I've had a question bouncing around in my brain for years now. It's this- why do we give? Is it out of a sense of wishing the best for another? Is it for the hope that our excess can supply someone else's need? Or is it a desire to meet an obligation, or aleve a sense of guilt?
Perhaps we have learned something powerfully wrong about giving. We may know what giving is, but we may not have examined, with ruthless intention, the inner motivations of our hearts as to why we give. We may have lost sight of the heart from which we can not only give, but give thankfully. A place of giving that is not corrupted by misinformed understanding or malignant forces of self-interest. Let us revisit this and unwind some thoughts together.
Giving, or the offering of charity, is by its very nature an act synonymous with love. This is so true that in early English language the concept we now know as love was translated literally as charity. Charity actually eventually lost its original use in antiquity and we rarely use it now except just mean acts of giving. Love and charity, rightly understood, are the giving from one with a desire to have another benefit, wholely apart from an anticipation or expectation of a response or reciprocation. True giving is an act of love that does not demand anything of the recipient. It is done for their benefit and is left to them without an obligation of payback.
Losing Our Center of Love Amidst Clichés for Giving
The more recent idea of "pay it forward" seems a unique form of giving. Yet, as I examine it, it seems less like giving in love and more like multi-level marketing. Why do I say this? Because when giving comes with a requirement it is never truly a free gift. This gets to the heart of the issue that lurks inside of all giving- is it done with right motivation? I contend would that right motivation is love. Bad motivation comes in other forms:
- Obligation - being under demand to pay a debt
- Guilt - emotion of having done something wrong or with a state of being wrong with a need to correct it.
- Reciprocation - a return for previous deeds.
- Accomplishment - something achieved or successfully completed
Giving from Obligation or Guilt
Giving cannot rise from obligation or guilt. If it does, it is not true charity, it is tribute. Not only is this unstable foundation for giving, it will not assuage the sense of either obligation or guilt which fuels such action. Freedom from guilt and the onus to repay a debt is part of the undertaking of the work of Christ's forgiveness in our lives. Returning to a mode in which we attempt to service such guilt and debt undermines our trust in God and His work, through Christ, on the cross. Giving then, cannot rise from these places for the Christ follower who wishes to remain at peace with God.
Giving for Reciprocation
If we give for the purpose of receiving something back in the future (pay it forward?). Jesus was quite clear that we are not build a "downline" for our generosity, hoping the payoff will be returned and we will be lavished in response. He said:
Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid." (Luke 14:12)
Jesus seems quite clear here that when it comes to our acts of giving, service or ministry we are not to allow ourselves to become self congratulatory, because he says about giving:
"But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," (Matthew 6:3)
Giving For Accomplishment
Sometimes because we have goals and vision to do altruistic things, we believe that those goals give us the foundational purpose and energy to proceed. This desire to "do" something for an honorable ideal, can be insidious in hiding a deeper, more unhealthy motivation. Sometimes the motivation driving a person to give comes from a need in the giver to accomplish something worthwhile. This is the kind of gift that one gives with the sense that they are achieving something or furthering their interests either personally, emotionally or perhaps even spiritually. On the surface, this may seem well intentioned and even pious. Sadly, this kind of giving is wrapped up in selfishness. A clear symptom of this can be that the giver, in this kind of situation, may feel slighted if they are not "appreciated" for their generosity. But that symptom is simply a broken scab on a deeper wound to a persons soul.
Even worse than feeling slighted by not being appreciated, this kind of "spiritual" person often thinks that giving, helping or supporting someone should be done primarily as a mechanism for "evangelism". The insidious message here is that if we have a goal, and our giving meets that goal, the person (or object in the goal) who receives the gift is of little consequence. We objectify the person being given to, making them less than human- just a needy "it" that satisfies a role in our equation of measuring how good we are. This reveals a kind of giving to accomplish the goal of evangelism that is ultimately a corrupted objectification of the genuine value of human beings. In the end, giving for this kind of reason is just another variant of abuse in which we use others for our own ends and to satisfy our own selfish (if insular) methods.
Finding Our Way
What then is a clearer way to see giving? Let me postulate another reason for giving.
