The true spirit of philanthropy

On “Giving Tuesday,” which focuses on the philanthropic side of the holiday season, here’s an article exploring the idea that we all have something to give – freely and cheerfully.

A friend of mine recently gave a talk on philanthropy to a group of incarcerated men. Those men had been given the opportunity to contribute time and talent to progressive programs – one of which, I’m told, has led to a 0% recidivism rate among released prisoners. “When I told the men that they, too, were philanthropists, you should have seen the look on their faces! They were redefined in that moment,” she said.

I love this reframing of “philanthropy” as something that’s not limited to people who give away large amounts of wealth. At its roots, genuine philanthropy is about the love of humankind. And there are many ways to love beyond just giving money.

This idea of loving humankind lines up with some of the best givers I’ve ever heard of. Many of them are recorded in the Bible, with Christ Jesus certainly standing out among the bunch. His is the gift that keeps on giving. I often ask myself where I would be today without Jesus’ example of living love so fully that it healed and regenerated lives.

Jesus’ ministry showed that it is really the thought behind the giving that matters most. For instance, the Gospels of Mark and Luke both share an incident that took place when Jesus and his disciples were at the temple.

“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on’” (Luke 21:1-4, English Standard Version).

I’ve come to think of this example of giving from a place of want as an act of trust, rather than foolhardiness. The two coins seemed to represent all that the widow had. But her gift points to a different way of thinking about supply: as not confined to material indicators of wealth.

In fact, true supply is always abundant, because it comes from an inexhaustible source of good. God expresses limitless goodness throughout creation, which includes Deity’s spiritual offspring: all of us. The Bible says, “God is love” (I John 4:8), and infinite Love certainly doesn’t have an expiration date.

Just knowing that particular spiritual fact is wealth. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, says, “Giving does not impoverish us in the service of our Maker, neither does withholding enrich us” (p. 79). As we learn to love ourselves and others from the perspective of never-ending divine good, we are better able to give fearlessly, even when it feels or looks impossible. We realize that we have more than it sometimes seems.

There were times while raising our three children when my husband and I had opportunities to experience this. It took prayer and trust in God’s care for our family to see how supply wasn’t confined to what we thought we could afford. Often needs were met unexpectedly from generous sources, and other times we found we had more than we’d originally thought. Praying to better understand God, divine Spirit, as an unending source of goodness and inspiration empowered us to trust in, express, and experience God’s abundant goodness even more.

To this day, those valuable lessons have guided me in my own efforts to give, whether it be time, talent, “treasure,” or prayers – and helped me keep my smile while doing it.

“God loves a cheerful giver,” the Bible assures us (II Corinthians 9:7, ESV). When we give (and receive) from a place that acknowledges the largesse of God, we find ourselves more freely able to give in appropriate ways without strings attached, without fear of lack, and with the joy of knowing that there’s always enough good to go around. That’s the true spirit of philanthropy.

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