The Joy & the Guilt of Giving

Learning to give from joy


Growing up in the Lutheran church, I remember my pastor teaching about tithing with a banana as a visual aid. He suggested that people give by eating most of the banana themselves and giving God the last little overripe and brown stub. He then offered his view on how we ought to tithe, which was offering the first bites (first fruits?) of the banana to God. Me, being my slightly snarky self, I asked if God would be satisfied with just the banana peel, and I remember getting the impression that would be frowned-upon.

Giving to the Church

Whether tithing 10% is actually biblical or not is a fascinating theological rabbit-hole, but regardless of how we reached that number, I’ve always struggled with it. When I was younger and barely making ends meet, I didn’t think I could afford to give 10% away. Now, I struggle because I lack confidence the money will be well-stewarded. 

None of my church homes have committed egregious financial mismanagement, but I have questions. “Why do we need to put money into an endowment fund when there are homeless people living a few blocks away?” “How much money is going into the overhead or ‘production’ aspects of church vs actual ministry?” I’ll admit my own hypocrisy here, because I do love highly-produced worship services. Even so I wonder, “Is God really asking you to install a new million-dollar sound system?” 

Only when I found a church in whose mission I deeply believed did I start giving consistently. Jacob’s Well’s tagline was “church for people who don’t like church.” What I found beautiful was the environment where I (a church-lover and God-believer) could find community alongside an agnostic who didn’t know what he thought about God, but valued the community and would show up to play drums in the band week after week. I believed then, and continue to believe now, that our world needs more churches like this. 

During my years at Jacob’s Well (now Fabric), I also found a way to make giving money fun: customizing the memo line, and the more ridiculous the better! One month my memo line was dedicated to the worship leader’s mustache and another to a “solve all your problems” candy bar that was used as a sermon illustration. The church staff got a kick out of it and I did, too. While this may seem trite, this monthly practice of brainstorming funny memo lines helped me experience the true joy of giving. Even though we drifted away from active involvement at Jacob’s Well several years ago, my wife and I continue to send a monthly donation because we believe in their mission.

Giving Outside the Church

If you’ve ever been to a Christian concert, you probably have experienced “that moment.” The band leaves the stage and someone shares a funny story, which suddenly morphs into an emotional guilt-trip about why you should sponsor the child whose photo they are holding. Pretty soon, volunteers are walking through the aisles holding pictures of children, and you’re desperately trying your best not to make eye contact.

I don’t like this feeling and I don’t think this should happen at concerts, but I can’t argue its effectiveness. I eventually caved and sponsored a child, in the hopes that, at the next concert, I could look that volunteer in the eye and say “Aha! I’m already a sponsor!” I naively thought this would work, but unfortunately the next concert featured a different child sponsorship organization. Fast forward to now: my wife and I sponsor four children through three different organizations. On the plus side, I did successfully attend a concert a couple years ago where I fulfilled my dream of saying “we’re already sponsors”! So, let’s call this one a win-win.

Love and Ministry

When I was in college (St. Olaf class of 2008, um yah yah!), I felt guilty driving past panhandlers because I had nothing to offer. So, I assembled what I’ve come to call “Hope Bags” – 1 gallon zip-locks with a water bottle, cereal bars and/or fruit cups, gum, etc. I’ve been handing these out for upwards of 15 years now, and have only had one or two people ever show disappointment. Most everyone is grateful for the water, and even more are grateful someone took the time to roll down the window, say hello, and recognize their humanity.

I’ve found the greatest joy in giving directly to individuals or families where the money will make a tangible difference. Unlike church tithing, where I can’t see the impact of my money, giving on a personal level is significantly more fulfilling. Sometimes it’s buying gas or food for complete strangers. Sometimes it’s giving money to an acquaintance to help them achieve a dream. And the best times, in my opinion, are when it’s possible to have the gift delivered anonymously.

The ability to do any giving requires planning, or at the very least, intentionality. My wife and I maintain a separate savings account simply called “love and ministry”. Every paycheck, money is automatically deposited into that account, as well as 15% of any surprise/bonus income. We let the account grow, and when we see a situation to which we want to give money, it’s already there waiting. This type of giving is the most “fun” for us because we get to see the immediate difference it makes for people.

Transforming Guilt Into Joy

It seems to me that giving ought to be accompanied by joy, even if the initial impetus was guilt. Guilt can drive us to do good things – like hand out water to panhandlers, sponsor a child (or four), or even give regularly to a church). But if that guilt doesn’t eventually make way for some semblance of joy, it can fester into obligation, or worse, resentment. For me, I’ve found ways to transform my financial giving into opportunities for laughter (such as mustache-related memo lines), as well as the experience of offering someone in need a simple bottle of water, and the dignity of being seen as human. Whatever form your giving takes (because not all giving has to be financial, of course!), I hope you find ways to find joy in it.

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