The Importance of Charity in the Bible: Metaphysics and Rewards

At the recommendation of a friend who is deeply involved in poverty relief, earlier this year I read Gary Anderson’s, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. The book’s development of the Bible’s teachings on poverty relief is insightful and convicting. I took a few college students through the material, so I wanted to turn my notes into a short series for this blog. Not everything in the book was convincing, but enough was to make the book’s material worth revisiting in these articles.

Photo Credit: Karl-Heinz Kasper Flickr via Compfight cc

Ignoring Scripture

Gary Anderson’s central insights challenge how many Christians view helping the poor. Anderson doesn’t cover sociology, economics, or political theory; his focus is biblical teachings. The richness of the biblical view, though, has been ignored by many Christians. It is ignored, in part, because we are often not attentive to certain phrases. Or, when we pay attention to them, we reduce them to merely figurative language because of our fears of works righteousness. For example, in the famous story of the rich ruler in Mark 10, Jesus tells him:

“One thing you lack,” he said. “God, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v. 21 NIV)

I’ve taught on this passage a half-dozen times. When I’ve paid attendion to the phrase, “treasure in heaven,” I’ve often reduced it to salvation. But I’ve ignored a connection that the text brings out clearly: being charitable to the poor is what gives the man treasure in heaven. I skipped over the connection between charity and treasures in heaven. And the connection shows up elsewhere in the Bible. Our concerns over “works righteousness” in evangelical Christianity makes us nervous to connect a person’s works with rewards in heaven. But however you work this into your view of justification, you at least have to deal with Jesus’s connection between charity to the poor and treasure in heaven.

The Purpose of the Book

Anderson writes about the purpose of his book:

“In this book I will examine in far greater depth the origins of almsgiving as a highly privileged religious act within the nascent religions of Judaism and Christianity.” (p. 2)

Anderson doesn’t simply argue that Christians should give to the poor. Every Christian knows that. But he argues in the book that charitable acts have a “special status.” They aren’t just other acts of righteousness, but should have a place of honor in our lives. Would an observer of your life believe that helping the poor is an important part of your life? Would your life undoubtably show that charity is a “highly privileged” activity within your own life?

One value of Anderson’s book is the healthy pressure it can put on a Christian or a church. As we look at biblical passages that display the value of charity, ask yourself if the this value is reflected in your life and in your church?

The Metaphysics of Helping the Poor

Throughout the book, Gary Anderson returns often to the claim that charity is a declaration about the nature of God and the nature of the world he made. Most Christians I know don’t think about charity this way. We see it as a religious duty, obedience to God’s commands, or even just an expression of Christian love. Anderson would not deny any of those. But he thinks charity is much more than that. He writes:

“What concerns me is what the writers of this period thought almsgiving told us about the identity of God and the peoples who claimed to worship him. Though this is clearly the dominant interest of our textual sources as well—ancient Christians and Jews wrote so extensively about almsgiving because they thought the practice said something crucial about the character of God and the world he created and sustains–it has been surprisingly understudied.” (p. 2)

Or, as Anderson puts it most succintly:

“Charity, in short, is not just a good deed but a declaration of belief about the world and the God who created it.” (p. 4)

So what does Anderson mean? Through this article and my next two, I hope you’ll see the full explanation of his claim. But most of you have enough knowledge of Christianity to understand his central point. If you give money away, even when it is a threat to your financial security, out of the trust that God has promised to reward you, then you displaying your belief that:

  1. A God exists who will reward you for your generosity; and
  2. This world is set up to ultimately benefit the generous not the stingy.

And Anderson thinks that your use of wealth and charity are such displays.

An Interesting Implication

I understand that you need to see the Bible verses and the arguments to support this. But momentarily accept that Anderson is correct. If our generosity towards the poor is a statement about God and the type of world He created, what is your generosity displaying about God? What is your church’s generosity saying about God?

