All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1974

Give Thought How You Give

Mr. Patrick is Manager of the Chamber of Commerce in Decatur, Illinois. This article is from a sermon he delivered recently on Laymen’s Sunday.

Americans give away more every year than the gross national product of Austria or Greece or Norway. We give more to our churches alone than the gross national product of Chile or Egypt or Israel.

You will notice that I have not named the most poverty-stricken nations of the world. Gross national product is often referred to as GNP and it includes everything that the people of a nation extract from the ground and sell to others, such as coal or iron ore or diamonds or limestone or oil. It includes all that the people produce through cultivating the soil, such as corn or soybeans or bananas or flax or pineapples or rice. It includes all the services that people perform for each other and collect a payment, such as writing a will or filing a tax return or filling a cavity in a tooth or acting in a television show or giving a manicure or repairing a flat tire or preaching a sermon.

Some useful human activities are not included in GNP because there is no direct compensation for them that would make it possible to measure their value. The services performed by a housewife are an example. Long ago I learned something about how important the work is that is done by a homemaker and I am inclined to rank only a few other careers on the same plane with the homemaker. Possibly a physician qualifies, but only if he is a good one. A person who can sew a button on a shirt, and have the toast pop out of the toaster when the eggs are ready, and make a little girl’s hair look nice when it is time to go to school, and bind up a man’s ego when he has been chewed out by his foreman or had a contract cancelled by an important customer, is certainly part artist and part magician and part angel. And those are only a few of the things accomplished every day by millions of women in America and other countries, year after year. But normally there is no direct compensation for such artistry so it is not counted in the gross national product. The same kind of work performed by a hired housekeeper would be part of GNP.

Preparing and delivering sermons is normally considered a useful human activity, although some sermons hardly meet that test. But, useful or not, a “free” sermon like this one does not become a part of GNP.

The point is that, while not all human activity enters into gross national product, the part that does is formidable in size. And we Americans give away more than the entire GNP of quite a number of the well-known nations of the world — some of them very prosperous nations like Austria and Norway and Israel.

American Philanthropy

We have been a generous people throughout most of our history. In 1960 the University of Chicago Press published a book entitled American Philanthropy, by Robert H. Bremner, who found evidence that in the last century there was more giving to the poor than was thought at the time to be good for them. “The principle of voluntary association accorded so well with American political and economic theories that as early as 1820 the larger cities had an embarrassment of benevolent organizations.”

During the Civil War there was apparently an overabundance of relief to the families of service men, on the part of both voluntary associations and governments. Mr. Bremner wrote that “oft-repeated warnings of the dangers of unwise giving were forgotten for the moment as community and statewide relief organizations solicited contributions.”

Up to the middle of the last century the greater portion of American schools and colleges were established by private philanthropy. Many were founded and operated by churches but, at the same time, establishing schools for poor children without religious affiliations became a favorite charity for public-spirited citizens. So many colleges were founded that the number exceeded the demand and over seven hundred passed out of existence before 1860.

Americans also gave voluntary foreign aid. During the 1820′s voluntary committees collected and sent assistance to the Cracks and many Greek war orphans were brought to this country for adoption.

Mr. Bremner relates that “In the autumn of 1832, when the starving people of Cape Verde Islands rowed out to a ship hoping to buy food, they were astonished to learn that the vessel had been sent from the United States for the express purpose of relieving their necessities. Individuals and churches in New England, Philadelphia, and New York had heard of their need and had raised thousands of dollars for their assistance.”

Voluntary Support

In the United States we have no direct government aid for churches. It is true, of course, that churches benefit by the exemption of their religious and educational facilities from property tax. They also gain by the fact that contributions to churches are deductible for income tax purposes. But essentially, churches have to get along on the gifts that come from their members and others who sympathize with the work the churches do. In colonial days the churches in a few of the colonies did receive government assistance, to be sure, but the period of remarkable church growth followed the ending of all established churches and the cutting loose of all government ties.

Throughout the world there are more than 985,000,000 members of Christian churches. It has been said that since the birth of Christ churches have been built at a rate that exceeds one a day. In Decatur there is one church for every 750 people. If that average is about right for the entire nation, then there must be more than 275,000 churches in the United States. Approximately 134,000 days have passed since the first permanent settlers landed in Virginia and established what became the Jamestown colony, so in this country we have created more than two churches a day by our voluntary gifts.

We do, indeed, seem to have heeded the admonition in II Corinthians 9:7 that the Lord loves a cheerful giver. To be sure, it is sometimes difficult to raise funds for purposes that some people consider highly important. But time after time, when a need has been dramatized so that people could understand it in terms of human suffering and want, they have responded generously.

Responsible Giving

Generosity can be helpful but it can also be harmful. We should give thought how we give. Children who are showered with toys and other presents sometimes end up frustrated and bored, taking for granted the bounty they enjoy, not interested in any of their possessions, not appreciating the generosity of the givers, and unable to understand that such plenty is uncommon in the world and that many of the world’s people are in need. For need has been the common condition of mankind throughout history and still dogs the footsteps of hundreds of millions of the people on earth. Only a minority of the world’s population has struggled free of the grip of poverty.’