The foundation for giving cannot arise from any sense of obligation, guilt, reciprocation or accomplishment. It must come from a deeper, more profound truth, that buoys with the truth and value of God's desires. At its core, giving must be done from love. Love that imitates from humility the selfless love of God, having assigned true value to us by his creation of human beings and his reinvestment in us (his creation) by the sacrifice of His son for us, on the cross. We gain our value from Christ and God's valuing of us. To see this all clearly, we must return to Genesis and the creation account.
Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over ...". So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God not only created man, he placed his own image on the likeness of the created being. Both men and women have the imprint of the creator on their lives. This alone postmarks us with God's love. Like a father, we are his children, bearing His image. This is restated later in Genesis, as a warning when talking about God requiring that each person be accountable to not shed the blood of others, where he says to Noah:
Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.
Voices from the Past
Gregory the Great understood this concept precisely in his profound treatise "Pastoral Care". There he clearly articulates the value of imago Dei in the context of giving, when he says:
"[one] gives of his bread to an indigent sinner, not because he is a sinner, but because he is a man. In doing so one actually nourishes a righteous beggar, not a sinner, for he loves in him not his sin but his nature." -Gregory the Great (~600AD)
Gregory articulately corrects the misconception that we should attach our Christian ministry hopes and goals to our simple act of giving to those in need. At our core, we are to give to others simply because we are humans and they are too. We find a kinship of God's love overflowing from us (in his overabundance of provision) allowing for us to pour out on others God's love he has given us. We are linked by the nature of our kinship of humanity. In that link, we share with people the things we have because they are other people, children like us, of a good and gracious God.
When we think of others in this way, we lose our begrudging attitudes about others and about giving to them. We see ourselves as part of God's creation, and that any resources we have are meant to be shared with others whom God has created as well, saint or sinner, friend or stranger.
Overflowing in Thanks
Having a good foundation of why we give, Paul articulates a proper posture for giving in his beautiful writing in the second letter to the Corinthians, where he says:
"So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver"
Our giving then, coming from the foundation of love, is to be expressed not as one caught in a demand, but as one expressing thanks. Paul is saying that cheerful giving reflects right purpose in the heart. A thankful heart is a brilliant fountain from which loving gifts can come without pretense.
A Life of Giving
You might have wondered why I have not yet quoted instructions about faithfulness or obedience in regard to giving. The bible has some instructions for us that are often taught from that perspective. The scripture tells us that we are to fulfill a call to faithfulness and obedience in many areas, including giving. I do not disagree with this. However, maturity and Christ compels us first to live out of love. But where love fails, obedience remains. This has always been the message of the Bible. Jesus said it this way:
Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:37-40)
By saying "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments", Jesus was articulating that these two commandments serve as the foundational pillar for all others. All others "hang" on them. Love is the single powerful purpose from which we do, or seek to do, any of the other acts of instruction from the scriptures.
Love and Obedience
Jesus did have specific teaching on giving in the New Testament, as did the Apostles. Christ was clear that regular giving to the community of God is something we should continue in. It was important to him and he told us not to leave it undone (Luke 11:42). Obedience to Christ is certainly not to be ignored. Paul gave further instructions about giving in 2 Corinthians 8 where he deals with the themes of faithfulness, generosity and giving as unto the Lord. I will reiterate the earlier point, since it is essential- where love fails obedience remains. We must follow these instructions of obedience in the present because they will lead us to the same love we might currently lack in fulness.
Obedience and love are intertwined, each leading to the other. For just as true as the previous statement, we find- where obedience fails, love remains. Like two pedals on a bicycle, we must push in synchronous alternating harmony on them both to see that they are connected. One now, the other later, and continuously we see that one leads to the other.
There is no dearth of instructions in scripture about giving to your local community of God. While my treatise here is not specifically about local church giving, it can be applied. Let your motivation for giving be out of love (and spurred on by Christ's call to faithfulness and obedience to that love), finding God's value in others as He has also found value in you.
Give as a human being to other human beings, out of a true sense of being a part of one another, part of God's love towards us.
In Christ's love,