I saw him on the road most nights after work. He stood at the end of the off-highway ramp that was my exit for home. He leaned against the stop sign, holding a raggedy piece of cardboard with the words “Please help”.
When I first saw the man, dirty and leathery from spending his days unprotected in the hot sun, I felt a pang of sadness and even a little guilt for not stopping to help. I was in my early twenties after all, not able to spare much that could make a difference, and I was scared too, afraid of what a desperate stranger on the side of the road might do to a naïve young woman who opened her window and reached out her hand. I avoided eye contact and after taking that way home and seeing him many times, like so many other commuters, I ignored the man and his message.
One evening after an early dinner with a friend, I exited for home and, my courage buoyed by the presence of my friend in the car, hit the open window button and reached out to the man who still stood there in the fading daylight. He approached the car, and, seeing the container of food that I offered to him from our meal, waved us away disgustedly. Embarrassment and shame rippled through me – I had money to buy my dinner, why couldn’t I have given him some cash? How arrogant of me to expect that he would lap up my leftovers! I could have bought him a whole dinner of his own, even. But he didn’t even say no thanks.
My friend and I talked about him on the way home. Beggars can’t be choosers, we agreed callously. How rude was he, not even bothering to speak to us? Probably a drug addict, only interested in money for his next fix. He probably had a house somewhere, part of a crew of panhandlers on the highway who made their living taking money from chumps. From that moment on I ignored him when I saw him on the exit ramp, but the interaction still bothered me.
Years later, my husband, who travels for work, experienced a period in his life when people came up to him at different places – airports, usually – and asked for money. Money to help for a specific urgent need was the usual request. We talked about the coincidence of him being singled out by random people. Did you give them anything? I’d ask. He did. The people had good reasons for needing the cash. But my husband said that he sort of felt like he had been duped every time and that he wished he knew that they were using the money for the purpose he gave it.
In the Bible we are reminded that God loves widows and orphans, and takes care of those who live among us and who have no family of their own (Deuteronomy 10:18). He commands us to live generously as well, not being grudging with our giving, but give freely as God has freely given to us (Deuteronomy 15:10-11, Luke 6:30, 1 Corinthians 2:12).
It does not say in the Bible “Give freely, but only if the person is grateful and only if they really need it.”
When we give, we are not asked to judge the recipient of our generosity, nor called to put expectations on those to whom we give. We don’t give a birthday gift to a friend and ask them later if they are using it. Our involvement ends the moment the gift is in their hands; we don’t have control over how others use what they are given. If we worry about how a person is using something we’ve given to them, then our hearts weren’t in the right place when we gave the gift anyway. If they misuse the gift, that’s their problem to work through with God.
God could say the same about me. How many gifts have I received from him that I take for granted, refuse to thank him for, see as a burden, ignore, manipulate or squander?
God calls us to give freely as he has given to us. That’s all. It’s freeing to live life in the simple ways he asks us to live. If we can put aside our own encumbrances like expecting thanks or being recognized for a good deed or even knowing that our gift is used well, we can be at peace knowing that we are living the life we are meant to live. The person we help might not thank us, but we are asked to help anyway. This reminder is important for all of us to keep in mind when we give help, time, or resources. The recipient may not receive in the way we expect, but we have done what we were called to do.
And that is enough.
Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. Deuteronomy 15:10 (NLT)
Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Luke 6:30 (NLT)
What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God,
so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 1 Corinthians 2:12 (NIV)