We can help our children and we can help other people too much. We can help them to their own detriment. Not long ago a letter to Ann Landers discussed in the newspaper the training of boys to make household repairs. The writer emphasized that a father should teach his sons how to make minor repairs around the house —to lubricate appliances, change a washer in a leaky faucet, and the like. Many times, the writer said, it would be easier and quicker for the father to do the job himself rather than watch impatiently while his son fumbles and blunders at the job. But unless the son has the opportunity to perform the task himself, under the father’s guidance, he acquires no experience and gains no skill.

The ability to spell rather well came to me early in life. Many times my own children have asked me how to spell a word and I have had to stifle the impulse to spell it for them and say, instead, “Well, now, let’s hear you try it.” Handled that way, most of the time they come fairly close to spelling the word correctly. At other times I have said to them, “Let’s look it up in the dictionary,” and then I let them find the word, with a little guidance, if necessary.

Self-Help Is Best

We do our fellow man no favor if we deprive him of initiative and creativity and deny him the opportunity to develop his self-reliance. The person who earnestly desires to help the poor “must recognize and respect as an individual the one he would love —which means to encourage him but in no way to interfere with that person’s capacity, will, and effort to help himself.”2 The best help is that help that enables a person in need to provide for himself.

A few years ago one of our committees in the Chamber of Commerce was considering ways to help the underprivileged young black people in our community. One member proposed giving them some recreational equipment and a black man in our group promptly exclaimed, “Oh, no, don’t give it to them. That injures their self-respect and they will not appreciate it as they will if they pay something for it.”

As I thought about the matter afterward I remembered how my mother dealt with the hoboes who used to come to our door during the depression years of the 1930′s begging for food. She would never give them a handout until they had done some small odd job to earn it. I have come to understand her wisdom.

Emerson said, “It is a low benefit to give me something; it is a high benefit to enable me to do somewhat of myself.”

A Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish and he will eat today. Teach him how to catch fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

Everybody is better off when the person in need can provide for his own wants. William Graham Sumner, the celebrated churchman, sociologist, and educator of the last century, pointed out that a human society needs the active cooperation and productive energy of every person in it. “A man who is present as a consumer, yet who does not contribute either by land, labor, or capital to the work of society, is a burden.”³

“Every man and woman in society has one big duty,” Sumner wrote. “That is, to take care of his or her own self. This is a social duty.”

The person who fails in this duty throws burdens on others. He does not thereby acquire rights against others. On the contrary, he only accumulates obligations toward them.

But people who are helped unwisely come to assume that they have a right to what others have earned and produced. The history of the human race is one long story of attempts by certain persons and classes to obtain control of the power of the State, so that they can live out of the earnings of others. And when they do that, they commit an act of plunder, even if they have passed laws to make it legal. Not every legal action is a right action. Right is not determined by a head count. Like truth, it is often recognized and advocated at first by only a minority — sometimes, in the beginning, a minority of one.

Perhaps our greatest error in the field of charity or philanthropy has been to relinquish to governmental agencies this great responsibility, which is at the same time a great opportunity. And possibly one of the serious errors of the churches has been to support that action. Government is the organized force of society. There is Christian merit in giving voluntarily to help those in need. What Christian merit is there in voting to compel everybody, ineluding the unwilling, to pay taxes to help the needy? In the process we have created what is commonly called today’s “welfare mess” and have developed a welfare syndrome with generation after generation living off the productivity of others and contributing little, if anything, to the general good.

So we should give thought how we give. Giving can create a class of beggars. Recall the streets of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. Streets in many cities of the world are still populated by beggars, and panhandlers are fairly common even in American cities. During the summer of 1973 young Walter Reppenhagen spent the summer in Haiti as a Missions Volunteer working at the Baptist Seminary and the Baptist Hospital. Walt is the son of the pastor of Decatur‘s First Baptist Church and had just graduated from Millikin University. He wrote a letter back to the members of the church because they had made his trip possible. This passage reveals unusual perceptivity for a person of his youth: “One of the frustrations that all Americans face is not being able to really help the people as we would like. Giving money away is what many tourists have done. Unfortunately, this has caused an even greater problem in Haiti. Now, it is almost impossible to find a non-Christian Haitian who wants to be friends, just for the sake of friendship. So many have ulterior motives. They want money. They beg, con and plead for it. This factor alone is causing many Haitian ministers to leave their country.”

So we must give thought how we give. It is vital, however, that we give. And let me say a word about the one who receives our gifts. You may recall that, in Acts 20:35 the Apostle Paul appealed to the elders of the church at Ephesus to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

The act of giving implies that there is to be somebody to receive the gift. What Jesus said was that is more blessed to give than to receive, not that it is blessed to give and not blessed to receive. There is no reason to attach a stigma to receiving a gift if the motives of the giver and the receiver of the gift are right.

The right kind of giving is good for the one who receives and for the one who gives. Just be sure your gift helps rather than harms the one who receives it. Emerson said “You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.” Do not heed them. Think for yourself. Give thought how you give.


¹ Henry Grady Weaver, The Mainspring of Human Progress (Irvington, N. Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1953) pp. 11, 12.

2 Leonard E. Read, Who’s Listening? (Irvington, N. Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1973) p. 52.

³ What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1963) p. 19.