Many of us have to admit, I think, that our (lack of) generosity declares loudly that we don’t really believe that a god exists who will reward our generosity. Anderson says this in a challenging way:

“Compared with what the financial analyst can promise, imitating the generosity of God would seem to be fraught with far greater risk. Lending to God in this fashion might better be conceived of as a means for the religious believer to enact what he professes, putting his money where his mouth is.” (p. 5)

I’ve always been amazed with the examples of faith in Hebrews 11. All the people mentioned lived such lives that, if God didn’t exist, their lives would be foolish. Is our charity at such a level that if the Christian God doesn’t exist, then our handling of money would be foolish? Does your faith lead you to acts of charity that nonbelievers would mock? If a greater reward did not come, would your generosity look financially foolish?

The Reward of Charity

But what reward do the scriptures promise for charity? To see the reward that we receive from charity, we need to look at two verses that Anderson expounds.

Proverbs 10:2

Anderson’s argument from Proverbs 10:2 loses some of its force because he uses his own translation of the verses. In Proverbs 10:2 in the NIV says,

Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value, but righteousness delivers from death.

Anderson claims that in various periods in the biblical times, almsgiving was such an important and honored religious practice that the word “righteousness” was often used to refer specifically to almsgiving.

So Anderson argues that in Proverbs 10:2 “righteousness” is really reference to almsgiving. So Anderson translates Proverbs 10:2 in this way:

“The treasuries of wickedness provide no benefit, but almsgiving delivers from death” (Prov 10:2).” (p. 3)

Anderson calls this the most important proverb for “our purposes” (p. 3). If Anderson’s translation is accurate, then think about what this proverb teaches. If you sense an implied parallel between “treasuries of wickness” and “almsgiving,” you get a sense from this verse that can be captured in the following paraphrase:

“Storing up wickedness provides no benefit, but storing up almsgiving delivers from death.”

Almsgiving somehow protects from death. If we understand this to be a spiritual death, then we get the idea that almsgiving somehow saves from spiritual death. We will return to this notion in a later post in this series.

Matthew 25:31-46

To get a better of a theology of charity, Anderson thinks we should turn to Matthew 25:31-46, of which he writes:

“By far the most important text for the early church is found in Matthew 25.”

Go read Matthew 25:31-46 if you are not familiar with it. It is part of an extended message that Jesus gave his disciples towards the end of Matthew. In it, he envisions the Day of Judgment. The Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats. Jesus describes the sheep–the righteous–as those who clothed, visited, and fed him when he was in need. The goats–the unrighteous–are those who neglected Jesus when he was in need.

The goats, understandably, say to Jesus (mirroring a question the righteous had already asked about themselves):

‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ (v. 44b)

And Jesus’s response was (again, mirroring his response in his exchange with the righteous):

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (v. 45)

Jesus ends this section with this haunting phrase:

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v. 46)

So what does this mean for almsgiving? What are the implications for charity? Helping the poor is, somehow, an encounter with the Son of God, a divine encounter. Additionally, Jesus states a connection between charity and salvation and the lack of charity and damnation. As Anderson writes:

“first, charity to poor has the power to deliver one from eternal damnation…, and second, charity acquires such power because one meets Christ through this concrete action of showing mercy. For early Christians this was not just a metaphor; the church proclaimed that one actually encountered the presence of God in the poor.” (p. 6)

What would happen if we really believed that we were meeting and serving God in serving the poor? What would happen if we really believed there was a strong connection between charity and salvation?

From what we have seen so far, I think we can see why Anderson says this:

“The poor become a necessary and indeed nonnegotiable point of access to the Kingdom of God.” (p. 3)

What does it mean for the poor to become a “nonnegotiable point of access to the Kingdom of God”? It means what a straightforward reading of Matthew 25 says. If we ignore the needs of the poor, we do not have access to the Kingdom of God. If, in compassion, we meet the needs of the poor, we have access to the Kingdom of God (along with an encounter, in some sense, with Jesus).

