The Tricky Business of Giving

by FCS Ministries on


By Bob Lupton

"My husband and I have the gift of giving," a soft-spoken, grey haired lady shared with me following a speech I had just given on the unintended consequences of charity. I could tell something was bothering her. Probably something I had said.

"We love to serve," she said. "We enjoy helping our neighbors - like driving our handicapped neighbor to his doctor's appointments and mowing the lawn for the elderly widow lady next door. And we don't want to be paid for doing this. We try to refuse their money, but they always insist. We really want to give. Accepting pay robs us of the joy of giving. But we're not sure what to do."

The gift of giving - what a wonderful attribute! A generous spirit. Why would anyone resist it? Generosity is a virtue that flows from a rightly motivated heart. So why the resistance from this lady's neighbors? Why do they insist on paying her and her husband for car rides and grass cutting? Can they not see that this couple derives genuine joy from their selfless acts of service?

It's a baffling predicament. When this couple practices their gift of giving, the recipients of their gifts somehow end up the losers. Their disabled neighbor already feels the loss of mobility since he can no longer drive himself to the doctor's office, but being dependent on others to shuttle him - well, that's an even bigger loss. It's not too difficult to understand why he would insist on paying for the service. At least he retains the dignity of financially carrying his own weight. And the widow next door? You can see why she wants to pay for the lawn mowing rather than be her neighbors' charity case. No one wants to be the object of pity.

To give well, to give without diminishing the recipient, proves a bit more complicated than one would imagine at first glance. An ancient Chinese proverb puts an interesting twist on this dilemma: "It is the burden of the receiver to forgive the giver of a gift." 

It seems like a Catch-22 - damned if you do and damned if you don't. Certainly, we could denounce those who give with self-serving motives - like public praise or ego gratification. Jesus confronted this kind of giving when he cautioned his disciples to avoid doing their almsgiving publicly "to be seen by men." Temporary ego indulgence is all the reward that sort of giving yields. "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand gives." Jesus' hyperbole offers a corrective to impure motives. Give anonymously. Don't let anyone know.

But as best I could tell, it was not ego-gratification that motivated this woman and her husband. Their motives seemed purer than that. They appeared to have a deep desire - a calling almost - to genuinely care for others. But how to do it in ways that did diminish or obligate or demean - that was the challenge they wrestled with.

The lady was quite familiar with Jesus' admonition to do good deeds privately. But this didn't seem to apply in their case, given the very visible service she and her husband were providing to their immediate neighbors. I had to agree. And besides, it wasn't that her neighbors didn't appreciate the service. It's just that they always insisted on paying. And that took the joy out of it for the couple.

"So whose joy is this about?" I asked at the risk of offending this good-hearted woman. Well, she responded, she and her husband certainly intended to be a blessing to their neighbors. And their services did seem to be gratefully received, particularly when neighbors were paying for them. Yes, she affirmed, these acts of kindness seemed to be a genuine blessing, very convenient, and affordable. And there was no loss of dignity when their neighbors paid for the services. As a matter of fact, being able to hire someone to perform these tasks was rather empowering.

If service is primarily about enhancing those being served (rather than primarily for the joy of the servers), then mutual exchange rather than one-way giving becomes the higher value. Maimonides (1138-1204), known as the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period, enunciated in the Talmud eight distinct levels of charitable giving. The lowest level of charity (to be avoided whenever possible) is giving directly to a person in need. This produces shame. The highest level is providing employment in a way that doesn't make the recipient feel subordinate. This is partnership. Charity at its best is mutual exchange that produces mutual satisfaction.

The joy of giving is more than feeling good about well-intentioned acts of service. It goes deeper than that. It finds its true fulfillment when it produces as much joy in the spirit of the recipient as it does in the heart of the giver.

Image credit: Brandon Warren