If you’re old enough to remember the Saturday Evening Post as a weekly publication, you probably remember the young men who solicited door-to-door for magazine subscriptions. One of my friends had three copies of the Saturday Evening Post delivered to his home every week. His mother, a tender-hearted soul, had not wanted to discourage the first young man who came to her door, so she had bought a subscription from him. A couple of months later, another young man came along with an even better story and an irresistibly cheaper subscription offer. Finally his sister had encountered a third salesman, who so charmed her that she decided she ought to have her very own subscription. No one in that house really read the Saturday Evening Post, but they all had bought the magazine from high-pressure salespeople because they wanted to be nice.
I have always been sales resistant. I don’t know if it stems from being a child of the Great Depression, from my Jewish culture, or from being born in Missouri, the Show Me” state. Whatever the reason, I learned at an early age to resist all high pressure and all impositions except from those who had the right to impose on me—parents, teachers and the rabbi—and occasionally the next-door neighbor. (He had the right to ask my brother and me to be quiet when we got noisy.)
I learned to respond immediately to those who had the right to ask anything of me with “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” and then to carry out their request with dispatch. Still, coming “from Missouri,” I soon learned to say, “Show me why I should be the one to do it.” Coming from a poor home, I learned to investigate the value and necessity of each purchase, and being Jewish I also learned to ask, “Is this the right thing for me as a Jew?” I also followed the maxim “If you allow it, people will walk all over you.” I figured that everyone had to protect himself against all impositions.
Then I became a believer in Jesus, who seemed to teach that we ought to let anyone impose on us any time. He said if anyone wanted our coats, we should offer our cloaks also. But that didn’t bother me, since I didn’t have a cloak, whatever that was. Jesus also said if anyone asked us to walk a mile, we should walk two miles, and if a person slapped us we should turn the other cheek, and we should forgive those who used or abused us.
As a new Christian, I pondered those statements. Frankly, at that point I asked myself how this whole thing made sense. After all, if we let everyone use us or our services and take what we had, soon we wouldn’t have any time, energy or resources for God, ourselves or anyone else. How could we ever accomplish anything or have anything if we always let others impose on us and take what we had? Finally I came to the only conclusion faith would allow: the scriptural injunctions were intensely practical and practicable, and I just had to sort out what it all meant. If God said, “Give,” I ought to give. The questions were when, how much and to whom—decisions that entailed a high degree of responsibility on the part of the giver.
As I struggled with these questions, I came to several conclusions: While most believers would give lip service to the adage, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive,” few suffer from a habit of overgiving. Through selfishness or a false sense of prudence, most of us tend to undergive, and this hampers our spiritual and social lives. Giving less of oneself or one’s resources usually stems from one of two flaws—greed, or lack of confidence in God’s provision. Most people readily recognize greed as a destructive spiritual force, but the second flaw, lack of trust, is more subtle. It hides under various disguises like insuring family security and being judicious and economically astute.
As followers of Yeshua and his teachings, we ought to be giving people. While we are not under Old Testament Law, the Hebrew Scriptures provide some very definite guidelines about giving and receiving. In Bible times the rich were to look after the needs of the poor. God commanded the Israelites to leave the borders of their fields “unharvested.” They were not to go back and retrieve what they had missed during the first gleaning. For the poor, gathering those remnants of a rich man’s harvest was hardly a road to prosperity. A person had to work very hard to glean just enough to fend off starvation. God, through Moses, could have commanded the farmers to harvest their entire fields and give a certain portion of the profits to the poor. Instead, he ordered a system whereby the poor still had to labor for what they received. Here we have an unspoken social contract, and a concept that is reiterated in the New Testament, where Paul admonishes, “if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).
God’s provisions are like that. He gave the miracles of the manna and the quail in the wilderness, but the Israelites had to stoop and gather what he provided. They could not expect food to appear in their eating bowls at mealtime, nor leave empty pots outside their tents to be filled from heaven. They could not point their faces skyward, with open mouths, like nestlings waiting for the mother bird’s predigested food.
You will not find the popular slogan “God helps those who help themselves” in Solomon’s book of wisdom, nor is it even theologically correct. Those who say that really mean “I am justified in seizing what I want for myself. God will help me if I take the initiative, even if it means getting grabby.” This mindset encourages greed rather than trust in God.
Maybe we should rephrase that adage to say, “God helps those who trust in his providence and are willing to participate with him in receiving his help.” I see this in the miracles of Scripture. Through Elijah, God filled the widow’s jars with oil, but first she had to gather those vessels herself. At Cana Jesus turned the water into wine, but the stewards at the wedding first had to fill the jugs with water. God could have filled the jugs with wine the same way he filled the widow’s jars with oil, but he wanted the stewards to participate. Again, Jesus could have produced instant loaves from heaven to feed the multitudes, but he chose instead to multiply the scant resources of a little boy’s lunch.
God’s provision usually involves the receiver’s conscious self. God wants us to be properly grateful, but he does not trample on our dignity. We know that he gives to us materially and spiritually because he loves us, and his love makes us people of value.
In trying to maintain the dignity of the poor and needy, modern society often refers to them as welfare “clients.” Such language deters us from understanding and acting on their need because it plays down their plight. The jobless, the hungry and the homeless are desperate. There is never anything dignified about desperation, nor should there be if it deters a potential helper from offering the necessary aid. Desperation calls for immediate action. We tend to respond more quickly to those in desperate straits, whereas we deliberate longer about those who insist on maintaining their dignity.
False dignity is harmful, but real dignity enables a meaningful relationship. Nevertheless, the concept fails if it camouflages a person’s plight and leads to disregard of his or her needs. We know that God wants us to give materially to people according to their needs, but we must also remember that participation in solving their problems is part of their need. That is proper dignity properly met. We should give of ourselves and our substance in such a way that the receiver feels a sense of participation in solving his need problem.
One rabbi pointed out that the highest form of charity involves giving a person the chance to earn what he needs. Thus he is not shackled by a sense of worthlessness or feelings of obligation to a benefactor he cannot easily repay. A frustrated sense of obligation could lead the needy recipient even to despise the benefactor, who becomes a constant reminder of that person’s weakness.
In all of our giving we ought to embrace the true concept of “charity,” which is love in action. If we love the person who would impose on us, we find it no burden or imposition to give. The key to giving without feeling imposed upon is love—God’s love—the unselfish agape love that he lavishes on us through Christ. He loves us because of who he is, not because of who we are. If we find our motivation for giving in him rather than in ourselves, and our manner of giving according to the way he gives, we will fulfill the law of love. Then no one will be able to impose on us.
Jesus said, “freely ye have received, freely give.” What we have received through God’s love we ought to take joy in sharing with others. This includes our time, our material possessions and our knowledge of him because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by his Holy Spirit.