Spiritual Disciplines: Charity

 

By Pastor Michael Cofer

It’s weird to me that you hardly ever hear about charity in the context of church.  As a matter of fact, the word “charity” has drifted pretty far away from its place as a Christian virtue in the modern parlance.

On the one hand, people might think of a charity – as in, some non-for-profit organization that is aimed at helping the underprivileged or oppressed.  A charity is something you might give money to, or volunteer with.  It has organizers, it has commercials on television, it has experts.

These organizations are often a very good thing – and make a positive difference in the world.  But someone can heavily support a charity without actually having or experiencing anything like Christian charity.

On the flipside, most people don’t want to be a “charity case.”  They want to earn what they have.  They don’t want pity or the sort of pride-swallowing that goes along with accepting help from some one else.  After all, aren’t we told that hard work and determination are all you need to make it?

But if we can get back to the heart of charity, we’ll find that it isn’t about donating to organizations or helping anonymous people.  It’s personal, and it’s even more about the orientation of our hearts than it is about the movement of our bank accounts.  And as Christians, we have to recognize that we are all charity cases.

Maybe let’s start with that. So, Charity is acting in response to love and compassion.  Before we talk about our practice of charity, let’s look first at God’s.  Each day He feeds and clothes me.  Each day He gives me a home to live in and a world to inhabit.  He has given me my family, my friends, my church.  He daily and richly supplies me with all that I need to support this body and life.

He gives me these things, but not because I’m deserving.  He gives them to me because I need them and because He loves me.  It’s that simple.  He is generous and gracious and is moved by love to show kindness to me.

The goal of spiritual growth is to become more like Christ – to reflect God’s character in our own lives.  And this is what the practice of Charity is meant to do: to teach us to grow in mercy and compassion, in practical love and in generosity, to value people over possessions and even to value others ahead of ourselves.

Some folks make huge donations to charitable organizations to put them in a better tax situation. That’s not an act of charity.  It may do good and it may bring relief to some suffering people – and so I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from donating to worthy causes.  But Christian charity is firstly a disposition of the heart and secondarily the acts that flow from it.

There’s any number of barriers to charity.  Sometimes it’s skepticism or cynicism.  Perhaps we see someone begging, but they seem healthy enough to work and we say to ourselves, “If they’d spend the day looking for a job, they’d be better off.”  Or maybe we think a more judgmental thought than that. “They’ll probably just buy booze with this money.”

Now, it’s a fine thing to be sure that the help you give is actually helping. But if you’re going to do that, it will require a higher investment in this person – it’s not an excuse to do nothing.  In reality, there are a lot of healthy looking people who – because of mental or emotional issues – are almost unhireable. If they interviewed with you, you would pass them over so fast.

Could you imagine if God looked at you and said, “If only you’d stop asking me for help and go take care of yourself!” or “You’ll probably just waste the blessings I could give you…”  If we see the poor among us and feel disgust or indignation, then we have a long way to grow before we have anything resembling God’s charity in our heart.

Sometimes the barrier is feeling like we don’t have enough to be generous.  I remember one time when Alisha and I were leaving the grocery store.  We had grabbed a couple sandwiches and were going to eat on the way to our next stop.  As we were leaving the parking lot there was a man who was in obvious need… but I didn’t have any cash on me.  So, I felt bad for the guy, but I didn’t think there was anything to do for it.

Well, thank God for my wife.  She gave the guy her sandwich, and then she and I shared mine…. And we didn’t go hungry.  I learned in a small way that day that we can usually make do with less than we think, and that frees us up to be generous with others.

And while the practice of charity is often in money or material goods, there is a bigger application.  Can we be charitable with our time?  Can we be charitable with our words?

After all, charity is about being moved by the needs of others to act in love and compassion.  It what’s needed is a sandwich, we can share that.  But if what’s needed is a listening ear or a word of encouragement or a friendly smile, we can share those too.  We don’t define for ourselves what charity we engage in – God defines it for us by putting the needy in our path and invites us to speak and act on His behalf toward them.

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