In this section of our interview, my friend, Biola Professor Thomas Crisp and I get very personal and practical and discuss the differences between sharing and giving.
KEITH: In Western culture we think it’s about giving more. We think of writing checks but I think it’s really more about what we’d call sharing that Jesus is wants. It’s not just giving money apart from relationship with those who are poor. Really, I think it’s knowing their names and understanding their struggles and making them your own. Then it may still involve sharing money, but it goes beyond a percentage tithe and becomes more about meeting a specific need for a specific person. It’s sharing not just giving. Because you could write a check and not really engage with another human being in a meaningful way. To me, it’s almost like the Widows’ Mite, where writing a check for $100 to an impersonal organization is less impactful than sharing $20 with the person right in front of me.
THOMAS: Maybe you and I disagree on this, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a both/and that Jesus wants us to divest ourselves of our extra resources, in love. That matters. That’s important in it’s own right. But also, the Shalom thing is, in the Shalom community everyone is included in the relationship. There are no outcasts. People are drawn into relationship. So, if I’m going to seek that for my brother as well as I seek it for myself, I’m not just going to give them food or money, but I’m also going to draw them into relationship if they’re lonely, I’m going to draw them into my church community, and around my personal table for dinner.
It means – to pursue the idea of Shalom – I both give my money away, and that I have people around my dinner table. You can’t separate those things.
KEITH: I think I totally agree with you. I think I’m meaning to say, more in the sense of “this” or “that”. In other words, usually if I’m having a conversation with a Christian to whom these concepts are foreign. They have no concept that to follow Jesus is at minimum a tacit invitation to interact with and engage with and love the poor around them in their community. To those people, their first reaction is that they’ll just start giving to World Vision and then they’re done. They’re off the hook, so to speak. And I would say that according to Jesus they are not done. I would say that Jesus really does want us to know someone who is poor by name, and to open our homes to them, and to welcome them into our lives. To me, following Jesus in this way is not primarily about just writing checks. We can write checks, but it only begins there, it doesn’t end there.
I mean, it’s good to give to World Vision. Our family has been supporting a girl in the Phillipines for years now through Arms of Love and we love that. But I would say that this isn’t enough in itself to fully walk in obedience to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves or to care for the poor, the orphan and the widow.
To me what we’re called to is so much deeper. I think Jesus intends to mess up our plans and our lives with this. If it’s convenient for us we’re not where He wants us to be. I think that if you start down this road that God is going to put people in front of you who are poor and He’s going to challenge you to love them in a very real, personal way. I can’t imagine anything different.
THOMAS: I totally agree by the way. When Jesus says, “If you throw a banquet don’t invite your friends but the poor”, He’s calling us into table fellowship. To the extent that we’re trying to follow Jesus and to do the works that He did, Jesus is going around laying hands on lepers. He’s entering into close personal contact and fellowship with folks who are hurting. Drawing people into the joy of table fellowship – who would not otherwise be welcome – to include them, and He calls us to do the same.
So, yeah, it’s about inclusion and relationship AND economic sharing. It’s all of that.
KEITH: Do you feel like in the process of writing this paper that you arrived at some conclusions? Are you still struggling with these concepts now?
THOMAS: No, I’m totally struggling with it. I’ve got all kinds of hypocrisy. (laughs)
KEITH: (laughs) Me, too.
THOMAS: Like, the thing is, I’ve got tons of extra stuff and things and material in my life that I need to let go of.
KEITH: Same here.
I love this quote by Basil that you included in your paper.
What is a miser? One who is not content with what is
needful. What is a thief? One who takes what belongs to
others. Why do you not consider yourself a miser and a
thief when you claim as your own what you received in
trust? If one who takes the clothing off another is called a
thief, why give any other name to one who can clothe the
naked and refused to do so? The bread that you withhold
belongs to the poor; the cape that you hide in your chest
belongs to the naked; the shoes rotting in your house
belong to those who must go unshod.
I have all of those things. I have shoes that I’m not wearing. I have probably 15 different jackets I don’t wear and shirts that just hang in my closet all year long.
THOMAS: I know. Think about the Rich Fool in Luke 12 who says “I’ll build bigger barns to have more room to store extra grain so I can take life easy”
KEITH: And Jesus says, “You fool…”
THOMAS: But that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’ve got a retirement account. I’m doing the same thing.
KEITH: I guess I have you beat on that account because I have no retirement savings whatsoever. I’m the fool in the eyes of the world, I guess. I’m not investing at all in any way so I guess I’ll have to work until the day I die. Or maybe my kids will get rich and support me? Or maybe I’ll end up homeless myself.
