motivations for giving

[I’m currently in Musoma, Tanzania, studying permaculture.  This is a repost from April 2010.]

[Where I live, lots of people ask me for money.  This post is one of several in search of a biblical view of giving to the poor. I believe the process of finding a biblical stance is at least as important as the conclusions to which I’ve come.  For this reason, I intend to post portions of several 3-column studies that have helped me arrive where I have on these issues.  For the sake of brevity (not one of my gifts), I’m not including all I’ve discovered in these studies, but rather only those realizations which have pointed me toward my current stance on giving.  For a better understanding of what a 3-column study is and why it’s important, see these instructions.  Also, I’m saving all “I will” statements to print at the end of the series.]

Giving and Generosity

Matthew 6:1-4

Rather than post column 1, I will direct you to Matthew 6:1-4.  Below is a summary and restatement in my own words:

Make sure you don’t put on performances in order to prove your righteousness to others.  If that’s what you’re doing, God has no plans to reward you.

So when you’re giving to the poor, don’t put up banners while humming your own personal “I’m-a-spiritual-man” theme song.  That’s what “Christian” entrepreneurs and televangelists do to get more business and bigger donations — and to be respected by their peers.  But listen, I’m telling you the truth when I say they’ve already gotten all the reward they’re going to get.  If you give in order to be seen as spiritual, then being seen as spiritual is your full and rightful reward.  Instead, when you give to the poor, don’t even advertise it to yourself.  Give quietly and in secret, and your Father — the one who knows all our secrets — will reward you.

What I’ve learned:

  • When giving, I must choose between the approval of God or man.  I can’t seek both.
  • I must choose between the reward of being seen as spiritual or actually being spiritual.  I can’t seek both.
  • It is assumed I will give to the poor: “When you give to the needy…”

My thoughts:

What stands out to me most is that Jesus assumes we’re giving to the poor.  He doesn’t instruct us to do so.  He doesn’t attempt to convince us to do so.  He simply speaks to our motives for doing so.  Why are we giving to those in need?  There’s no question as to whether or not we are giving to the poor.  There is only a question of why.

Actually, if in Jesus’ day one could appear to be righteous by giving to the poor, then we know righteous people were indeed giving to the poor.  If I was a righteous person, I was giving to the poor.  Plain and simple.

That’s sad to me, because in our culture seeking to appear righteous doesn’t require nearly as much of us.  I’m guessing today Jesus would say something like, 

“Be careful not to go to church every Sunday only in order to appear righteous.  Make sure you don’t tell business acquaintances you’re a Christian in order to look like you have a relationship with God.  Don’t put a bumper sticker on your car or wear a bracelet to lead others to believe you give a crap about spiritual things.”

It’s sad that today we can appear spiritual or righteous just by wearing a bracelet or saying, “Yes, I go to church.”  What if we had to give to poor people in order to look like a Christian?  I say that’s a step up from where we are.  We have such low standards for appearing righteous these days.

Other items of note:

  • I honestly don’t believe the primary lesson here is that we should give to the poor.  And I don’t think the lesson really is even that we shouldn’t do acts of righteousness in such a way that others see them.  The lesson seems to be, at its core, about our human nature — that we tend to seek the approval of men, and not the approval of God.  We get so caught up in wanting to respected, popular, and seen as successful that we turn our backs on the one individual who can give us worth and call us valuable.
  • And I should clarify — I haven’t fully made up my mind that this text is even about seeking the rewards of God.  It might be about doing what’s right, just because it’s right.  Jesus always confuses me when it comes to this.  I want so badly for Christianity to be about doing what’s right just because it’s right, or glorifying God just because he’s God.  But Jesus keeps throwing incentives in there — promising rewards from God and treasures in heaven.  I don’t know if he’s just playing a bit towards our selfishness, or if he really intends for us to buy into John Piper’s ideas on “Christian hedonism.”
  • What’s just as interesting to me is we’re taught throughout scripture that part of God’s reward to us will be the respect and love of others.  To be clear, though, we’re also told we’ll be despised and reviled.  I suppose if we are truly spiritual — rather than simply appearing to be — those who are spiritual will respect us, as they are of God.  And those who are not will degrade us and persecute us.  So, on some level, seeking the approval of men gets us that approval, but not from those who are truly spiritual.  And in seeking only God’s approval, we gain both his and that of those he has called.

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