Give It Away

When you hear the name Ebenezer Scrooge, you undoubtedly think of the misery, selfish central character of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. But you may not know that Dickens later admitted that he modeled the character off a real-life miser, John Elwes, an Eighteenth Century British politician whose renown for hoarding money made Scrooge look generous by comparison.

Elwes inherited £250,000 on the death of his uncle, about $43 million in today’s money, and was determined to hold on to all of it. Among the true accounts of Elwes’ penny-pinching ways: He went to bed before nightfall so that he did not have the expense of buying candles. He bought no new clothes, often looking like a homeless beggar, and would eat maggoty meat so he could spend less on food. When his grand country house, which he inherited, had a leaky roof over his bedroom, he simply moved his bed around to find a dry corner instead of spending money on repairs. Later in life he developed dementia. He imagined anyone who came to see him was there to rob him. He died at the age of 75, in poor health. The doctor who attended his deathbed said he could have lived 20 years longer if he had just spent a little money on taking care of himself.

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The reality with respect to wealth is this: Though we can amass it through skillful work, entrepreneurial talent, investment wisdom or sheer good fortune, we can’t take it with us when we die. We all have three choices in stewarding our financial resources. We can determine to hoard it as Elwes did, or choose to spend it—which our culture gladly assisting us in that task—or choose to give it, in a selfless act and to the benefit of others.

I want to suggest that our lives should be filled with joyful, generous, systematic giving. It is an act of obedience to God, Who speaks about money more than any other topic. Over 2,000 Bible verses are devoted to money. Among the clearest instructions regarding wealth in the New Testament is found is 1 Timothy 6:17-19:

Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.

Throughout God’s Word we see money as simply a tool to be used for God’s glory through good works, and that our real treasure is not found in a bank, but in that which is eternal. And in practical sense, joyful giving really is good for you. It reduces stress and aids in physical health. It provides a sense of purpose. It is an antidote to depression. It can also increase your life span. It promotes social connections, improves relationships and the kindness in our own lives fosters our sense of community and confidence.[1] Developing the mind of generosity begins with three simple truths:

Acknowledging your enormous wealth. You do not have to be a millionaire to be wealthy. The median family income in 2017 in the U.S. was $59,039. That puts you in the top 4% of all households globally. Here in Georgia the average household income is higher, at $65,381.[2] The U.S. poverty line for a family of four is a household income at or below $25,750. But poverty is relative. If you earn only $4,210 a year, you are richer than half of the world’s population. And those at the U.S. poverty line are actually among the top 7% of income earners worldwide.[3]

Poverty in the United States, as defined by the government, does not mean severe lack of food, water, medicine or shelter. In fact, though 30 million families in the U.S. are defined as poor, the average low-income family in this country has a car, air conditioning, two or more color TVs, cable, a DVD or VCR, and Internet access. The average poor American has more living space than a non-impoverished European family.[4]

These statistics are not meant to argue the definition of poor, but rather to let us acknowledge that every American at every income level has money at their disposal to give. A lifestyle of giving requires that we begin by seeing our resources, at whatever level, as something we can steward for God in the context of His purposes and mission. The joyful giver first realizes that he is indeed blessed with something to give. 

Open your eyes to the needs of your neighbors and the nations. The comfort of the United States often shields her citizens from the reality that 80% of the world’s population gets by on less than $10 a day. And so many don’t have simple resources that we take for granted. 1.6 billion people live without electricity. 1.8 billion do not have access to clean drinking water within a mile of their home.[5]

Statistics like this often come off as a guilt trip. But we should make the connection between our own wealth and the needs of others. And there is no better place to begin than with basic health and human care. We could, for instance, eradicate extreme hunger worldwide for about $30 billion a year—about the amount that Americans spend on cosmetics. Or give those 1.8 billion access to clean water for $150 billion—the amount of cash Apple Inc. has on hand at the moment as a result of all those iPhone sales. 

Socialists would argue that simply redistributing the world’s wealth is the answer to these issues, but no system of government has ever managed to rise above the inherent corruption of moving funds among classes of its citizens. Instead, individuals must open their eyes to the needs of those less fortunate, and respond with planned, purposeful giving. You can become involved in the more than 260,000 private foundations in 38 countries, who have amassed more than $1.5 trillion for charitable causes. The U.S. leads with way with charities stewarding over $890 billion, or about 4.8% of the nation’s GDP.[6] The cheerful giver also realizes that there are multiple needs that he can meet, through many worthwhile and existing channels, including the church and many religious charities. 

Give with passion and purpose. Once you grasp your own resources and realize the needs you can help meet, the next step is to give to people and causes that are worthwhile. Giving experts suggest that charity is not a quick exercise done at the end of the year to prepare for the coming tax season. Rather, take time to research and give with organizations with good reputations and stewardship, knowing that your contributions are making a tangible difference.[7]

It’s odd that misers are remembered for their hoarding, but philanthropists are seldom remembered at all. You likely have never heard of Charles Francis Feeney, an Irish-American businessman who, during the course of his life, has given away more than $8 billion. Determined to give away his entire fortune during his lifetime, he contributed to education, medical research, and civil rights causes. His foundation created a health care system for Vietnam, provided a breakthrough antiretroviral treatment for AIDS, funded surgeries for hundreds of children born with cleft lip or palette, and helped broker peace in Northern Ireland. 

Until a dispute in 1997 forced the disclosure of his funding, for decades he gave generously, systematically—and anonymously.[8] Of his philanthropy Feeney commented, “I believe strongly in ‘giving while living.’ I see little reason to delay giving when so much good can be achieved through supporting worthwhile causes today. Besides, it’s a lot more fun to give while you live than to give while you are dead.” Recently Feeney’s foundation gave away its last $2 million to an educational initiative. You’ll now find him in a rented apartment in San Francisco, living on 0.001% of the wealth he amassed in his lifetime. And he’s perfectly happy, saying, “It's satisfaction that you're achieving something that is helpful to people.”

[1] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-firestone/the-benefits-of-generosit_b_5448218.html

[2] https://www.deptofnumbers.com/income/georgia/atlanta/

[3] http://www.pewglobal.org/interactives/global-population-by-income/

[4] https://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/air-conditioning-cable-tv-and-xbox-what-poverty-the-united-states

[5] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats#src1

[6] https://www.ubs.com/global/en/wealth-management/uhnw/philanthropy/shaping-philanthropy.html

[7] https://www.fiduciarytrust.com/insights/commentary?commentaryPath=templatedata/gw-content/commentary/data/en-us/en-us-ftci/charitable-giving/nov-1-2017-charitable-giving-best-practices&commentaryType=CHARITABLE%20GIVING

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/05/nyregion/james-bond-of-philanthropy-gives-away-the-last-of-his-fortune.html