The Effects of the Reformation

One of the more provocative claims early in Anderson’s book is that the Protestant Reformation caused Christians to drop a richer understanding of charity. Why? Remember that a charitable act towards the poor is supposed to (i) be an encounter with God, and (ii) deliver one from (spiritual) death.

But the Reformation rejected both of these aspects because there was a concern that it was too sacramental and too close to works-righteousness. Anderson writes:

“The distinctively sacramental sense of Matthew 25 was uniformly rejected.” (p. 8)

Later on the same page, he writes:

“The charitable deed lost, in the sixteenth century, its central role making God present to the believer and became simply a sign of the underlying personal faith of the believer.” (p. 8)

We Protestants need to wrestle with what Anderson says here. We often see charity (and many other good deeds) as mere signs that we have “saving faith” — the type of faith necessary for salvation.

But is this the correct way to for us to see charity? Should charity have a privileged place in our Christian lives? Is charity for the poor more than just a sign of our faith, but an act in which we encounter God?

These are the types of questions we need to think about as we work through Anderson’s material in the next two articles.

How to Deal With Stress and Anxiety

worry
Photo Credit: Neil. Moralee Flickr via Compfight cc

Americans are stressed. We are a wealthy nation. We have the world’s best military and aren’t worry about invasions. We might have a broken healthcare system, but Americans receive better healthcare than most others in our world. Yet we have high stress levels.

In fact, this does not seem to be improving with millenials. I work with 18-25 year olds, and most of them are stressed. According to the American Psychological Association, millenials are more stressed than other generations. Since I work with millenials, I’ve had many opportunities to help people deal with their stress. In this article, I want to share my main advice.

Before I give my advice, here are some caveats. I typically talk to people who are stressed about interviews, grades, or their relationships (I work with college students, after all). So this advice would work best for similar kinds of stress. And I’m not a psychologist. I did manage to get an ‘A’ in Introduction to Psychology without going to more than two lectures. But that was because the class was easy, not because I have prowess in psychology. So approach my advice with some healthy skepticism. If it clicks with you and manages to work, then good. If not, forget you’ve ever read this.

Where I Developed My Advice

I developed this advice after noticing a two things:

First, I heard countless people try to help others with their stress. I saw the common advice and saw how it worked — or, more accurately, how it didn’t work.

Second, for years I have seen someone close to me successfully deal with immensely stressful situations. I have learned from them how they deal with stress.

So let me begin by telling you the normal advice for how to deal with stress and why it doesn’t work.

The Typical Way to Deal with Stress

Imagine a college student named John. John has graduated college and is looking for a job. He also has managed to get a series of job interviews. He’s worked hard at his degree and is excited about starting his career. But he is nervous that he won’t get a job, especially after his series of interviews. John’s self-doubt is at an all-time high. He isn’t sure he is skilled enough or experienced enough to get a job.

So how do most of John’s friends help him with his stress? They say, “Don’t worry, John! You’ll certainly get a job.”

I understand why most people respond this way. The obvious way to help a friend anxious that he won’t get a job is to assure him that he will get a job. But have you seen what this does to worried people like John, particularly those with lower levels of self-confidence? Their friends’ insistence that they will get a job raises the stakes. Now if they do not get a job, it makes them look even more incompetant.

Think this through with another example. Imagine a person nervous about failing a test. If she doubts that she will pass, assuring her that she’ll pass increases her anxiety. If she fails the test now, she’ll prove herself to be dumber than her friends think.

So the way that people normally try to assuage other’s stress does not work. Or, at least, it does not work in most situations.

How to Deal With Stress

So how can you deal with stress differently? Here is how I advise people to handle their stress. Instead of assuring them that they will succeed, I help them see that the failure they fear is not that frightening. I try to make them comfortable with failure. I don’t want to increase the stakes. I want to lower them.

