Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Should We Then Give? Part 1: Lavish Charity

Charity can be a touchy subject. In a country like the United States, with a heritage of individualistic tenacity and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality, it can be easily misinterpreted and downright ridiculed.

For most of us, the idea of getting something for nothing either means you’re getting a good deal at a store or you’re the beneficiary of something because you can’t pay for it yourself. The first isn’t considered charity, it’s considered savvy marketing. The second is considered charity, and it can often imply inferiority for the recipient.

If we genuinely need the charity, we often feel embarrassed, because in our culture, we’re taught to value self-sufficiency. Givers are the good guys, while receivers are a drain on our resources.

After all, we Americans pride ourselves on our work ethic, our belief in paying back and paying forward, and the unbiblical yet popular “the Lord helps those who help themselves”. To the extent that what we give to charity is used in ways we think are proper to produce the results we think are reasonable, we don’t really mind forking out a fraction of our income to help the helpless.

For Christians, the Conventional Viewpoint...

I’m not sure that’s really the best motivation for charity, especially for Christians. It sound right, and seems logical for our common-sense American mindsets, but is our religion really that results-oriented?

For a typical discussion of how Christians should engage the needy, this helpful outline on by Pennsylvania lawyer Stephen Bloom covers the basics of the traditional church approach. Bloom seems to focus on worldwide relief, and rambles sociopolitically about the goodness of capitalism, but overall, it’s how most Christians view charity.

...and the Unconventional Viewpoint

However, for insight on intra-neighborhood, community-based charitable assistance, reaching out to those on welfare, and acting as agents of love and support to the needy, Dr. Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church offers some startling suggestions that contrast on several levels with Bloom’s approach.

Sure, we can sit around and grouse about people on welfare. I can type out blog posts examining nuanced issues in urban poverty and racism. We can give money to our churches for the benevolence fund, and many of us may even give a dollar or two when beggars approach our cars at stoplights.

But Keller goes a lot farther. My Sunday night Bible study has been listening to his audio sermon series on the Old Testament book of Proverbs. While the series basically examines various aspects of wisdom, Keller sometimes branches out across related topics, and this past Sunday, he broached the subject of charity.

In particular, three verses stuck out from the assortment of passages Keller references:

“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it” when you have it with you.” Proverbs 3:27-28

"Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed.” Proverbs 19:17.

If you want to hear Keller’s entire sermon, please click here (you’ll have to pay for it). Otherwise, I’m going to try and do justice to the crux of what he was saying and condense it here: give to the needy regardless of your assumption of their integrity, their intentions, or what you would consider to be a good return on that “investment”.

In other words, believers should be generous to people on welfare simply because it’s what God commands. His sovereignty is greater than our ability – or our temerity – to presume how the resources we offer will be used and what good it will produce. These proverbs bluntly order us to give to the needy when we can, and to give today, not later on. We should give generously, because we’re not really giving to the poor, we’re giving to God. And by the way, what we’re giving is really what God has already given us, so whose is it anyway?

We struggled with this sermon this past Sunday, because the concept of giving without analyzing risks and benefits is so beyond our mindset. Some Christians, such as Bloom, would immediately dismiss Keller’s sermon as rhetoric from the Religious Left, but as a PCA pastor, Keller hardly typifies the liberal wing of Christendom. So if Keller isn’t completely off the wall, how do we take his sermon?

  • What about the proverbs which instruct us to be wise with the money entrusted to us by God?

  • What about the proverbs which say lazy people should not eat?

  • What about the proverbs extolling the virtues of work and toil?

  • If we’re giving money to welfare recipients who don’t seem anxious to get out of their plight, aren’t we just exacerbating the problem by being enablers?

Should the Church Change Its Strategy Concerning Welfare?

To be completely honest, I can’t answer all of those questions – at least not right now. However, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we heard Keller’s sermon just as I happened to be writing a lot about poverty. Maybe I don’t know enough about God’s sovereignty to appreciate His ability to simply command us to do things that don’t make sense to us. Maybe I don’t trust Him enough to be able to accomplish His perfect purposes despite my inability to see them myself.

  • What is the degree to which believers have a responsibility to make sure their charitable giving is spent in a manner we consider to be wise?

  • What is the level of fiscal responsibility we should expect from a person or organization we assist – if indeed, we should expect any at all?

  • How much of our attitude in charitable giving is based on our perceptions of the worth of the person or organization, and does/should that assessment control the amount we give?
  • When we see a beggar on the street, should we give $10 or $50, instead of $1 or nothing at all?

I’m not willing to say that individuals and churches should abdicate what we currently assume is a fiscal responsibility to vet out improper uses of charitable funds. I'm not comfortable with just giving stuff away. At least, not yet.

I have to tell you, for me, right now, Keller’s sermon illustrates a profoundly counter-cultural way of thinking. Could it be that we've been engaging the poor and welfare recipients unbiblically all this time? Yes, Christ says the poor will always be with us. But could God be waiting for us to relinquish more of the resources He's given us for something we can't see or control?

Is the prevalence of poverty in part a result of our lack of faith?


  1. Here's a thought - since the book of Proverbs was originally written to men who would be serving the people of God, the generosity Keller preaches should be applied to the poor within our faith communities? Recipients of charity in the church would be under the same obligations of faithful stewardship of the resources entrusted to them as would be those that share those resources. Those outside of the faith community would be subject to the closer scrutiny and caution we assume is necessary before we dole out charity to them. Is this a compromise, or is this a good application?

  2. I thought I had posted a comment on this one earlier, but I guess I didn't. Or it didn't take. Or Blogspot or Laitinen & Co. didn't like it.

    Annnnnyway, this is a very thought-provoking read and a complicated subject matter that perhaps we'll all be wrestling with (and what Scripture does or doesn't say) 'til we're in heaven and can get clarity (and then it won't even matter us). I would have loved to have heard the discussion on this.


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