Years ago, I remember a pastor at our church talking about a husband offering to get his wife some french fries at a fast-foot place. She sweetly replied, “No, thanks. I’ll just have a few of yours.” The net result, though, was that her “few” ended up being a significant amount (after all, fries are a snack that is difficult to stop, once you get started), and he didn’t get the amount of fries that he actually wanted to enjoy in the first place. (Now, my wife and I enjoy using this phrase openly with each other, knowing that we are both joking…at least, I think that she is joking)
Why do followers of Jesus give generously to others? (Yes, there are some who don’t, but let’s focus on those who do.) There is certainly an element of obedience involved, as well as emulating the selflessness of Jesus, our example. However, the apostle Paul puts this into some perspective, when writing to the church in the ancient city of Corinth:
Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.
2 Corinthians 8:13-14 NLT
Within the body of Christ (i.e., the church), the goal is not to impoverish ourselves just so others can live in luxury. If you can give up a purchase of a new 60″ TV, so that a fellow member of the church can have some basic food to eat, that makes sense (and, less TV is probably good for us). If you go hungry so that someone can get a new 60″ TV, though, that doesn’t seem to be the kind of sharing that Jesus had in mind (unless perhaps they are using it as a computer projector to teach others about Jesus, I suppose).
While these verses could easily be used to justify not helping others (claiming that we don’t have to give when it is inconvenient for us), I don’t feel that this was why it was included in the Bible.
Instead, this passage speaks to me as a reference point for our attitude. When we think of “giving”, there’s often a sense that we each have something (i.e., “I own it and have control over it”), before I give it away. This “stuff” might money, possessions, or time. In this case, giving away my own belongings means that I will forfeit benefits that I would otherwise have received if I kept them for myself. This attitude runs the risk of drawing us into the sin of pride, feelings of superiority, and resentment towards others who receive our gifts.
Some will [rightly] point out that giving generously helps ward off feelings of selfishness and greed. I don’t disagree with that, and I encourage those who struggle with these negative feelings to give and give – not necessarily until it hurts, but until our heart is cleared of their contamination. Like running the faucet for a while after performing plumbing work, flushing out the pipes and giving them a chance to deliver clean water, generosity can purge our hearts of junk that keeps us from loving others like Jesus did.
However, what if we read this passage again, and caught the concept of “sharing”? If we are “giving”, then we’re tempted to think about us and how we give up what we have to help others (and, how great we are…at least in our own minds). If we are “sharing”, though, we are just allocating a common pool of resources among a group of people who need them. The person who is carrying the evening meal for a group of hikers isn’t giving away something that she owns when she hands out the tins around the campfire. She’s just passing out portions to everyone in her group. After all, the next member of the team might be carrying breakfast – not so that he can eat for 10 the next morning, but so that he can allow everyone to fuel up for their next day on the trail.
In fact, because God owns everything (since He created it and retains sovereignty over it), we are just managing His possessions. (For that matter, He bought us back from the penalty of our sins, so He has the “double right” to tell us what to do with His resources.) In some ways, we’re all just serving from the same pot of stew that God has provided for us to eat from, rather than begrudgingly handing out snacks from our hoard.
Having said that, Paul’s comments above suggest that it’s OK to use your own resources to keep yourself in food, clothing, and shelter, especially once your brothers and sisters in Christ are taken care of (as well as those who God has called you to serve outside of the Body of Christ). In our world, I believe that God has provided us more than enough to go around – we just have to make sure that we are effectively distributing it.