Making Money: A Gift by Any Other Name
One afternoon while I was sorting the mail, I opened a letter from an organization I deeply respect and have supported for many years. As a family, one of our passions has been to live generously and to be faithfully present—that is, we engage. We recognize and experience the brokenness of the world and strive to live generously in a way that cares for our culture, often through organizations like this one. We passionately want to enable people to experience the world as it was meant to be and to see truth and beauty reconnected in their daily lives. We believe our giving helps make that happen.
The letter began with, “thank you for your gift, and enclosed is our annual report.” The report provided a well-organized and clear picture of the group’s initiatives, activities, and outcomes. As I re-read the opening of the letter and reflected on the enclosure, however, I realized something was wrong. While I was rejoicing over the growth and success of the organization, another part of me was deeply troubled with their use of the word “gift.” It was as if I was watching the classic movie, The Princess Bride, where after multiple uses of the word “inconceivable,” Inigo Montoya replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I knew I had to follow this inkling, not for resolution but for understanding.
In my writing, reading, and conversations, I have a strong sense that words have specific meaning, and when I see words being used to say something else, it troubles me. When it came to this annual report, I could not reconcile why the leaders were going to such great lengths to tell me what they’ve accomplished if what I gave them was a gift? After reading the annual report more closely, another point of discord popped up. Why are they so apologetic about overhead costs? I have run businesses; I know overhead expenses are an essential element and have to be paid for.
Eventually, I realized I had lost the very sense of what “gift” meant in the context of being a faithful steward. Over the years of expecting and receiving these annual reports from organizations I support, I had willingly and perhaps all-too-eagerly embraced a shallow, cheapened definition of “gift giving”—a definition I believe is antithetical to a Biblical understanding of stewardship and generosity. Making charitable contributions within our cultural context and as I had been practicing it had come to mean I choose, I control, I’m concerned about outcomes, I hold people and organizations accountable. After great consideration, I no longer believe this is what it means to be a good steward. Demanding this kind of specific results had become just another form of selfishness and spiritual narcissism. At the practical level, I wasn’t living generously, giving gifts freely and without expectation.
So where has this led? I would describe myself today as recovering, one who sees a gift for what it is—no expectations, just freely offered. The journey requires a daily recognition of all God provides to me and the world at-large. Now, without exception, our family’s offerings to others are given without condition. We communicate to the organizations that we support that we don’t want to receive reports, and for sure we don’t want to know about the administrative costs. As you might imagine, many of my friends have challenged me on this, but I go back to the question of “is it a gift or not?”
Do I think there is a place for providing financial support with clear accountability and restrictions on use? Yes. But let’s be clear and not call that a “gift.” Call it philanthropy, if you want. You might even call it being a good steward, though you would likely get a yellow card from me on that.
One of the benefits of work is making money. Some people are blessed to receive a lot of money for the work they do. Money is often considered a taboo topic, but in this series, Making Money, we invite you to join us in lifting the veil and bringing the topic into the open. Ask questions, right along with us. Let's consider how to live in the world as people of faith who desire to do good work, and to be good stewards of our resources.
Featured image by Patricia Soransso. Used with Permission. Source via Flickr.