BY ALEXIS EILS
I was at a movie theater recently and passed a billboard advertising gift certificates to the surrounding shopping center’s multitude of venues. It proclaimed, “Giving is easy!” and went on to describe the many ways one could use such a birthday or holiday gift. The assertion got me thinking. Is giving really that easy?
I like to think that it’s easy. And I like to think I’ve done my fair share of giving so far in my life. I’ve given presents to family members on their birthdays. I’ve offered tokens of congratulations at bat mitzvahs and graduations in the form of bouquets and balloons. I’ve dropped spare change into tip jars at cafés. But do these actions really count as “giving,” or am I just going through the motions, doing what’s socially expected of me in these various situations? What does true charity entail?
The Bible instructs us to give up our worldly possessions, donate our wealth to the poor, and commit our lives to Jesus Christ and his teachings. And as much as I wish that I had the incredible faith and commitment to do so, such a task is much easier said than done. I often find myself identifying with the rich young man who asks Jesus what else he must do to achieve eternal life, given that he has followed the commandments since he was a boy. Jesus responds, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). But this man of great wealth and power leaves saddened: he doesn’t want to give up his life of leisure. He wanted a quick fix, a simple prayer to say, or a specific amount of money to donate. But it’s not that simple. God wants us to recognize that the only thing that really matters is glorifying Him, and the fancy computer and the new pair of jeans and the latest iPod can never measure up to the treasure of the kingdom of heaven. Yet the thrill of such worldly possessions is often hard to overcome, and I find myself justifying these indulgences with promises of future donations and more deliberate efforts to read and understand the bible. Excuses like “I hardly ever buy myself anything” or “It’s really not that big of a deal” float around in my head, and I end up putting my material desires above all else. I wouldn’t say I throw around money like it’s nothing, but I’ve indulged in my fair share of fads and have often failed to give to those who really need it.
But as aware as I am of this personal downfall, I’m still at a loss as to how to remedy the situation. Why do I find it so hard to detach myself from my belongings? Why do I spend money on clothes and gadgets that I don’t really need when I could be giving that money to AIDS research in Africa or to UNICEF? As I’ve struggled with this issue recently, I’ve come to terms with something: I think of charity in economic terms. When I give, I expect something in return. When I give someone a birthday gift, there is an understood expectation that I too will receive a gift on my birthday. When I congratulate a friend for his or her accomplishment, I expect him or her to do the same for me later. And when I drop my change into tip jars at cafés, I expect that good deed to be acknowledged somehow, in some kind of cosmic good-karma-bad-karma point system. I like to think of an otherworldly clipboard with my name on it and a check mark next to it, signifying, “Yep, she did her good deed of the day.” As much as I’d like to think I’m being a nice person just for the sake of being a nice person, in actuality, I expect some kind of repayment or at least a recognition of such action, whether it be from my peers or from the man upstairs.
But charity isn’t barter. Not true charity anyway. I think true charity occurs when we give with no expectations, solely for the purpose of benefiting another human being. It requires sacrifice, letting go of our desire for repayment and detaching ourselves from worldly possessions. That’s certainly a tall order. And I by no means have figured out how to do so. But I think it’s an incredibly important thing to keep in mind. We want so much to be viewed as “good” Christians, by ourselves, by our peers, and by God. But it takes more than going to church every Sunday and donating regularly to non-profit organizations. It involves making the leap to serve God and not myself.
Now I’m not about to go sell everything I own, donate it various charities, and join a nunnery. That’s unrealistic. And I don’t think that’s what He wants me to do. But I can try to be more conscious of what’s really important. I can make small efforts to step out of my comfort zone for the benefit of another, not myself. Giving doesn’t have to be monetary. I think that’s where I get myself into trouble. I drop a few coins into a homeless man’s cup and walk away, without getting to know him, without understanding his struggles, without reaching out to comfort him. I think true giving involves putting myself out there and helping to spread the love of Christ, in whatever way is presented to me. And I hope I can make that leap, more often than I do now.
Giving isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. Jesus died on the cross for me and my sins. He made the sacrifice for me. The least I can do is pay it forward.