Dear Thoughtful Pastor: In this season of giving, which is really an all year affair, it is OK to love and help people, even to save their physical lives, without urging them to become Christians? Is it OK, as a Christian, for me not to mention my own faith as I give of myself and my means? Is it enough and appropriate to let the giving speak for itself? Jesus did this at times, didn’t he? I’m not sure. Please let me know what you think.
First, I want to commend you for your generosity and willingness to help others. Doing so is absolutely basic to the Christian faith. Those who call themselves Christian but live as though there is no larger obligation to the world of the needy are standing on a quicksand-laced foundation.
Second, I think you have asked questions that many others would echo: How do we model Jesus in our giving? Is giving necessarily linked with an invitation into Christian faith? Must we be verbal witnesses as well as material givers? Can people adequately see our faith from our actions?
It’s hard to draw a direct, “this is what you should do every time” answer from the Bible because Jesus’ interactions with others changed depending on the circumstances of the encounters. I decided, therefore, to start with the ideal: the group of sayings found in Matthew 5-7. This section is generally known as the “Sermon on the Mount” mainly because the scene was set on a small mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It’s extremely important because it sets out more clearly than any other scriptures what the “kingdom of heaven” looks like.
There’s one section devoted entirely to generosity toward others, Matthew 6:1-4. “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.”
Jesus makes it clear here: Give, but give in ways that draw absolutely no attention to yourself. The phrase “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” is particularly important. I think what Jesus is saying here works this way, “Don’t worry if you gave something yesterday with your right hand, because if you left hand wants to give to the same cause or person today, it should be free to do so.”
In other words, don’t keep tallies. Just give and do so quietly.
Now, let’s bring this to the specifics of your question: Do we need to tell people that they need to have faith in Jesus when we offer gifts or support? Could it be that such a demand is a part of “tallying up” gifts?
Can we even offer words intended to bring people to faith in Jesus while without bringing attention to yourself? That seems to be the core of these instructions. The rest of this chapter goes on to talk about how to pray without bringing attention to ourselves and how to fast, also without bringing attention to ourselves.
Jesus appears to suggest that silent generosity, as well as hidden prayer and fasting, have far more effectiveness that the kind of generosity with an agenda of specific belief requirements attached.
Let’s dream for a moment what a world of extraordinarily generous but anonymous givers would look like. It’s very possible that many university and church buildings might not be built, since a large percentage are named after wealthy donors. Possibly some of the many charitable foundations that are named after their mega-rich founders may not exist.
But . . . again, assuming extreme generosity, maybe there would far more creative, even more effective giving when people chose to give in a way that does not draw attention to themselves.
Because of my work, I am privileged to know a number of extremely generous givers who would be utterly embarrassed if the extent of their philanthropy were generally known. It seems to me that much genuine goodness flows from them in an infectious manner — their very lack of name recognition seems to inspire more freedom to give. Indeed, their left hands don’t know what their rights hand are doing — and the world is made better because of it.
So yes, give without words. Give freely. Be the blessing. That is the major call upon all of us.