It is a popular and true saying that “you cannot give what you do not have”. This has led many people to seek first to acquire, so that they will be best placed to give…if they feel so inclined. The temptation though is to believe that there is a point of having ‘enough’ when you can now begin to give and not lack, and to keep acquiring, and not sharing, until you have reached that deceptively unattainable target called ‘enough’. This commonly held attitude and approach can be regarded as ‘vanity’, because while it promises so much potential, the person planning to give is usually filled with empty intent, with no real propensity to give.
There is the opposite faith view that “givers never lack”, which is a view I and many believers hold by faith, in God’s goodness and provision for those who decide to do good, even when they do not appear to have the means. This is a view that leads one to practice ‘charity’, even though they may be in need themselves, because they trust that God would provide all their needs. There are many testimonies of those who have lived this way and experienced the supernatural provision of God, and they give validity to this popular Christian saying. However, there are still many others, who have practiced giving by faith, and found themselves constantly wanting…to the point that they had to stop and attend to their own needs.
The truth is that you are of no use to anyone dead. You would be a burden to others sick (whether mentally or physically). And those in need are rarely in a position to bless others. It remains that you have to be alive and well and opportune to give, before you are able to give. Many of us are alive and well and opportune to give, and still neglect to do so for fear that we will become less opportune and less comfortable in our own lives. The faith view of givers never lacking is for us to recognize what we already have – being our God-given lives, abilities, health and benefits, and to begin to give, because these things we have, we received as gifts…and through these gifts, we are able to acquire more blessings…and thus give more.
Though it can be easy to move from charity to vanity, it is hard to move from vanity to charity. In this sense, a charitable person is like a moving object with potential. But as a moving object, obstructions, restriction, friction can lead such to slow down and even come to a complete stop (with sufficient and persistent resistance). Being in a place of vanity, on the other hand, is like being an idle person that grows fat from accumulating much, but never losing any of the weight… It is much harder to take a single step and begin to move and exercise, than to stay as you are, getting fatter and fatter. Vanity is a lifestyle no one should be comfortable in, whereas, charity bears the risk of burn out, discouragement and disillusionment from exerting much energy, meeting constant resistance and apparently accomplishing little.
Every marathon runner knows the importance of looking after oneself during the race. If you want to make it to the end, you need to have water, primarily, and your vision of your destination in mind. There needs to be some personal gain to see you through the constant pain of running without resting, otherwise, you may just give up. The vision of your destination, of your future glory is your personal gain that motivates you from start to finish. It is actually a type of vanity, because it is selfish. Even the Christian example of running the race of life to win the crown of righteousness, and eternal life appeals to this same innate selfishness. Because you want to live forever, because you want to receive honour, because you want to be among the victors, you will keep going, against the cries of your flesh for now, knowing that better, glorious days are ahead.
So, there is a thin line between charity and vanity. It is so thin that it is easily crossed by those who are charitable. The need to look after oneself in order to continue to give to others is so critical to survival and continuance of a charitable vocation, that it cannot be ignored. And when you stop for that break, it can be hard to pick up the pace again. Your body remembers what a struggle it was to keep running, and it doesn’t want to continue. It encourages you to delay a little longer. Have some more “me time”, live a little…acquire a little more, then you can go back with full resolve and passion. But as you delay in this ‘break’, you are in the place of vanity which, though essential for survival, is hard to overcome.
You see, vanity can also be likened to a deceptive pit (like sinking sand) that accumulates stuff, getting filled but never full. Vanity will never tell you “it is enough”. Vanity wants more and more and more. Vanity doesn’t like to give, and if it does at all, it’s only a well-calculated risk that ensures that the interest in that giving is substantial enough to warrant or necessitate the giving. That is why some very vain people can actually appear to be quite generous. You will see that it happens when it suits them. They are still the final beneficiary of their charity. This attitude is completely opposite to true charity, but we have already seen that even true charity, has as its vision, vanity! You might disagree, but God, who is Love, does and wants all things done to His glory.