I don’t know if that’s really wisdom per se, but that’s how my life has worked out.
THOMAS: Well, this is what I wrestle with. We’ve got the retirement accounts. We’ve got savings accounts for our kid’s college.
KEITH: So, the question is, “Is that wrong?” Aren’t you seeking the Shalom of your children to go to college and get an education like you did. That’s not a bad thing, is it? I know from the experience I’ve had in the workforce that if I didn’t have my Bachelor’s degree I wouldn’t be able to provide for my family the same way I do today. That college degree did open doors for me that might not otherwise be opened.
THOMAS: I don’t have any problem giving my kids a college education, I guess. That’s like teaching them a trade.
KEITH: Yeah, I think if you had the ability to help your kids with an education and you didn’t I think that would actually be wrong.
THOMAS: I’m actually fine with that. I’m even fine with saving for retirement, I guess, but that starts to get trickier. But there are other luxuries like, I’ve got a $65 smartphone plan.
KEITH: But there were people in the first century church who would be considered rich. I agree with you that Jesus’ command was to seek the Shalom of others, and in that context of the Kingdom to consider your wealth as a tool to influence people for the Kingdom and to use it for the good of others as you see the need. It seems that there is an allowance for maintaining some level of wealth but keeping it with an open hand so that as you encounter poverty you are free to share that with others.
KEITH: I don’t see any condemnation for those of us who haven’t just gone straight into voluntary poverty. There’s still a mandate for us to provide for our family and to take care of our children. But, striving to have a posture and a heart that says, “God if you ask me to give or to share what I have it’s yours.”
THOMAS: I think that’s right. But I don’t think you have to read Jesus’ teachings as being about that. I think that if you look really closely at what He says, He says things like, “Don’t store up treasure for yourself here on Earth.” So we think, “Oh, he wants me to give everything away.” But in the very next passage He says “Seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be provided for you.” What things? Food, clothing and shelter. So, I don’t think this is an ethic of indigence. This is not about literally giving it all way so that you have nothing because in the very next breath He’s saying that if you do this God’s make sure that you’ve got those things – all that stuff – to provide for your basic needs.
I think it’s actually an ethic of simplicity that Jesus calls us to. He saying we need to get rid of all the stuff that’s extra. Like in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the man dressed in fine linen and purple while the poor were suffering all around him.
KEITH: But, do you think that getting rid of it (the excess stuff) is something we should do this weekend, all at once? Or is it more of the process of getting rid of it as you go through your life and encounter people who need the excess stuff you have. Like, you meet a man who needs shoes and you have an extra pair so you share it.
Is it about pushing the button to eject all your worldly possessions or is it about daily trusting God to show you who you need to share your stuff with in relationship?
Wendy and I have talked a lot about this because it’s easy for me to give myself a guilt trip. Wendy always asks me, “Is there any specific thing that you feel like God asked you to do and you refused?” and if I can’t honestly say that I’ve been disobedient in some way then I have no cause to beat myself up. But if I can look and see that there were specific times when God did call me to go here and do this or let go of something or share something, then I am walking in obedience and I’m not withholding anything from God or from others. What do you think about that?
THOMAS: I guess what I think about that is, the whole thing has to be viewed through the lens of the Prodigal Son. The Father’s attitude towards us is not one of being angry because we haven’t given away enough stuff, it’s that He’s running toward us with loving arms, wanting to embrace us. So, I guess I think that He has a lot of patience with us and with the process, and recognizes that it’s going to be a process. I think He guides us deeper and deeper into this process, slowly rejoicing with us as we go.
But I also think that there is this radical call to sell our stuff and care for the poor. So, I guess I think that I wouldn’t be doing wrong if you caught the vision and you suddenly divested yourself of all your excess wealth and shared it with the suffering. It wouldn’t be that you’d done any wrong there. I think God would celebrate that action as well.
For the rest of us who are gradually working our way into this, and slowly easing into a more radical simplicity, I think He rejoices at that too.
But, I do suspect that for most of us it’s this process.
KEITH: For myself I see it more as a process and I feel as if God has a place He’s taking me. He’s teaching me things daily that He wants me to show me, about myself, and about His own heart for others. And He has been. If I look back on my whole life – even before I came to Him – I can see that He was working in my life. So, He’s still doing that today.
