The night before thanksgiving, I lay back in my tub, truly thankful for the steamy water with which I basted my weary body. Properly settled in my little pool of prosperity, I opened my November 25 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY and began to peruse the current events of the Lord’s church, content with my luxury, until I came to the article by Mark Galli concerning the Christian’s many excuses for not giving to the poor (“Five Reasons for Not Giving to the Poor”).

As I read, I perceived an uneasy feeling of guilt over the comfort of my bath in a world where “comfort” is too often an unshared experience. How often have I, myself, used the excuses Pastor Galli had so aptly pointed out.

And yet, a red light began to blink its warning. Then I saw the hang-up: a desperately needed point of consideration had been totally excluded from the piece—the need for caution and direction in giving.

It must be said, at the outset, that the intent of Galli’s article was well taken. We more prosperous Christians have an ugly tendency to bury our responsibility to the poor in a pile of excuses. Indeed, this reply to Galli’s article is not so much a rebuttal as it is an addendum. The suggestions I offer are not to be used as simply more excuses not to give, but rather, as cautions to give properly.

Years ago, as a young associate pastor at a large church in Indiana, I found myself a prime target for the multitude of fund seekers in the community. (I suppose anyone who wears a three-piece suit every day is considered rich.)

In those tender years, I gave “till it hurt.” It took over 10 years of experience to learn the reasons for showing caution in giving.

You May Hurt The Person You’Re Trying To Help

Before we can learn how to give, we must have a solid grasp of why to give. Am I giving to give, or giving to help? If my intention in giving is to tell myself that I have followed Christ’s command to give, then almost any form of giving will do. However, if my goal in giving is actually to help the person in need, then I must be more diligent in defining my gift.

In the latter case, giving becomes much more than an act of transferring my property to someone else. Such transfer can, indeed, result in harm to the person I intended to help.

In my first pastorate, a man started attending church who was a professed alcoholic. One night he came to the altar and gave his heart to Christ. During the next few weeks, he became active in the fellowship, never came to church drunk and was, evidently, quite grateful for the change God had made in his life.

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After the service one evening, he told me of a problem he was having. His newly acquired job would not issue his first paycheck in time to pay his rent. He asked if I could help him out, and I did—to the tune of $50. He ended up in the hospital that night with a blood alcohol of 400. In my effort to be an obedient “giver,” I had nearly killed my newborn brother with $50 worth of hard liquor.

You May Hurt The Person Functionally As Well As Physically

On the level of the individual, I do not hesitate in stating that great harm can be done to people by those who give indiscriminately. A simple case in point should amply illustrate.

Last year, I was visiting with another minister in town when the phone rang. On the other end was a man calling from a restaurant with a heart-rending story of great need. I have a policy to pray before I act, so I asked the man if he could call me back in a few minutes. As the phone rang the second time, God answered my prayer, and instructed me to help the man, but not to give him any money.

We met the man at the restaurant, where we fed him a hearty meal and talked with him about his need. From his tattered clothes, we could see he was destitute, and we longed to help. His needs were simple: clothes, food, and a place to stay until his boarding room opened up in two weeks.

We took him to a clothing storehouse operated by several churches in town, and stocked him with a small wardrobe of very nice clothes. We sat down for coffee, and I offered him a place to stay and three meals a day if he would help me around the church with a few odd jobs for the next two weeks. His answer almost bowled me over.

“I think I’d like to stay and eat, but I don’t know about that work stuff. I ain’t worked in a long time. Why don’t you guys just give me some money?” he said. “All the other churches just give me money.”

We sat till four o’clock that morning trying to convince him to stay. I even gave in and told him he didn’t have to work, just attend the church services. He ended up turning us down cold on our heartless, demanding offer. For a parting shot he rummaged through the stack of clothes we’d given him, picked out a pair of shoes and a jacket and said, “I can’t wear that other stuff. It’s too good. If I wore that stuff, nobody’d ever give me anything.” With that, he was off into the night.

In their desire to be “givers,” the other churches, in this man’s experience, had done nothing more than reinforce his reprehensible lack of dignity. Even now, he is probably calling still another pastor for help.

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You Can Easily Hurt Your Relationship With The Other Person

Not long ago, my wife and I were tallying our financial outreach to individuals and trying to evaluate the actual benefits rendered. We were happy to see that, recently, our selectivity in giving had produced far more permanent results than had previous years of token benevolence. One man’s business was saved and is still flourishing. Another maintained his home ownership until he was finally called back to work.

But there was one thing we still noticed that was quite disturbing. In every single case of large-scale giving (which often included the total loss of our savings), the recipients had—within weeks—become offended at us and relinquished our relationship. It seemed, somehow, that our generosity had precipitated hard feelings.

It would be presumptuous of me to imply that I would be able to analyze professionally the emotional causes of their actions. But I have come to a simple conclusion of caution that my wife and I have decided to practice from now on in our giving: “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matt. 6:3).

One Man’S Gain Can Be A Needier Man’S Loss

In Matthew 25, we are taught to be good stewards of all our assets issued by the Lord. Stewardship, to be sure, involves a strain of generosity considered foolish by the world’s standards. But it also demands a godly wisdom. We are instructed to be wise as serpents as well as harmless as doves. The story of Joseph teaches us the planned use and distribution of God’s wealth.