I learned this from someone who, out of everyone I know, handles stress better than others. This guy’s life has chaos and many potential stressors, but he hardly ever seems stressed. Over the years, I have learned that he normally just lowers the stakes. He convinces himself that failure won’t be that bad. He becomes comfortable with outcomes others would be worrying about.

Take the earlier hypothetical case of John. If I were talking with John, I would make not getting a job from these interviews sound better than John currently envisions. I might stress how little money one initially needs after graduating. Or how a few months without a 9-5 would give him flexibility he would never again have in his life. I would also tell him about my friends who didn’t get jobs on their first round of interviews but ended up in great jobs. As for the student worried about a passing a test, I would tell her that the grade is not as important as she thinks. It usually is not.

I think there are good reasons to minimize one’s fear of failure. First, we tend to overestimate the unhappiness we will feel when something doesn’t go our way. Failure is not typically as traumatic as we think. Second, for those of us with religious beliefs, God still works and blesses our lives, even if we fail at a goal or task. So helping someone get more comfortable with failure can help to reduce that person’s stress levels.

Doesn’t This Encourage Faliure?

You might think I’m encouraging failure by helping stressed-out people become more comfortable with failure. But I’m not. I think this advice actually does the opposite. Stressed-out and worried people are more likely to do poorly on an interview or a test. Anxiety tpyically interferes with good performance. So, oddly, if I can make a person okay with failure, then I can increase his chances of actually succeeding. His stress is no longer holding him back.

So the Next Time…

So the next time you feel stressed about a situation, don’t try to convince yourself that the situation will turn out how you want it. Instead, work hard to convince yourself that everything will be okay even if the situation doesn’t turn out the way you want. I think you’ll find your stress levels decreasing as you come to accept that failure won’t be so bad. And, paradoxically, you will be more likely to succeed.

How a Strict View of the Clarity of Scripture Leads to Christian Division

I grew up in churches which stem from the American Restoration Movement. In our history, we had great concern for the way churches were divided. But many within this movement thought that the centuries of creeds and disputes and theological interpretation were, despite good intentions, accretions that kept us from seeing clear teachings of the Bible. We thought that the way toward doctrinal unity was pushing past the muddled history of creeds and doctrinal disputes and getting to the clarity of the Bible. This can sound condescending, as if we could look at the denominational leaders, tell them they simply needed to read the Bible alone, and these leaders would finally understand Christian truths. It could sound like a couch potato telling their favorite but struggling NBA team that they just need to get back to fundamentals. (Don’t the professional athletes know the fundamentals?) But this was no naive ecumenicalism, which thought that one could brush the disputed doctrines and practices under the rug and pretend like all the churches were united. We thought that true unity would be through an open-minded, fresh reading of the Bible.

But, somehow, this commitment to the Bible led to our group becoming one of the most divided and divisive Christian groups. How did that happen?

Though this issue is complex and involves issues like anti-intellectualism, our Biblical hermeneutics, and social divisions, there is one way of thinking that contributed to this.

The problem was our strong commitment to the Bible’s meaning being very clear.

This might make you uncomfortable. The clarity of the Bible (or, to use the technical terminology, the perspicuity of Scripture) is an important assumption of evangelicalism. Everyone can understand the Bible, we often say. As one preacher told me in the midst of a heated discussion, he thought that even a fairly uneducated man who spends his day riding a tractor on his farm can understand the Bible if he just reads it “without the opinions of men.” He didn’t need any knowledge of biblical scholarship or Greek.

Think about what this teaching means for Christian unity amidst Christian disagreement. If the Bible’s message were difficult to understand on that point, we would just chalk it up to a disagreement on a difficult, complicated, and somewhat confusing topic. We would even try to discuss and dialogue more so that we could collectively come to understand these difficult to understand doctrines. If the Bible’s teachings are clear, though, than you only have two real options for those who disagree with you on any topic: either they are stupid, or they are evil.

