Why we need to give

July 9, 2012

An edited version of this article appeared in the July 20, 2012 issue of the Catholic Star Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Camden.

Dean Martin echoed a basic truth when he sang, “Everybody loves somebody sometime.” Love is universal. Its reach extends beyond song and art into religion. When asked to identify the first commandment, Jesus answered with the opening verses of the Jewish Shema prayer, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29). St. Paul tells us that love is also the greatest Christian virtue: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Indeed, love is the distinctive quality of Christians: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

It hardly seems necessary to explain why love should be the first commandment, the greatest virtue, and the distinctive quality of Christians. Surely the primacy of love in the human experience is a self-evident truth. It is unsurprising that Christ should raise it above all other human experiences and identify it as the path to salvation. Nevertheless, if we accept the truth of the proposition without reflection, we will miss an important lesson about love.

Jesus identifies love with giving. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Love is not only well-wishing. It also includes action, the “laying down” of life. Jesus did not only teach this; above all he practiced it. His sacrificial death was the culmination of a life of giving. His miracles are lessons in love. He who entered the world to give us abundant life gave life publicly (the paralytic) and privately (the leper), to his own people (the man born blind) and to foreigners (the Samaritan leper), to his friends (Lazarus) and to those who would be his enemies (the high priest’s slave). Jesus saved us through giving.

Although Christian giving is sometimes radical, we’ve all experienced the joy of radical giving. Perhaps you can recall your excitement about presenting an unsolicited gift or a particularly generous one to someone who couldn’t reciprocate in the same way. You were probably eager to witness their joy upon receiving it. Parents experience this when they give to young children. We all experience it when we give to a friend or neighbor having a difficult time, or give to charity, or give to a stranger. It isn’t a matter of giving money only; we also love sharing our talents with others. The plumber is happy to fix his friend’s leaking faucet, the artist is happy to give her painting to a friend. Finally, we love to share our time. Although we may count the hours at work, we love to spend countless hours working on a cause in which we believe.

If you’ve had experiences like these, you probably had a warm feeling about what you did. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just one small part of the experience. The truth is we need to give because we grow by giving. The world would rather have us believe that we grow by getting: the more I have, the more I am. In this view, persons are defined by things. Personal possessions, like homes and cars, count more than personal qualities, like character and virtue. People act mainly to accumulate, until the uniqueness of the person is smothered by mass-manufactured things. This is ultimately unsatisfying because it hinders self-expression. Consumerism tries to make up for this by offering product diversity and customization. Nevertheless, a flashy car or an eccentric cellphone case is a poor means of self-expression. In order to express ourselves, we need to share our uniqueness with others, to create and to give. It’s true that we can express ourselves by producing goods for sale, but few people today are artisans. For the bulk of us in other jobs, giving is our primary means of creativity and hence of personal growth.

Giving also allows us to grow socially. Things will never completely satisfy people; only people can satisfy people. The latest gadget, the most delicious meal, and the most exciting trip are all more enjoyable when they are enjoyed with others. We need relationships and relationships are enriched by giving. It’s true that the business world also creates relationships, but giving is a necessary complement to trading. Trading creates buyers and sellers; giving creates friends. Trading is the basis of the marketplace; giving is the basis of family and community. Trading promises material wealth; giving always delivers spiritual wealth. We create the best society when we trade wisely and give generously.

Giving helps us to understand the true purpose of our possessions. We should own things in order to increase our ability to act. A car extends our range of activity, a computer extends our ability to store and process information, a cell phone extends our ability to communicate. Do our possessions also extend our ability to love? If they are shared with others, they can. We can offer a ride to someone without a car, volunteer our time, and donate our money. A former spiritual director of mine had this message on his answering machine: “Remember that today is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to God.” As a diocesan development director, he understood the practice of stewardship: receive God’s gifts gratefully and, by caring for and sharing them, return them to God with increase.

We sometimes hold back our giving because of fear. If I volunteer my time and donate my money, will I have enough left for me? Am I willing to sacrifice a few minutes of sleep in order to offer a friend a ride to work? Economists say that the market is not a zero-sum game. The prosperity of one person or one nation will benefit others, too. But this is only true in a properly functioning market. When we give, others always receive and we always grow. That’s because we live in communities. When we give, we strengthen the community – and that’s good for everyone who lives in it, including us. As St. Paul says, “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8a).

We all have a need to give – a need to love “somebody sometime.” Because God loved us first, he has given us abundant life. We each possess a unique combination of gifts. Through our baptism, Jesus calls us to join his mission of salvation. Our gifts are tools which can extend our ability to contribute to that mission. When we use these tools, we grow through self-expression and creativity and develop relationships of true and lasting friendship. When we give, we obey the first commandment, we practice the greatest virtue, and we show ourselves as Christians.