I’ll make no secret about it: There are things Christians say that I do not find all that helpful. Actually, I find them paralyzing when it comes to living the spiritual life.
This is particularly the case when it comes to giving to the poor. I have heard Christians say that it is better to give nothing at all than to give with a bad attitude. Really? I doubt that the poor would feel that way!
Then there are Christians who say that we should do good works, but we should not feel that doing those works earns us salvation from God. We should remember that we are saved by grace through faith, or that our good works do not nullify our exceeding sinfulness. They have a point. And yet, when I give to the poor, there will always be a part of me that pats myself on the back, and that hopes that God is patting me on the back. Should I wait until I have my attitudes together before I give to the poor? Again, I doubt that the poor would feel that way!
Taking a self-inventory can be a good thing. Allowing spiritual navel-gazing to hinder one from giving to charity, however, is a sign of privilege.
There are Scriptures that Christians can cite to support such a paralyzing stance. II Corinthians 9:7 says: “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (KJV).
Then there is I Corinthians 13:3: “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (KJV).
Richard Rohr said the following about I Corinthians 13:3. This was in his March 16, 2016 Daily Meditation, entitled “Love Never Fails”:
“Apparently, you can even be a progressive and generous social activist; but if you’re just doing it to be holier than thou, or out of oppositional energy, you are still outside of the Big Mystery. Self-proclaiming heroics on the Left can be just as unloving as self-proclaiming religion on the Right.
“Then Paul tries to describe the mystery of love, and he finally has to resort to listing almost fifteen descriptions. He talks about love not as simply an isolated virtue, but as the basis for all virtue. It is the underlying, generous energy that gives itself away through those living inside of love.”
I can at least do something with this. Attitude is important, even if I do not believe it should be the determining factor in whether one gives or not. I should give to the poor out of love for the poor and sympathy for their plight, not as a way to feel superior to others or to oppose the right-wing. I would say that giving out of a wrong motive is better than not giving at all. Still, without love, one is outside of the Big Mystery. Love can be a well for virtue, and, without love, that well can run dry.
I like something that the first century Hellenistic Jew Philo of Alexandria said in Special Laws IV:74:
“Let not then the rich man collect in his house vast quantities of silver and gold, and store them up, but let him bring them forward freely in order by his cheerful bounty to soften the hard condition of the poor…” (Yonge’s translation)
That is a good way to look at it: charity softens the hard condition of the poor.
The thing is, there are so many people in this world who need help. Many of us have a hard enough time taking care of ourselves and our own. Are we seriously expected to become deeply involved in other people’s burdens?
Many Christians would say “yes.” But the practice of many people, including Christians, is often to help a little, if at all, then to go back to living their own lives, facing their own problems.
Whether that is acceptable or not, I will not say. At the very least, though, there should be charities where people can go when they need help. There should be institutions out there. And charities need donations.