It would be impossible for me to list the scores of times I have thrown my money into every hand extended, only to find that, when a true need arose, I had nothing left to give. Can we honestly claim that God is pleased when we give all that we have to those in need of a newer pair of jeans—and then have nothing left for the mother who has no winter coat? Is it right to support someone’s Pepsi habit, and void ourselves of the funds to help the child in need of milk?

Mark Galli, in his article, claims that we have no right to criticize the misuse of the money we give. I cannot more harshly disagree! Every time I give of my wealth, I deplete my funds to help more people by the amount that I have given. Jesus told us that the poor would be with us always, and there are certainly more poor in the world than there are funds in my pocket. It is, therefore, logical to conclude that every time I give to one person I am taking from another whom I could have given to if he or she come to me first. Plainly speaking, I am taking out of one man’s mouth to feed another. If the first rule of giving is cheerfulness (2 Cor. 9:7), the second must surely be forethought (1 Cor. 16:2).

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You Can Hurt Your Own Family

There has always been abundant preaching in the Christian world about putting others’ needs before our own. One particular Scripture that seems to confirm this idea is 1 Corinthians 10:24: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”

Understanding for this verse comes with the study of the word “seek.” Literally, the Greek zeteo means “to endeavor,” “to plot,” “to worship.” As Christians, the purpose in our lives is clearly not just to seek and glory in our own well-being. But there is a vast difference between “worshiping one’s prosperity” and “providing for one’s household.”

In my early years as a pastor, my enthusiasm for giving almost cost me my home. How often did I give my last $20 away to someone who needed to pay a parking ticket when at home there was nothing for my family to eat but some popcorn—without butter! How many times have I (ignoring the plea of my frustrated spouse) invited some strange man into my home to spend a few days, only to find out later his history of rape and child molesting?

It is so easy for us to lay the responsibility on God by saying “God will provide and protect.” Certainly all provision comes from our Father, and the miracle supply of God has never run out; but the warning of 1 Timothy 5:8 is directed at us, not God: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

It is with this caution in mind that I mention a type of giving quite removed from giving to the poor. It is the practice of giving to the ministry.

I am a full-time pastor and draw all my wages through the offerings in my church. My wife works with me, and the only outside income we have is that of special offerings when we sing and preach in other churches. Thus, it is safe to say that I am heartily in favor of generous giving to the professional ministry.

However, I have recently noticed a spirit of foolishness in giving that is frightening. The doctrine goes something like this, “God promises to return to me tenfold everything I give to the kingdom. Therefore, if I will give $10 in the offering, God is obligated, by his Word, to return to me $100 in blessing. If I give $100, God must return $1,000. If I really have ‘faith’ and give $1,000, God will give me $10,000.”

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Several months back a Christian friend invited me to lunch. We dined at a nice restaurant where he fed me an expensive meal. During our conversation, he told me he was treating me because he needed extra money, and he knew that if he blessed God’s minister, God would return to him a hundredfold. After lunch, he invited me into his small apartment. My stomach sickened as I realized that, while we fared sumptuously on his meager funds, his wife was sitting hungry with their child in a two-room apartment with no rugs, one lamp, and towels for a curtain.

In the wake of this mistaken philosophy of giving are families with no food, unpaid bills, and even some believers with $2,000 and $3,000 personal loans they secured from the bank to give the preacher. Giving is meant to be a beautiful expression of concern and love. But it can be used by the enemy as a tool of waste and despair.

So What’S The Answer: To Give Or Not To Give?

It is the unfortunate characteristic of magazine articles that they often overstate one side of a point. I am more aware than anyone that my words may be taken to say, “Don’t give! You’ll get taken!” That is not what I intend.

Nor is it my intention that readers be so logical and selective about their giving that they approach every prospect with a fine-toothed comb, in perilous dread of making a mistake. To do this would destroy the spirit of giving altogether.

The answer is not one of fear, but of “true concern.” Token compassion will cause me to give indiscriminately just to relieve the pressure of the moment. True concern will drive me to become readily familiar with the variety of ways I can really help someone. If my heart yearns to give, there are several things to consider.

First, I must familiarize myself with the numerous service groups in my region that specialize in particular forms of aid. The Lions help people pay for glasses and eye examinations. Goodwill has an abundance of clothing. I pastored for three years in one community before I realized there was a local mission that housed and fed the destitute while it ministered to their spiritual needs as well.

We must be careful not to allow “groups” to do all our giving for us. But if we really love, we will search out beforehand where help is available.

Second, we can determine other ways to help besides giving money. In our society, cash is looked on as a cure-all. Often it is easy to give money or old clothing but very hard to give time, an open ear, a shoulder to cry on, counsel, friendship, or church fellowship. One time a man in our church said he needed money to pay his bills. Upon investigation I discovered he earned more than I and had fewer expenses. The man didn’t need money; he needed a financial adviser and a good budget.

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There will come the time when the problem must stop at my doorstep. No service group can help; no counselor can change the situation. It is up to me to dig deep into my pocket and give of my earthly goods. Yet, even at this point, wisdom must be employed.

Instead of giving cash and sending the bum on his way, I can take the time needed to use that extra touch of the spirit of God that dwells within me. I can take him to the store and buy him clothes. I can (if I’m not too proud) take him to dinner; or, better yet, invite him home for dinner (with my wife’s permission).

It is my choice how I will approach the art of giving. Will I handle it like a “duty” that must be carried out to maintain my good Christian standing? Or will it be an act of love—well thought out, prepared for, longed for, and executed? Let me settle it now, before the need arises.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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