I can remember specifically when I was still in High School and praying to God, feeling a call to a more radical lifestyle of holiness and service, and I remember in that moment saying to God that I completely agreed with this vision. I completely wanted to end up in that place. I say “Yes” to that, God. That’s where I want to end up. That’s who I want you to make me into. That’s where I want to go with you. But, you know me and you have mercy for me and grace for me because you know that it will be slow. I can’t do that all by tomorrow. But by your grace that’s where I want to go with Jesus.
I take great comfort from scriptures that reveal that God remembers that we’re made of dust. He knows we’re weak. “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
THOMAS: Or the thief on the cross. Or Zaccheus. Both examples of God’s delight and response to people in process.
KEITH: That’s a comforting truth. It can be so…let’s say someone reads your article or reads this interview. It can be so challenging. I mean, it can just scare the crap out of you. A lot of people could have the reaction, “I can’t do this. This is too much.” In despair they could say, “I guess I’m just not a true follower of Jesus” and walk away from their faith.
What I want to say to encourage people who might be in that place is that all God is looking for is someone who is willing to be willing. He’s looking for someone who will say, “God, I love you and I hear what you’re saying about loving the poor, and in my wildest dreams I would love to have you make me into someone who is like Jesus. I would love to become someone who could let go of everything and anything you asked me to, but I can’t be that guy right now. I can’t make myself into that kind of person by my own strength.”
I think that if we’re willing to take one moment at a time, one day at a time, and take up our crosses daily and learn from Jesus how to die to ourselves and allow Him to show us how to love the way He loves and how to give the way He gives and how to forgive the way He forgives, He will do it. He is faithful when we are not.
I think that for anyone who says that, God will say, “Ok. I’ll take that. I can work with that.” A mustard seed’s worth of faith is enough.
THOMAS: Oh, I agree. I think it would be a mistake to take this batch of teachings from Jesus and come away with guilt and fear. God is a Father of tender compassion. He has lots of room for process, like you say. Secondly, this call to divest ourselves of excess resource is an invitation into the abundant life. This is the easy yoke. This is where our burdens are light.
KEITH: It’s a treasure hidden in a field that you can’t wait to sell everything to obtain.
THOMAS: It’s an invitation into a joyous mode of life.
KEITH: Not an invitation to misery and poverty and disease and sickness and hunger. That’s the side of it we fear. Jesus just wants to take me through so much suffering and pain. He just wants to pull my soul through a giant cheese grater and rip me to shreds. But that’s not what He wants. He wants to show you that his way is true life. We give up our empty, selfish way of living to find true life in Christ.
THOMAS: I think this has not just spiritual application but material implication. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that those who have given up everything in this life to follow me – given up houses, and children, brothers, mothers, sisters, fathers, in this life – won’t fail to receive ten times as much in this life and in the life to come.
He includes in that list not just family, but farms, interestingly. Property!
So, I think to sell one’s possessions and follow Jesus and give all one’s stuff to the poor is for the community, not just one person. I think whenever we do this we never do it alone. It’s always in community.
As we step into this with others we’re always being taken care of by those who are also following Jesus this way. It’s a joyous life where all of us in community have enough.
We shouldn’t feel guilty because God is a God of infinite patience and He’s happy to walk us through the process. It’s not a thing to fear, it’s the way to true life and light burdens, and it’s the way to joy where everyone has enough and everyone shares in the Shalom of God.
But this is very different from the American Dream.
KEITH: Yeah, and I think that’s the huge collision. Really. I think that’s the biggest stumbling block for Western Christians, especially if your idea of being a Christian is connected to the pursuit of happiness, owning a home, starting your own business, amassing wealth for yourself, etc.
They are actually totally opposite messages. One carries the message that you should gain more wealth, more property, more status, more respect in the community…
THOMAS: …to be more independent.
KEITH: Exactly! I don’t need community. I mean, the worst thing that could happen to me is that I might ever need to depend on someone else for anything like food or shelter. The American Dream is all about being self-sufficient.
The Gospel is about moving into relationship with the poor, it’s about moving into community with other believers, it’s about becoming less self important and less selfish and less independent, but more dependent upon God and others for life.
In the Western mind, Jesus is there to help me get that new car or grow my business or buy a bigger house. That’s what Jesus, my co-pilot, will help me do.
THOMAS: If you think about the American Dream it’s about increased status, increased wealth, increased independence. Following Jesus is about going in the absolute opposite direction on all three points.
Keith Giles was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church 11 years ago, to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today, He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho, awaiting their next adventure.