Like me, you may be curious about what motivates us to do good for others. We’d all like to think we do so out of the goodness of our hearts, solely for the other. Christians, in particular, would like to think that our motives for helping others are driven primarily by our faith in God’s work through Jesus’ redemption of the world on the cross. I’d like to think that Christians are more generous in doing good for others than people who don’t have such faith convictions. Except, it’s not true. There’s no reliable data supporting such a claim. There’s only our desire to believe it to be true.

In their book, The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life, behavioral economists Uri Gneezy and John List delve deeply into what incentivizes our behavior. Through exhaustive field testing and research, they allow the data of human behavior to speak for itself rather than make assumptions about what should be. What they discovered makes me uncomfortable. I’d like to think that because Jesus has shown me undeserved mercy, I’d be more generous in showing mercy than others who don’t have such faith. This should also be true of my financial generosity, without having to experience some reciprocal good for myself. But it’s not true.

The subtitle of their chapter on why people give to “good causes” tells it all: “Don’t Appeal to People’s Hearts: Appeal to Their Vanity.” While they don’t reference this in their book (but it’s consistent with their findings), I noticed this spring when Georgia Public Radio (GPB) was doing its semi-annual fund drive that the recurring tag line their on-air presenters were using was “Be a Public Radio Hero!” We’d all like to think ourselves heroic. “I could be a hero if I support GPB! I want to be a hero!” GPB was just appealing to my vanity. It worked. I upped my donation this year. “I’m a hero!”

Gneezy and List consistently show that the Church or other organizations that depend on people’s generosity to support their mission need to incentivize giving. Historically, the Church must’ve known this intuitively. After all, for centuries the Church financed much of its mission through indulgences, better known as “Get Out of Hell for a Price” cards. For a sizable gift, donors could ensure that they (and their loved ones) were prayed for, thus assuring that their souls were never (for the right price) in eternal peril. Now, that’s an incentive to give! But, thank God, we don’t offer indulgences any more. So, what motivates people to support the mission of the Church today? Do we really have to appeal to vanity and self-interest? I’d like to think that we don’t, but the data, as well as my own look in the mirror, tells me there’s truth there.

What hope then is there for us? Are we all just vain and selfish creatures? Well, yes, we all are, but that’s not all we are. We’re loved, forgiven, and redeemed vain and selfish creatures. God will use even the worst about us to work his grace in the world. Isn’t that what God did on the cross, use our shameful human proclivity for scapegoating and punishing to redeem us? God isn’t stumped by our vanity or our selfishness. Even when our motives to be generous aren’t pure, God will somehow still be glorified. Meditate on all that as we look forward to our stewardship campaigns this fall.



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