You must each make up your own mind as to how much you should give. Don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. For God loves the person who gives cheerfully. And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say,
“Godly people give generously to the poor.
Their good deeds will never be forgotten.”
— 2 Corinthians 9: 7-9 (New Living Translation)
When Tiger Lilly was six years old she saw the advertisement in the newspaper for the Union Gospel Mission’s annual Thanksgiving banquet for the homeless. She studied the photo of the elderly man with the long beard and old clothes. She read the headline that said just $1.79 would provide a full Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings to a hungry person. She looked at me.
“I have $1.79,” she said, with some amazement. “I can buy someone’s dinner!” I sent her upstairs to get her bank to be sure. There were a few bills in there and a lot of coins, and she methodically counted out the full amount. I kept my face non-commital as I asked her if she was sure she wanted to give that money, since it represented a lot of what she had in her bank. She was positive. I had her get an envelope to put the money into and that afternoon we drove over to the Mission. I could have simply written a check covering her contribution along with a larger one from my wife and I and mailed it in, but the Mission isn’t far from our house and I wanted her to see where the money was going and have the personal connection of seeing the real people she was helping. We went inside and the chaplain there was an acquaintance of mine. He wasn’t used to receiving direct contributions, but he took us into his small office, collected Tiger Lilly’s envelope, earnestly wrote her a receipt and thanked her for her for giving, saying how much it would mean to someone.
I remembered that episode last week when I read the article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) by Arthur C. Brooks analyzing the results of the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. According to these results, 85 million U.S. households give money each year to non-profit organizations, while 30 million households do not. The differences between these two groups is not based on income, but on political and religious outlook, with conservatives and people of faith being the ones most likely to give and to volunteer. Besides giving to non-profits, this charity extends to giving to friends and neighbors and even to propensity to donate blood.
Why does Giving America behave so differently from Non-Giving America? The answer, contrary to what you might be thinking, is not income; America’s working poor give away at least as large a percentage of their incomes as the rich, and a lot more than the middle class. The charity gap is driven not by economics but by values.
Nowhere is the divide in values more on display than in religion, the frontline in our so-called “culture war.” And the relationship between religion and charity is nothing short of extraordinary. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey indicates that Americans who weekly attend a house of worship are 25 percentage points more likely to give than people who go to church rarely or never. These religious folks also give nearly four times more dollars per year than secularists, on average, and volunteer more than twice as frequently.
It is not the case that these enormous differences are due simply to religious people giving to their churches. Religious people are more charitable with all sorts of nonreligious causes as well. They are 10 percentage points likelier than secularists to give money to explicitly nonreligious charities like the United Way, and 25 points more likely to volunteer for secular groups such as the PTA. Churchgoers were far likelier in 2001 to give to 9/11-related causes. On average, people of faith give more than 50% more money each year to non-church social welfare organizations than secularists do.
A second core value affecting charity shows up in the belief citizens have about the government’s role in their lives. Some Americans (about a third) believe the government should do more to reduce income differences between the rich and poor — largely through higher taxation and social spending. Others (about 40%) do not favor greater forced income redistribution. This is a major difference in worldview — not just about taxation, but also about the perceived duty of individuals to take personal responsibility for themselves and others. This difference affects people’s likelihood of voluntarily giving to charity. The General Social Survey shows that people who oppose government income redistribution donate four times as much money each year as do redistribution supporters.
Note that the charity gap is not due to anything the government is actually doing; rather, to what people think the government should be doing — in other words, nothing more than a political opinion. This fact throws a wrench into the traditional stereotype that conservatives in America are hardhearted while liberals are the compassionate ones. In the words of one common 2004 campaign yard sign in my town, “Bush Must Go! Human need, not corporate greed.” However, the General Social Survey indicates that people who opine that government is “spending too little money on welfare” — not a viewpoint typically associated with George W. Bush’s supposedly venal supporters — are less likely to give food or money to a homeless person than people who oppose greater welfare spending. Regardless of which view on welfare is superior, ask yourself this: Who will personally do more for a poor person today?
A third key value affecting charity is reflected in family life. Couples, even when they earn the same amount as single people, are more likely to give to charity, and the simple act of raising children appears to stimulate giving as well — children help us fill the collection plate even as they drain our wallets. Further, family life is the ideal transmission mechanism for charitable values: Data show that people who see their parents behave charitably are far likelier to be charitable themselves as adults.
As you probably noticed, the values predicting private charity in America tend to smile on the political right. Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to attend a house of worship regularly; conservatives are one third as likely as liberals to say the government should “do more” to reduce income inequality; conservatives also have about 40% more children than liberals. Furthermore, there is a fringe on today’s political left that goes beyond simple neglect of charity, and openly condemns it, claiming it lets governments off the hook from having to pay for services. So while there may be nothing inherently charitable about political conservatism, today’s conservatives do outperform liberals on most measures of private giving.(hide)
The article observed that some might be surprised by the discrepancy in the giving habits between conservatives and liberals given the stereotype of the heartlessness of the right. And of course it is common knowledge that religious people are all hypocrites. I wasn’t surprised, however. Many of the people I know are always open and willing to help meet a need; they draw the line at institutionalizing one, however.
To some extent this may be due to believing there’s something beyond yourself that you need to be accountable to. It can be highly motivational if you truly believe that one day you’re going to stand before God and give an account for yourself. (And, as I’ve written here before, if God asks me if I gave to the poor I don’t think he’ll be impressed if I say, “Well, I paid my taxes.”) But as 2 Corinthians says up above, it us up to each of us to choose what to give and that if we give cheerfully He will provide everything we need. It is the evidence of the latter in my life that leads me to give cheerfully, not out of a desire to receive more but out of the confidence that God will give me the means to give (providing seed to the sower as it says in verse 10). In contrast, what is the state of your heart and the measure of your actions if you believe there’s never enough of anything to go around unless it’s taken from another?
Giving is important because it’s what God wants us to do, but taxes are the government deciding who can afford to give, and the repercussions of that affect more than just the wealthy; even to the point of hurting the working poor by stifling the economy. “Free will” (or “free market”) giving, where the individual is responsible to decide how much he or she will give (or not give) is different. It also doesn’t set up stultifying and self-perpetuating bureaucracies that don’t have the incentive to ferret out fraud.
One of the greatest satisfactions of my life has been seeing my daughters grasp this important principle naturally from an early age. They’ve been tithers from the time they first received money and givers for as long as they can remember, and not just from obedience but out of joy. I remember how much they loved to put the money in the Salvation Army’s red buckets everytime we saw one when they were little, and the five-year-old Tiger Lilly spontaneously giving a dollar of her own money toward the 10-year-old Mall Diva’s first missions trip. I’ve observed the thoughtfulness and joy they’ve put into filling shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child each year, and watched them get involved with organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse and Soldier’s Angels, and Operation Starfish where the Mall Diva is helping a young mother develop the life skills she needs to provide for her family. The neatest thing, however, is that they don’t have to have a program or some official ministry to get involved in in order to give; whether it’s time, money, encouragement or, occasionally, blunt advice, they give easily out of their abundance of spirit to their friends and others.
So why do I feel like the one who’s rich?
Filings is an ongoing section of this blog where the posts focus specifically on issues of Christian life. The name comes about because “filings” are the natural by-product of Proverbs 27:17: “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”