The theology of giving

"The theology of giving" Continued...

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

WORLD: Our natural worry is that if we give what we have, we ourselves may go without later. You counter that by teaching, "Those who pass gifts on receive more abundantly from the source of all gifts"-from God. What are the advantages but also the dangers of thinking of giving as a triangular exchange rather than simply person-to-person?

VOLF: You mean triangular exchange with God as the third party, right? The advantages are immense. Take God out of the picture and it's hard to know how to justify and how to practice genuine giving. We either simply seek to maximize our own benefits, or by giving are doomed to lose-even lose ourselves when we give radically. With God in the picture, our genuine giving and our benefiting coincide. Then, as Kierkegaard puts it in his great book, Works of Love, those who love receive what they give, from God and eventually from others, too.

Are there dangers in such an understanding of gift-giving? It does involve some risk-exactly as much risk as believing in God involves in the first place. And the risk consists in the gift-giving itself. Every gift given is a risk taken.

Even when we write up contracts to set up the terms of a mutually beneficial exchange of equivalents, we run some risk that the contract will not be respected, that we'll lose the deal, will have to go to court, etc. The risk is much greater when it comes to gift-giving. When we give a gift, we don't make an advance agreement to get anything in return. In a certain sense, we make ourselves vulnerable to those to whom we've given. When they reciprocate our generosity, we rejoice. Community is created, and the risk-taking has proven worth doing. When they are selfish-well, we know that those who give in love receive back love from God.

WORLD: Let's say a reader of Free of Charge nods his head when you write that "those of us who have tend to squander or hoard," but he nods equally emphatically when you note that "what we do pass on is often misappropriated by middlemen," so that it's not clear that increasing the size of gifts will actually help. What should we do to avoid falling into "compassion fatigue," which results sometimes from sin but other times from our awareness of misspending?

VOLF: We should not forget that many middlemen act with integrity and even generosity of their own, though there are plenty of bad apples in the basket. We should be smart in the way we give. What good is it to give a gift to a person in need, only for it to end up in the coffers of those who've made it their perverse job to plunder the fruits of others' generosity?

Yet we realize that we live in a fallen world. The practice of gift-giving is in no way exempt. So we monitor our giving, put pressure on middlemen for transparency and accountability, change venues of giving when necessary. And all along we realize that our giving will be partly thwarted. But we still give-and we give because there's the divine Third at work as we give.

The benefit to the recipient isn't reduced to the amount of "stuff" we give; our gift is a seed that God multiplies for recipients as well as for givers. Notice an important contrast: When you and I exchange equivalents-say, when we barter-you get no more and no less than what has parted from me. It's different with gifts. When I give you a gift, you receive more than the stuff that has left my hands, partly because you receive not just my gift but also my generosity. Gifts are not simply the "stuff" that travels from one person to the other. Gifts are seeds that God makes grow, sometimes into a bountiful harvest. So I can give in hope, and that hope does not disappoint even if unethical middlemen siphon off more than their share.

WORLD: How does the understanding that "God is wrathful because God is love" help the affluent to avoid being either implacable judges or doting grandparents in relation to the poor? How does that sense of how to give also inspire forgiving?

VOLF: Love without wrath on account of harm inflicted on the beloved is mere sentimentality. That's why God is wrathful in the face of human sin. We who are affluent often don't know how to be good givers. We give-but for all the wrong reasons. We give in order to get something, which is to say that we give to ourselves-to puff ourselves up or to atone for our transgressions, for instance. I suspect that God is sometimes wrathful toward us because we are bad givers.


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