What is charity according to the Bible? And, what are we to make of the many Biblical warnings about wealth?
The Center for Civil Society recently hosted a webinar—with Jack Fowler, director of the Center, along with Mary Pope Osborne, acclaimed author of the Magic Treehouse series, Rusty Reno, editor of First Things magazine, and Jeremy Beer, principal partner at American Philanthropic—to address these questions.
Charitable giving, our panelists emphasized, is not only for the material benefit of the recipient, but also for the spiritual enrichment of the giver. This insight is at the heart of a “Biblical understanding” of charity. By understanding the Biblical significance of charity, philanthropists can not only avoid the pitfalls of wealth but become closer to the people they serve and ultimately become closer to God.
An engaging and illuminating conversation, here are four primary themes they covered that any of us—major philanthropist or average giver—can learn from.
We can often take our understanding of charity for granted, as if this is just the way people are. But when we gain some historical context, we can see the historical achievement and uniqueness of Christian charity.
If we rewind 2000 years, before the coming of Christ, we find that Jews understood charity quite differently from the ancient Romans, who felt no obligation to the poor. For the Romans, the poor were socially invisible. Wealthy Romans gave to the public to display their magnanimity—and always with an expectation of receiving honor and glory in return. We see and sometimes criticize this sort of giving today, but in the ancient Roman world, it was normal and expected.
But the Jews, in contrast, felt a responsibility to help the suffering and disadvantaged. Sin they knew, creates debts with God, and by helping those in need, they could store up treasure in heaven. The Jews, moreover, felt solidarity with the afflicted, remembering their suffering as former slaves in Egypt.
Our modern view of charity in the United States, importantly, is inherited through the Judeo-Christian tradition. The obligation to the poor that began in Judaism is only intensified in Christianity through the self-giving of Jesus Christ, who tells his followers, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
There is a strong continuity between Judaism and Christianity, but the latter takes the significance of charity a step further and, as Reno states, “ties charity up with salvation very tightly.” It is no wonder that people of faith give more on average than those without faith, as they understand their eternal destination depends on how they treat their neighbor. As missionary Jim Eliot wrote: “he who is no fool gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”
This Christian view of charity as salvific frees the philanthropist from giving just because they are rich and others are not. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that the Christian giver understands their wealth not as their own but as God’s. Ultimately, they are stewards, not possessors, of their wealth.
Beer notes that believing wealth is a gift from God has a powerful effect on the giver, and this belief is evident not in what Christian philanthropists say, but in the way they give. Namely, a willingness to renounce a level of control in the outcomes of their giving, trusting to God and the nonprofit leaders who will use their gift well. This attitude runs counter to root-cause giving and “effective altruism,” both distorted offshoots of a Christian worldview that has been stripped of belief in Christ. Here, the poor provide an opportunity for those who are better off to grow in virtue—an occasion for them to act out of love and service, without grasping concern for how “transformative” their giving is.
The Bible is full of warnings about the temptations and pitfalls of wealth. The camel through the eye of the needle, the parable of the rich young man, the list goes on. But the primary injunction is not against being wealthy, but against the sin of avarice, the greed afflicting the likes of Ebenezer Scrooge who, despite his piles of money, is threadbare and spiritually impoverished.
In a less obvious way, avarice can present itself in the hearts of many philanthropists who “generously” distribute their wealth but maintain investor-like expectations of “ROI” and “impact.” Reno cautions: “The danger of wealth is to believe in it, to believe its promise. That if you have enough money, you can control the future, that you can insulate yourself from everything that might be bad in life.”
Charity has a way of breaking the chains of wealth. By giving without thought to “investment,” by relinquishing control, those with means can achieve a healthy detachment from their money through their philanthropy—mitigating against both pride and avarice.
The Bible does not ask us to change the world or to get at the “root causes” of an issue. “Giving in the bible is about what charity does to the giver much more than it is for that to whom something is given,” added Beer. “It’s hard for us to get our minds around that.”
But when we do, our philanthropic goals change. They become healthier, more realistic, and probably more effective. Beer continues: “Eradicating poverty is an ideological dream. The goal of eradicating poverty is very different than serving the poor.”
“God loves a cheerful giver,” says Osborne, who exemplifies the Christian view of charity in her own giving. “If you’re not having joy in giving there’s something wrong. That’s why it’s so fun to give locally.”
How does the Bible inspire her? Osborne likes to highlight an often-overlooked character in the parable of the Good Samaritan: the innkeeper to whom the wounded man is entrusted by the Samaritan. “I’m looking for good innkeepers. That’s how I’ve guided my own giving for years. Every source I give to, I know the person who runs it.”
By focusing on local charity, philanthropists can form a relationship of trust with those receiving their gifts and can encounter Christ in those they help. Instead of distant check-writing, philanthropists should view themselves as stewards of God’s goodness, a view that transforms philanthropy into true self-giving, which is itself an invaluable gift.
Wealth is not a bad thing. Indeed, it provides an opportunity to do great good in the world. While the temptations and pitfalls of wealth are inescapable, in the New Testament Christ offers up a guide for those seeking to embody Christian charity in the Beatitudes “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Regardless of your net worth in this world, cultivating a spirit of poverty, a sense that your wealth is a gift to be stewarded rather than possessed—and that giving is an opportunity to draw closer to, and learn from your neighbors—can move you to a Biblical sense of charity.
This will improve your giving and, more than likely, your spiritual life.
You can watch the webinar recording here, and register for future Center For Civil Society webinars and events here.