Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Generosity Redefined - Part 2 "Charitable Consumerism"

Jesus said, "It is more blessed to give than receive", but why not do both at the same time?

I was attending a fundraising dinner for a wonderful orphanage, when the director unexpectedly asked me if I would close the evening in prayer. I immediately felt prompted by the Lord to give a challenge before I gave the benediction. Prior to the meal, the attendees took part in a "silent auction". If you're not familiar with these, it's a room full of donated items and services that the attendees have an opportunity to bid on. Generally, you walk around looking for something you might want, writing down a bid slightly higher than the last one on a piece of paper. Some of the most popular items are gift certificates to restaurants and rounds of golf. Listed with each item is the retail value, but of course you're hoping to get it for less than that. I mean, what's wrong with getting a good deal and helping orphans at the same time, right? As I walked up to the podium, David's words from 1 Chronicles 21:24 came to mind. "But King David replied, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, or sacrifice an offering that costs me nothing.” David insisted that his sacrifice to the Lord be exactly that, a sacrifice. He refused to even allow someone to give it to him at a discount. Before I prayed, I challenged everyone to pay AT LEAST full price for their auction items, regardless of what they won them for. "I think we can all agree that this night is about helping orphans the most we can, not about getting a good deal on dinner or golf." After the event was over I was disheartened to hear that many of the people paying for their auction items seemed annoyed as they wrote out their checks for the full amount. The response I saw that evening provides a good picture of what the idea of charity has become in our country. 

The Jewish Talmud recognizes 8 levels of charity or Tzedakah
  1. Giving begrudgingly 
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
If this list were written today, I'm pretty sure that somewhere near the first level would be, "Giving to get something in return."

Virtually everywhere you go, whether it's TOMS shoes, the (Red) campaign, or Starbucks, "charitable consumerism" has permeated the marketplace. Hipster philosopher Slavoj Žižek was one of the first to write about this movement, which he defines as, "the deliberate ‘charitable’ decision made when buying a certain product, label or service due to the ethical implication made during such purchase." Perhaps Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, makes the sales pitch best when he says, "It's not just what you're buying, but what you're buying into." This added incentive seems to bring a certain sense of redemption to our consumeristic desires. Not only do we get to purchase something trendy, we're also helping people at the same time, and if that's not enough, when others see us wearing/using the product they are immediately aware of our benevolence and social consciousness. WIN! WIN! WIN! But is it really? At best, the per dollar impact is minimal. When you pay $2 for a bottle of Starbucks "socially responsible" Ethos Water, what you're "buying into" is a whopping .05 cent contribution toward humanitarian programs. As is most often the case, the emotional benefit to the consumer far exceeds the assistance given to the needy. At worst, as with TOMS shoes, there can actually be a negative impact. "What? Giving can have a negative impact?" Absolutely, and I'll be addressing that in Part 3. But most importantly, for followers of Jesus Christ, what I want to point out is that "charitable consumerism" is not at all the kind of sacrifice that the gospel compels us to.

Romans 12:1 tells us that the only reasonable response to Christ's ultimate sacrifice on the cross is to wholly offer ourselves for His purposes, with nothing held back or expected in return. Shouldn't our charitable giving reflect this as well? You see, as believers, our giving is not just meant to help people, it's meant to bring God glory and be a tangible picture of the gospel we proclaim.
"This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"  2 Corinthians 9:12-15
If salvation by grace through faith in Christ is God's free gift to us, the ultimate charity, how then should we give?
Now I'm not saying to never buy products that have a charitable connection. There are some products that actually provide work, finances and dignity for people who directly benefit from your purchase. What I am saying is twofold: 1) Don't ever assume that your purchase is making a significant impact. Do your research. If you really believe in the cause, give and give generously. and 2) Check your heart in these matters. Is giving a sacrificial, strategic discipline for you, or do you just do it whenever something catches your eye and is trendy or mutually beneficial? The next time you want to contribute toward cause offering you a shirt, or coffee or anything in return, why not consider politely telling them to keep the product? In doing so, you'll multiply the value of your donation while providing a picture of the free gift of the gospel. After all, isn't that what it's all about?

Read more from Slavoj Žižek here:
Buying Charity


  1. Pastor John,

    Excellent series of posts, can't wait to read the 3rd installment. Hoping God leads you to a pulpit soon, if you He hasn't already there. Love how through your obedience, He uses you to accomplish Hebrews 4:12-13.

    For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

  2. Thanks for your encouragement! I'm currently preaching at Recovery Church at Grace Fellowship in West Palm once a month. To find out when I'll be there next, follow me or twitter: @johnpoitevent or @RecoveryChurch1

  3. Hi John! Giving is just the thing the Lord has put on my heart lately, so your posts are timely. You have a beautiful gift for shining the light on our blindspots, prompting prayerful reflection, and encouraging people to live up to the light they've been given. Thanks for your willingness to step out of the comfort zone and take others with you! Thank you also for sharing, and for being a part of God's transformation in my life.

    May the Lord continue to bless you and your ministry!

    Debbie Carter
    (living in DC and doing GREAT, btw!!)