It seems to be an almost daily occurrence, at least in my mailbox: another charity sending a request for financial support. Requests come in from children’s hospitals, cancer treatment centers, local rescue missions, non-governmental organizations providing food and medical support in other parts of the world, among others. Their appeals are designed to generate compassion and empathy: to give on occasion seems to lead to even more requests from that organization as well as new requests from many others.
Charity is primarily defined as “benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Charity originally spoke to a characteristic or disposition a person would have toward his fellow man; since that disposition would lead such a person to provide assistance for his fellow man in need, said assistance was also called “charity.”
In the King James Version of the Bible, “charity” was the primary term used to translate Greek agape, these days more often translated as “love.” “Charity.” in its original concept, captures well the expected fruit of love: if we truly have concern for our fellow man as God commands us to have, we will seek opportunities to provide real benefits for them (1 John 4:7-21). John illustrated the premise well in 1 John 3:16-17: we have seen what love is like in Jesus, and so how can we say that a person who has the world’s goods but closes his heart and has no compassion for his fellow man in need has the love of God in him? And so Christians are to love in deed and truth, not merely in word (1 John 3:18). We do well, therefore, to understand the love of God and love for man in terms of charity, for if we truly understand the way God has loved us, we will maintain a benevolent goodwill toward God and humanity.
God is love, and God is one in relational unity (John 17:20-23, 1 John 4:8). By its very nature love demands some sort of relationship; to express care and concern for the well-being of another person we must have some knowledge and experience of that person. Love, and by extension charity, therefore demands a level of proximity to the beloved or to the recipient of goodwill. Thus throughout the New Testament acts of love and charity are done with a view to strengthening relationships: God acted benevolently in Christ through His miracles, death, and resurrection to reconcile man to Him and to each other (Matthew 9:1-8, Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:11-18). The Apostles commanded Christians to do good for all men, especially those in the household of faith, and to visit widows and orphans in their distress (Galatians 6:10, James 1:27). In Jesus’ famous description of the day of judgment all are judged on the basis on how they provided for the needs of the least of their brethren (Matthew 25:31-46).
It proves telling that the primary use of “charity” in modern English is to describe organizations established to provide material resources to people, for such charities exemplify a concerning trend in Western society. The logic of the Industrial Revolution has been extended to social concerns: specialization is rewarded, organization and efficiency prized, and in this way the expression of benevolent goodwill for mankind is dehumanized and industrialized. We are made to feel that we do best to write checks so that “the professionals” can take care of other people. Charity is thus seen as an organization, not a practice.
We must resist the idea that charity is an organization which should be run like a well-oiled machine. We ought to maintain a charitable disposition toward our fellow man and seek to work for his good. We have no right to reduce all of the commands God has given the Christian about charity to the provision of financial resources: man does not live by money alone. Doing good for others includes providing material resources but involves far more: spending time with people, advocating for those of lesser estate, providing encouragement and mental and emotional support for those in poverty and/or distress (Matthew 25:31-46, Galatians 6:10, James 1:27).
Humans are not machines, nor are humans akin to factory-made products. The human experience includes basic material needs yet also involves social and spiritual needs as well. Writing checks to benevolent organizations is good but cannot address the full spectrum of human need. The charity God expressed to us in Christ Jesus was designed to reconcile us back to Him (Romans 5:6-11); the charity we express to others is best manifest in not only taking care of physical needs but also in cultivating of relationship so as to address mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Few, if any, believe that the expression of love is found only in the providing of basic material needs; charity which focuses on material needs to the detriment of encouragement and relational support is not worthy of the term. People in need do not need another system or more ways to feel humiliated, depersonalized, and unwanted; they need to receive human love and care, and organizations as systems do not show love and care.
Charities do important and beneficial work: none of us can provide all services or provide for the needs of all people everywhere. Individuals can, and should, give to well-run charities as part of the means by which they do good to all people (Galatians 6:10). But while the world has seen an explosion in charities and opportunities for charitable giving, people starve for want of charity. Billions are spent to provide for needs and yet people near and far hunger physically, emotionally, and spiritually. More humans live right now than ever before and yet true humanity seems lacking. This is all due, in part, to the depersonalization of charity, and the expectation that the majority of people can pay for a small minority to take care of the problem. We do well to remember that charity is not an organization but a disposition; money and food cannot replace care and encouragement (although encouragement cannot overcome a lack of money and food); attempting to be humanitarian without any regard for the desire for love, support, and strength which defines the essence of being human is no humanitarianism at all. May we all seek to express true charity, providing not only material support for those in need, but proving willing to “get our hands dirty” by providing for their mental, emotional, and spiritual needs as well!
Ethan R. Longhenry