The Problem of Giving

“It is better to give than to receive.”

That is what has become of Acts 20:35, which (in the NRSV) reads as, “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

From those words, we have crafted a handy axiom.  “It is better to give than receive.”

I exist in a place with a lot of giving.  People give out clothes.  People give out food.  People give out furniture.  People are willing to give away a lot of things.  To be honest, much of it has been well-used, and some of it is obviously just junk that’s been passed off on us.  There are – however – many moments where good, brand-new things arrive, and the people in our neighborhood are most excited about those things.

Yet, in the midst of this endless giving, I’ve noticed something strange.  I’ve heard about it and read it and witnessed it in the past, but now, more so than ever before, I’m absolutely sure of it:  giving does not truly provide a better life in and of itself nor does it create community or love between persons.  Giving does not necessarily end up leaving people as feeling “blessed.”  In fact, some of the most giving people that I know appear bitter.  I wonder if, and I am now betting that, it is giving that has created this feeling of bitterness.

Giving alone is not enough.  Giving without faith, without purpose, without direction, does not do much.  Of course, giving feels preferable to hoarding, and of course, to know that someone has socks if they otherwise would not have them is important.  But giving, without anything alongside of it or behind it or ahead of it, simply ends up as a fact:  Jack has socks now.  It is great that Jack has socks, but couldn’t anything have come with the socks?  A relationship?  A purpose?  A reason?  A message?  Now, I’m not proposing that in order for Jack to get socks that we must cram some dogmatics down his throat, having him nod assent as our words float high above his head – but shouldn’t we hope that Jack gets something else out of the encounter?  And actually, despite the axiom that we have crafted out of Acts 20:35, shouldn’t we too find that God has given us something out of the encounter?

Giving alone is just not enough anymore.  I believe that it has created tired people, people who are tired of just doling out scraps to anonymous people and people who are tired of walking through a line of anonymous faces that offer them inert things rather than something dynamic and alive.

Perhaps, if giving alone can make us bitter or tired, we should admit that the best giver, the real giver, is a job best done – ultimately – by God.  Perhaps, in that instance, we should receive something new from that same God.

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