent people lined up as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-13 where the fire tests the quality of our work. O’Connor writes, “They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior…Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This is the moment you realize how little this is about our virtues and good works. It is about all of that being burned away and refining what remains.
Stage Six: Passion. Often we hear about “finding our passion” as being the beginning of discovering the meaning for our life and the focus of our giving. We are encouraged to explore what we feel passionate about and pursue that interest. In a way, this can be but another form of self-interest. We begin with ourselves.
I am intentionally placing passion as one of the later stages because I believe true passion is more like the passion of Christ. It is humility. It is not about how giving makes us feel or what impact we have. It is about the healthy self-forgetting C.S. Lewis describes: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Our word “passion” comes from the Latin word, “pati.” It means to suffer and endure – not merely to have an interest. Passion is not about our finding fulfillment or focus but about emptying ourselves as Christ did. It is about sacrifice and being willing to be discomforted for the sake of continuing Christ’s work in the world. It is giving up what we consider beneficial to become like the one who serves.
The Apostle Paul says best, “Friends, don’t get me wrong. By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” That’s the man I want to see in the mirror.