Helping Others and the Meaning of Grace and Love

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I’ve been reading Bill Johnson’s books and I came across this quote:

By nature love does not require anything in return, or it is not love… I have heard teaching on the subject of giving to the poor and needy that emphasizes our stewardship instead of compassion. It basically means that you don’t want to give to someone who will not use what was given properly. My opinion is that there is too much concern about giving something to someone who might misuse what is given. That didn’t stop God. While we do have a responsibility for good management of what God has given us, we are not responsible for what another person does with what we’ve given them. We are responsible to love, and love requires giving. Even if a person misuses the money or gift I gave them, the message of love has been demonstrated. Giving His love away is the goal. (Bill Johnson, Face To Face With God, p. 187-188)

Because the subject of helping the poor has been a big part of my life for some time, I’ve thought a lot about the issues that Bill Johnson wrote about above. Like him, I agree that in focusing on stewardship instead of compassion when addressing the subject of giving, we could miss the essence of what love and grace is about – actions which do not “require anything in return”.

We hear so much about that famous Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

While I think there’s certainly truth and wisdom in it, I also think that pushing the implications of the above to the extreme can actually cause one to miss the essence of what grace and love is.

In 2003, while in Colombia (teaching English and learning Spanish), I was faced with the question of whether to continue to give money to a beggar and her family I met on the streets. Was it wise to continuously give them fish, or should I make sure that my money goes to teaching them how to fish? I pondered the above proverb and I reflected upon the meaning of grace. Below are my reflections taken from here:

“So I was confronted with the question of whether my helping Isabel and giving her family money was a good thing. Or perhaps, it was a good thing, but was it a wise thing? Or was it the wisest response in such a situation? In a way, it’s like when one meets a beggar. Should we give money to him/her? Giving to the beggar is just like giving to Isabel (she is after all begging for money) – in both circumstances, we would be giving a fish to the recipient rather than teaching him/her how to fish.

Should I continue giving to Isabel or somehow make sure that my giving to her would result in her working and thus earning her way to self-sufficiency? If I were to continue giving “fishes” to Isabel, rather than making sure she fishes for herself, would I thus be considered a bad steward of my money? Wouldn’t I be of better use if I were to somehow help her to get a job? Wouldn’t it be more right for her too if she were to earn her wages rather than depend on charity to survive?

Although the reasoning behind the “fish” quote is indeed true and wise, I realized that we could indeed take all this too far. What I mean is that we could start thinking that we should not give to the poor if indeed nothing comes out of it – if there is no long-term results to show for our charity. We could start thinking that we need to make them earn their wages and not rely on us for charity. In a way, we could fall into the spirit of the very famous saying (which many people think is taken from the Bible, but is in actual fact not) that “God helps those who help themselves” and thus think it wrong to help those who do not show they want to put in effort to help themselves. While all this in some sense no doubt true, I realized it is dangerous because this spirit could easily go contrary to the spirit of grace. That is, we could forget what grace means. Grace is unconditional giving. It is not conditional at all. By coming up with criteria to be fulfilled before we start giving, our giving ceases to be unconditional. Whether the criteria is imposed on the recipient or merely guides us as to whom we should be giving doesn’t really matter. As long as we don’t give freely – as long as we are being in any way conditional in our giving – we do not understand what grace really is. After all, Jesus didn’t die for the sins of certain people who fulfilled certain criteria, He died for all. When He loved us, he didn’t love only some but all. And when He called us to love others, He didn’t specify who we are to love – except that we are to love all without exception. When we give to others, we are called to give without expecting anything in return. We aren’t asked to give only to those who would use our money wisely. Rather, the only criteria, if any, which needs to be fulfilled before we give, is that those given ought to have needed it.

I came to this conclusion after much struggle within me. Initially, I had told myself that I should be giving for a good purpose. And a good purpose would be if my giving would help Isabel to get a job and thus support herself. There would thus be a long-term effect. In a sense, I would be leaving a little “legacy” of my giving. I would be proud in future to let others know that I gave to help this person who now has a job and is self-supportive. But I realized that this kind of thinking could go very much against the spirit of grace. I wanted to get something out of it – to get the satisfaction of having made a big difference to Isabel’s life. In a sense, my giving was conditional upon the fact that it would lead to something big. But I realized grace doesn’t make such conditions. Jesus loved us all and died for us all even if some would never have accepted His love. Or even if some would have accepted His love but still fail over and over again. That’s grace!

I’m not saying that using our money wisely is not something we ought to do. Obviously we should do that. The parable of the talents encourages us to be responsible for the use of our money. We should use it in such a way that it blesses others and that there are results to show. If we were to go by the parable of the talents alone, then the “fish” quote would indeed be wise and right and ought to be followed. Then we should think about using our money as best as we can and not just give unconditionally, but making sure that results follow. Indeed, the parable of the talents reminds us that we should not be lazy and thus when we give money to people, we need to make sure they are not just lazy and “consume” our gifts but they will invest wisely with it – preferably to learn how to fish, not just to buy fishes! The parable of the talents has a sort of “meritorious” feel to it.

I acknowledge that God does want us to be responsible with the way we use money. We need to put it to good use. But on the other hand, there’s the notion of grace. And grace has absolutely no “meritorious” feel at all! God is a God of grace. His love for us is more of reckless abandon than a calculative sort. The parable of the talents has to be balanced with the understanding of what grace is all about. When we think about grace, we banish all notions of merits or conditions. After all, in the bible there are hints of both capitalism (in the parable of the talents and such) and communism/communalism (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32-35, 2 Corinthians 8-9). And let us not forget that the idea most prominent and preeminent in the bible is that of love and grace.

My point in all of this is that I realized how easily it is for one to forget the idea of grace. And in terms of giving and development, I believe remembering about grace should cause us not to think so much about how our giving produces good long term results, but should instead remind us that even if our giving were to produce nothing in the long term, but were only to be a short term and one-time expression of grace and love, grace would compel us to do it anyway.”

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  1. I think that giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish need not be mutually exclusive.

    Learning how to fish takes time, and while this fishing skill is being mastered, it is needful to continue to give the man a fish.

    Also, giving fish and teaching how to fish need not be done by the same person. One can give fish while another teaches how to fish. Therefore, if you are led to give a fish, just give; someone else may be led to teach how to fish.

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