Let me explain: if the Bible’s teachings on any subject are simply clear to any normal person who reads and studies the Bible, then what does that say about the person who doesn’t understand it? It says they might be too stupid to understand the Biblical teachings. If the average person can understand the Bible’s teachings on a particular doctrine, then someone who cannot understand the same passage is ignorant. They are simply incapable at thinking at a high enough level to understand this Biblical teaching.

But what if the person isn’t stupid or uninformed? What if you know they have read the right passages and have access to enough resources to be able to understand the passage? What if you know they are intelligent? You would then have someone who looks at the appropriate Scriptures, can understand the passage properly if they so choose, but who is still mistaken about the Bible doctrine in question. The only serious option left is that the person is willfully misunderstanding the Bible and choosing to believe something false about God or some other topic.

Notice, then, what happens. When you think that a certain teaching of the Bible is clear, then you are forced to categorize someone who disagrees with you on that topic as either evil or stupid. That’s dangerous. And destructive. You cannot have unity with others if you think your disagreements with them are due to their stupidity or their sinfulness.

This is one reason that my Christian tradition became so divided. When churches fall into the mindset that everything they teach –– or at least everything they hold near and dear –– is plainly taught in Scriptures, they have already laid the foundation for sectarianism and disunity. There is no room for listening to those with whom we disagree and working toward a shared belief. There is only room for teaching and correcting those with whom we disagree.

Accepting the Bible Isn’t Clear

What if we just accepted that the Bible is not very clear? What if we just accepted that there are some teachings in the Bible that are difficult? That people rightly divide over them, because the evidence (even if it actually tilts in one direction) is within a reasonable, faithful person’s margin of error?

This requires us to be humble. This requires us to go to discussions to learn and not only to teach. But it will keep us from insulting other Christians and dividing from them.

Let me place a caveat here: I am not saying that every sentence of the Bible is opaque, hard to understand and apply. Many, maybe even most, parts of the Bible are clear. But there’s quite a distance between everything in the bible is crystal clear and some parts are not clear.

Some Important Caveats

First, the illumination of the Holy Spirit has to be accounted for. The Holy Spirit helps guide God’s people towards the truth. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t teach us everything little detail. I used to misunderstand that teaching. I remember once hearing someone say that the Holy Spirit guided Christians into truth. I pointed out that this person disagreed on some doctrines with one of his close friends. “Which one of you,” I asked, “isn’t listening to the Holy Spirit?” But that is not how the church has historically conceived of it. We read the Bible and discuss theology. We alter our views when we need to do so. And the church has disagreements. But the Holy Spirit is working within the church (usually in a way beyond our awareness of it) guide us into the truth. Paul said Philippians 3:15, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” Paul taught that God was working to make the Philippians Christians aware of the truth. But he also taught that was consistent with the Christians not being fully taught now.

Second, a teaching doesn’t have to be clear for its denial to be considered a heresy. For centuries, Christians have been discerning what the Holy Spirit is teaching us. With some issues, Christian tradition has seen in God’s revelation a certain truth that is so important that its denial is heresy. I have often been tempted toward saying that these doctrines — the ones whose denial is considered a heresy — should be clearly taught in the Bible. I don’t currently hold this position. Instead, I think something is a heresy when it is a denial of a crucial Christian truth, not necessarily a clear Christian truth. Many of the Trinitarian and Christological heresies are not clearly wrong; but they get something critically wrong.

And So…

And so, we have to be more exacting when we discuss the clarity (or perspicuity) of the bible. Can God’s people understand it well enough — is it clear enough? — for them to honor God with their lives? Yes. Is it clear enough for the average person to read and be encouraged by it? Yes. But is it clear enough that anyone who disagrees on any Christian teaching is thereby stupid or evil? No!

We must walk the narrow path between believing the bible is too opaque for the average person and thinking that anyone who disagrees with me is evil or stupid. That’s a tough path to walk in practice, with many questionable cases and much wisdom and grace needed. But narrow is the way.