Witnessing painful giving
Give until it hurts. You’ve probably heard that said before, all the Christians in the room nodding sombrely in agreement. I think we as believers in Christ really like that statement—because in the unexamined corners of our mind, we add on “then stop immediately”. We might give until it hurts, but the threshold for pain is very low.*
Of course, we could now wag our finger at people too attached to holidays and cars, but I don’t think that’s the hurt that first-world Christians are avoiding. We are willing to give up an international trip (when they are available), and we feel quite pleased and noble when we do. We are content with middle-class jobs; we have sponsor children; we don’t aspire to be viewed as ‘wealthy’; we give 10% of our income even though we’re not under the Old Testament tithing laws, because, you know, you can’t be too careful.
But we do aspire to a comfortable retirement. We do aspire to not needing our children to provide for us financially. We want a home with space for our grandchildren to come and stay, the freedom to visit them. We want enough money waiting for us at the end of our lives to avoid those nursing homes. We want to leave our children with an inheritance, to know that we’ve done our best to see them as well-off as ourselves.
And are those bad things? I don’t think so. But we don’t impinge on them when we give. That would cause too much pain. And I think that alone makes them worth examining.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons about how the early church shared their money and possessions between them (Acts 2). The congregation is suitably impressed, finding that kind of living very admirable, but we don’t take it too seriously since it feels so far away from the way our society is organised. It’s a safe thing to admire. Well, it has been my privilege to spend a short time amongst a very young church in a society emerging from a nomadic and collectivist past, and their generosity was the most unexpected and unsettling thing I encountered there. (I’d expected the fermented camel milk to take that slot, but it turned out to be almost okay.)
My husband and I were serving at a Bible college. The country’s government did not recognise theological education as an actual thing (despite many, many attempts to convince it), so the students did not qualify for the small payments that other university students received. Almost all of them lived hand-to-mouth, so working to save up to study was unrealistic. Some were given a tiny amount by their churches to study, but—since few congregations could support even a pastor—this was quite rare. Some were on scholarships financed by international Christians that covered the course fees. Many tried to work part-time, but this usually didn’t provide enough income, especially for those with families.
This is what I witnessed amongst this group of believers who were used to going without and who felt responsible for each other’s well-being:
- One student had a wife and children. He had been studying part-time and working part-time for several years, trying desperately to both learn the Bible and feed his family. He had one term left… and he was going to have to drop out. His children were hungry. His course fees were unpaid. The other students in his year-group, determined to see him graduate, elected to eat only one meal a day to pool enough money for him to make it.
- A single female student without family support had an American scholarship covering her fees. She nearly always ended up giving the money to other students for their food or medical bills instead. Her scholarship was at risk, since from the donor’s removed perspective it seemed like their money was being misappropriated, but to her it was heinous that she would ignore the suffering of Christians in front of her while money was in her account. “God will provide for my fees later; he is providing for this person through this money right now.”
- The short summer window of tourists and no classes are a chance for students to earn money, and most did. But they also chose to give up some of that opportunity by travelling for several days to remote parts of the country, dropping in to encourage churches on the way. Once there, they ran holiday camps for children, provided care and comfort to the sick, taught what they’d learned that year to local believers, and evangelized in many ways. And then they made the long, slow trip home—all of it at their own expense or paid for by selling snacks throughout the year.
Where were my husband and I in all of this? The students basically never asked us for money, though what we were sent from Australia stretched very far. We only found out well after the fact about what took place outside the classroom. Occasionally it would be tactfully mentioned that the students were all chipping in for a need, and we joined in then. But I never went without a meal. And they never expected me to. They had come to understand the failings of born-capitalist Christians swiftly and well.
They were also very wise in this. If they had come to us, we would have paid away the problem single-handedly, at least the first dozen times. We didn’t want any hungry students! They wouldn’t have had to give a thing—and their hearts would have grown insensitive to the suffering of others and overly sensitive to their own. This young body of Christ, in the midst of developing what it looks like to live biblically as that people group, would have crippled its generosity muscles until they resembled mine.
In The Generosity Project, Vaughan Roberts talks about the time that someone said to him: “You’re only really giving when it costs you something” (p. 122). This is true, but it also costs us not to give. Don’t get me wrong; there were very problematic things happening with money within that young national church too. There were embezzlers, idlers, thieves, and plenty of financial actions that just really weren’t prudent. And there still are—and amongst us, too. But by stopping to give when it starts to hurt, we have paid with fences around our needs and have sacrificed our willingness to act as if God really is the lord of the future.
Perhaps our painful giving won’t look as spectacular and inspiring as the widow’s copper coins. Perhaps risk is somehow inappropriate, irresponsible for us. I don’t know. It feels very hard to change. But when Jesus told the rich man to give all he had to the poor and follow him, I recall the promise of treasure in heaven rather than treasure in superannuation. Which treasure is worth guarding?
* The other unspoken assumption is that the giving is purely financial, which I’ll go with today, but of course we can be generous with time, encouragement, expertise, etc.