Last spring our community was swept by the cold water challenge. The idea was to fire up your video camera to record you as you jumped into a body of cold water, committed to give money to a local charity, and challenged four of your friends to do the same. If you were challenged, but didn’t have the heart to jump into the cold water, you were asked to give a larger sum of money to the challenger’s charity. And, there was a time-line of completing the challenge within 24 hours to provide the needed incentive. It was a great way to raise funds for charity, have fun and build community, right?
Well, maybe. I was challenged at least four times. The first time made me smile and give thought to what charity I would support and who I would challenge. Then the next three challenges came in and all of a sudden it wasn’t so fun anymore. It was a novel idea, but the novelty wore off quickly. And, I’m going to be honest, I didn’t end up giving anything extra to any of the charities. I continued to fulfill my giving commitments that I made at the beginning of the year, and I have even given above and beyond that a few times. But, not because of the challenge.
Recently I read an article that suggested that I am not alone. But, what is more, is even those who have participated in challenges like this may not have done as much good as we have thought. A remarkably similar challenge has been going on to raise funds to support a cure for ALS. The “ice bucket challenge” has raised over 3 million additional dollars of support to fight Lou Gerhig’s disease. If your first reaction is like mine, I started to think of a way to capitalize on this kind of support to fund churches and Christian ministries around the world. But, research has shown that for every dollar people give to this kind of crowd-raising activity (as it has been called), they would have given 50-cents to a charity anyway. So, 1.5 million dollars were diverted from other charitable organizations to fund this organization.
That strikes me as simply taking money from one pocket and placing it in another. A similar phenomenon has been studied in the lab by psychologists. It’s called moral licensing: the idea that doing one good action leads one to compensate by doing fewer good actions in the future. In a recent experiment, participants either selected a product from a selection of mostly “green” items (like an energy-efficient light bulb) or from a selection of mostly conventional items (like a regular light bulb). They were then told to perform a supposedly unrelated task. However, in this second task, the results were self-reported, so the participants had a financial incentive to lie; and they were invited to pay themselves out of an envelope, so they had an opportunity to steal as well.
What happened? People who had previously purchased a green product were significantly more likely to both lie and steal than those who had purchased the conventional product. Their demonstration of ethical behavior subconsciously gave them license to act unethically when the chance arose. The explanation behind moral licensing is that people are often more concerned about looking good or feeling good rather than doing good.
But this is nothing new. Jesus said, “When you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6:5-6, The Message)
Maybe it’s time for me to make good on those challenges. But, you can rest assured that you won’t see any posts about it on Facebook. And, I won’t be telling anyone about it either. I pray you’ll join me. Together, quietly, behind the scenes, and each in our own way; we will transform this world to be a little more like the kingdom of God.