Mary Phillips lived in our home before my earliest recollection. She was like a member of our family, a grand motherly figure to me. When I was seriously ill as a baby, she sat and rocked me for days on end, long days that caused a special bond to grow between us. MeMe, as I called her (a name that stuck with her the rest of her life), worked for a dry cleaner. I remember as a little tyke, when supper time approached, I would watch out our front window for her to get off the bus. She seemed to take great joy in seeing me race to the door to greet her with a hug. Each evening, she would delight me with a surprise. She would reach into her coat pocket and, glancing around to be sure no one else would see, secretly slip me some little trinket or piece of candy, pretending that no one else in the world knew. "You're my boy," she would say with affection, an affirmation I relished, though it did cost me some teasing from my older sister. I remember like it was yesterday (though I was only four) the day MeMe stopped giving me those daily surprises. I had run to the door to greet her as I always did and, after a big hug, waited expectantly to see what she had brought for me. But for some reason on that particular day she had nothing in her pocket for me. I immediately threw a temper tantrum, creating quite an ugly, tearful scene. MeMe was obviously distressed by my behavior and vowed that she was not going to bring me any more surprises. I assumed, of course, that this was her way of warning me to control such outbursts in the future. I was confident that my special friend, as soon as she recovered from my tirade, would continue expressing her affection for "her boy" as she always had. But the following day when she arrived home from work her pockets contained no treats. The next day was the same. And the next. And the next. I could hardly believe it! How could someone who said I was her special friend be so unforgiving and punishing? It wasn't until many years later that I understood why she had so abruptly stopped her daily surprises. MeMe's giving had become an entitlement and the joy had gone out of it.
A very different but analogous episode took place in our Atlanta neighborhood a number of Christmases ago. Our ministry had been receiving many offers of food, clothes and toys from caring supporters who wanted to share their abundance with the less fortunate at this special season. We asked Zack, an emerging young community leader, if he would assume responsibility for identifying needy recipients and passing out the donations. He accepted the role with eagerness. The first year was a delight as Zack delivered unexpected blessings to the homes of those whose cupboards were bare. The next year, however, his enthusiasm diminished as he was pressured by recipients for special favors and specific gifts. By year three, Zack was ready to quit. Recipients grumbled about their lack of choices, made accusations of favoritism and claimed priority rights based on their longevity in the program. What began as a joyful sharing of unexpected resources had turned into an entitlement program. When the gifts became rights, the joy departed.
MeMe and Zack figured out what it seems to take charities and churches much longer to learn. And what governments seldom learn. Something goes wrong with giving when the recipient comes to expect it. Gratitude turns into presumption. And the benefactor ends up promoting the very thing he hopes to abate: dependency. In the reciprocity of the marketplace, unlike charity programs, there is a built-in corrective to this dilemma. Both seller and purchaser come to the table with something of value to offer and each stands to gain. Both enter the exchange with worth and exit with dignity.
Contemporary charity, on the contrary, is a wholly other dynamic. Transactions are one-way. Polite smiles conceal the unspoken expectations of the donor. Charity in the best of circumstances creates a sense of obligation in the recipient; at its worst it produces resentment. A traditional Chinese saying, acknowledging the potentially torturous relationship that giving creates between the one who gives and the one who receives, puts it this way: "Why do you hate me? I have never given you anything."
"The Lord loves a cheerful giver," the scripture says. Obviously, there is something very good about giving, and the joy it produces - something that reflects the character of the Divine Giver. The original Giver seems to take special delight in bestowing gifts in ways that catch us by surprise at every turn. Even in adversity He startles us with blessing.
Yet, it is no simple matter to understand God's ways of giving. Though utterly capable and dependable, He often appears to be capricious. He heals on one occasion and not another, answers this prayer and not that, intervenes supernaturally in one instance and allows natural consequences to play out in another. He is at once absolutely consistent yet totally unpredictable. He causes the sun to rise every morning yet may never answer a prayer the same way. He somehow provides security without creating dependency. In the mystery of His giving there lies a secret to the joyfulness He intends for those He created in His image.
"But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." (Matt 6:3, NIV) There is a clue here. Public announcement diminishes the joy of giving. Anonymous giving, on the other hand, not only checks one's motives but keeps the elements of surprise and wonder in the process as well. It may be somewhat impractical in an age of checks, receipts and tax deductions, especially for sizable or sustained giving. Never the less, the unadulterated joy of a quiet, unexpected gift, well given, is still its own rich reward.
Anonymous giving, in its essence, is fundamentally different from the clothes-closet, food-pantry-type giving that proclaims itself as charity while disclosing the neediness of the recipient. When the surprise goes out of giving, as MeMe and Zack discovered, it loses its magic. If giving is to have enduring health, the dignity of authentic exchange must be introduced into the process. At some point the Divine gifts of sunshine and rain must be met with the human response of planting and harvest. Food pantries and clothes closets, if they are to ennoble the human spirit, must convert to coops and thrift stores.
Ancient Hebrew wisdom describes four levels of charity. The highest level is to provide a job for one in need without his knowing that you provided it. The next lower level is to provide work that the needy one knows you provided. The third level is to give an anonymous gift. The lowest level of charity, to be avoided if at all possible, is to give a poor person a gift with his full knowledge that you are the donor.
The design of giving is to produce joy and satisfaction in the heart of the donor, and wonder and appreciation in the soul of the recipient. Its ultimate aim is to bring glory to the One from whom every good and perfect gift comes. Joyful giving is no unthinking, pity-response of a too-soft or too-busy heart. Rather, it is a mindful, care-full investment that ignites gladness and affirms the dignity of the human spirit.