So, how can we be charitable, and avoid the pitfalls of vanity? How can we be wise givers, who realise that you can’t give what you don’t have, but also live by faith in the knowledge that givers never lack? Must it be either or? Is there a safe in-between? Can you be a giver, with occasional vacations in vanity? Or can you revel in vanity, and practice occasional charity? Can we truly say that one is absolutely right and one is absolutely wrong, seeing as their separation is so delicate?
As a sterling example, let’s consider capitalism. Vanity is the essence of capitalism! It is a system that runs on selfishness, where with self-gratification and promotion as both the goal and lifestyle, you are a competitor for the limited wealth of the world. The system is so successful because the competition has resulted in men surpassing each other’s expectations, and inventing newer and grander things, that is impacting the lives of every citizen in this world. Yet, the rich are getting richer, and the poor….well, they are still there and growing in number too! Is capitalism good or bad?
The communist would argue that capitalism is evil. But communism or socialism, which is a system built on humanism and charity failed woefully, for the lack of a motivation for those who worked. Why? The vision (what we identified in the race as a selfish motivation to excel above others) was missing. The core focus was the whole, and not oneself, and so people took on the attitude of complacency and entitlement, and many fed their lazy and selfish inclinations. They did nothing, but still expected to receive, discouraging those who would have worked harder. If you produce nothing, what can you expect to eat…nothing? Hence, the inevitable failure of communism.
As a Christian, a follower of Jesus who advocated for charity like no other, I believe that charity is the greatest good one can do in this world. I believe that the spirit of charity is lacking in our world. More people are being vain, than charitable. Some even say that “selfish people live longer”, so it’s now cool to be selfish. However, personal gain is only good as a motivator (the vision in the race – making the world better for all, makes it better for you), and not as a lifestyle. We cannot perpetually feed self, because we become like the fat, unfit person that is no longer able to contribute anything positive to others, and is ‘dead’ to the world in works. And we also cannot perpetually neglect ourselves…though we are commanded to deny ourselves (against our natural impulse to live selfishly), we are also expected to love ourselves, with the same measure we are to love our neighbours… Self-neglect can even be vanity, a pride of sorts…a sickness even (like the person fixated on losing weight that develops an eating disorder).
A doctor can only practice his trade if he is well! A teacher can only teach if she is educated. A firefighter can only fight if he or she is fit and strong… So we are back to square one in our chicken and egg dilemma that is vanity and charity.
I, myself, I’m exhausted! I’m exhausted about thinking only one way on this issue. I think I have the mentality of a socialist, and do not have much capitalist fight in me to succeed in this competitive society. I don’t want to be greedy so much, that I am complacent with money, rather than being prudent. Because I believe givers never lack, I give and I give, but I’m noticing a lack of replenishing from the magical well that I’ve been giving from. Charity used to be infectious. People are usually moved to give to good causes, and lend a helping hand when they see how much someone is working to help others…but it seems everyone is looking out for ‘number one’ these days. And now, I have to stop and consider me too. How desperate do I have to become before God does a miracle, and shows me that He is the owner of the cattle on a thousand hills???
But we are all different. Some people are pools, some are streams, some are rivers and some are waterfalls. Some will never have the inclination towards charity, and some will not stop until they have bled themselves dry of all they have. But I’ve never seen anyone die from giving too much. At least, not when the giving was done in faith and obedience to God.
The way I see it, the best way to live is to be a channel where blessings pass, and not a pit that swallows up, but gives out nothing. When we are channels, blessings will always pass through us… We will enjoy them and be nourished, like a stream of clean life-sustaining water, and as we pass the blessings on to others who need them, we will continually be replenished by the Giver of Life. But if we hoard and do not pass on blessings, we become pools of stagnant water that do not sustain life, but rather stink. I would rather be a giver, because I believe, as my Lord and Saviour taught me, that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Wouldn’t you rather be one too?
If you’re feeling charitable after reading this post, I invite you to give to my charity, Fair Life Africa Foundation, via our GlobalGiving Project page. Thank you!
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