Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Giving Versus Being a Giving Person

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about property, asking the question whether or not Christians own anything.  I came to some conclusions in the writing of that post that have been, to say the least, challenging.  The TLDR version of it is this: Any meaningful definition of Christianity is at odds with traditional definitions of property and ownership.  Thus, we must deny the validity of (A) our definition of Christianity, or (B) our notions of property and ownership.  If you don't agree with that conclusion, I would challenge you to go back and read my previous post in full, and identify which particular piece of the argument you disagree with.

So, the question is, what does this mean for me?  How should this realization affect the way that I live my life? 

After two weeks of pondering this question, I can honestly tell you:

I'm still not sure.

I've got some ideas, but I'm far from certain. There is one thing that I am becoming more and more sure of, and that is the concept of being a giver as opposed to simply giving.  When I first thought about this distinction, it seemed insignificant, but the more I studied, the more pronounced and significant it became.  It is the difference between showing love and being loving, between giving grace and and being graceful, between telling the truth and being truthful.  On one side of each pair there is a single instance that can be motivated by any number of things.  I can give for selfish reasons, I can show love in hopes of reciprocity, I can give grace out of arrogance, and I can tell the truth when it is beneficial for me.  On the other side, there is a property that becomes a part of who I am.  I cannot hate when I've made love a part of who I am, I cannot withhold grace when I have made grace synonymous with my identity.  I cannot lie when the Truth becomes a part of my being. 

When it comes to giving, the connection is clear: if I seek to be a giving person, I cannot be selfish, I cannot hoard, I cannot demand things, I cannot value "my" things above the things of others.  What it means above all is that what I keep matters more than what I give.  When I "give" at one time or another out of my own abundance, I am valuing that which I have accumulated over that which is desperately needed elsewhere.  When I have ten talents and I give one and keep nine, am I really embracing the ideal of generosity?  The obvious answer is "no," and the sentiment in the story of the widow's mite in Luke 21:1-4 seems to be fairly unambiguous (also found in Mark 12:41-44):
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.  “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
At best, as a Christian, I am a steward of wealth, a conduit for it to pass through.  There is a quote by John Wesley (or perhaps apocryphally attributed to Wesley, but good nonetheless) that I've had on my facebook page for a while that I've never really fully grasped the meaning of until now:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
If love and generosity are a part of my identity, then figuring out how much I can keep for myself becomes a moot point.  My desire to protect what I own is replaced by a desire for justice in the distribution of what is only entrusted to me for the purpose of giving. 

For my friends on the right, that might mean allowing an entitlement program to continue to exist because it does a better job of addressing human dignity than the church (as it has completely and utterly failed to do in many cases).  Indeed, doesn't the attacking of entitlement programs come from our own sense of entitlement? 

For my friends on the left, it might mean acknowledging that that same dignity can be better addressed through means other than government programs, and that in fully depending on the government for the distribution of social justice, we admit and embrace our failure as followers of Christ. 

For me, it simply means living life more simply, that more of what I make might be given to those who truly need it, because let's be honest, I barely even know what it means to "need" anything.


  1. Wow... I really appreciate your thoughts here. "If love and generosity are a part of my identity, then figuring out how much I can keep for myself becomes a moot point."
    Don't so many of our conversations about this center around how-much-can-I-keep-and-still-be-a-Christian? Kind of echoes the "how-much-can-I-sin-and-still-be-a-Christian" question. Like we enjoy flirting with the "too much" boundary rather than entering into the joy of living abandoned to what Christ taught us.

  2. Solid post, Luke. For me, what you are describing is freedom - a beautifully terrifying state of being anchored out of this world.

  3. For me, this requires a foundational shift in living. Moving from the temporal to the eternal. When my focus is on this temporal, fading life, I have a multitude of "needs" that have no validation in eternity. It also involves a confrontation of the fact that I do not trust Him. This is an interesting thing to talk about, but as Steve referenced, terrifying to actually implement. (though terrifying only because I don't trust Him)

  4. @whispersonthejourney You're so right. Why is it that we choose the bondage of pushing boundaries instead of the freedom that comes in living the Kingdom?

  5. @Steve Mizel Thanks Steve. Funny how we've almost completely re-defined the term freedom to mean the exact opposite.

  6. @Rhowe I like the term "validation in eternity." Taking stock of our priorities from that perspective can lead to some uncomfortable confrontations, as you alluded to.

    There is a danger here when we talk about becoming eternally grounded, I think, to become the cliched "so heavenly minded we're of no earthly good," but I think an honest accounting of priorities along these lines ends up looking more like "so heavenly minded we can't help but be good, do good, and seek the good here on earth."

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  7. @Luke HarmsMaybe there's a danger. Then again, maybe that's just a cop out of the hard stuff. We have to define "earthly good" as well. Possibly, until we're too "heavenly minded" we can be no "earthly good."

  8. @Rhowe Good point. If we define "earthly good" through the lens of "validation in eternity," then the need to be "heavenly minded" becomes apparent. If our paradigm for being heavenly minded is the example of Christ, and the validation in eternity that we seek is in line with what He sought, then a reasonable description of what earthly good actually is begins to emerge. The thing is, that's where things often start to get uncomfortable, and where a lot of people (me included) tend to bail.

  9. @Luke HarmsAgreed on bailing...spiritual matters can be easy to discuss; not so easy to walk out. Perhaps that's the answer to your MDiv question.

  10. @Rhowe HA! So true! I suppose the longer we spend in the bubble of higher education, the less time we have to spend living it out in the real world. So the question is, what are some practical ways we can, right now, begin to actualize this particular philosophy?

    Personally, my wife and I are currently in the process of simplifying our own lives so that we can have more money to give to those who truly need it. We have a long-term plan for how we want things to look, but it's hard not to get discouraged by the present. The problem for us in coming to this particular realization only after pursuing the American Nightmare for a decade is that we've dug ourselves a bit of a whole that we have to extricate ourselves form. It can be frustrating, to say the least, but I have to believe it's a start.

  11. @Luke Harms "What are some practical ways we can, right now, begin to actualize this particular philosophy?"
    Drain your checking and savings account to $.00, give it to an enemy anonymously and watch what happens : )


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