“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27, NIV
When considering the issue of how much a Christian ought to give, I am always confronted by this question: How can it be that there are both rich Christians and extreme suffering in the world?
If we take seriously Jesus’ statement that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” among others, we must face the reality that extreme, self-glorifying riches are not compatible with the core of the Gospel.
In this blog, I will describe that by reading the Gospels and other sections of the Bible, there is a strong initial case to be made that Christians have an obligation to give extravagantly, and therefore must have a very compelling reason when they do not. Doing so is not only the right thing to do, but also an act of faith, a tangible expression of belief in God.
The sheep and the goats
One of the most challenging passages in the Bible, the parable of the sheep and the goats, presents an inconvenient yet essential reality. In this parable, what divided the sheep (i.e. the good) from the goats (i.e. the bad) was how they cared for others, i.e. their charitable actions:
“‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” Matthew 25: 34b-36
It is clear, then, that helping those in need is truly an act of worship, something done not only for the sake of those in need but also for God. And, since there are so many people all over the world in need of help, then it is probably the case that we ought to sacrificially give as much as we can–not just 10%–to help as many as we can.
This message of caring for those who need help is found throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New. Jesus’ teachings are clear: one of the indicators of faith is self-sacrificial charity.
Biblical giving: how much?
If, then, Christians are called to give, at what point have we “given enough?”
The standard response from your typical Christian is 10%. This figure, however, is rooted in a simplified interpretation, and is not sufficient for our purposes. Turning to the teachings of Jesus and other passages in the Bible, it becomes clear that, if we are able, we are likely called to give much more.
After considering the immense suffering in the world, and what the Bible says about loving the poor through action, the question is not so much “what is enough?” but rather “how much can I give?”
The Bible and Marginal Utility
In Peter Singer’s famous essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” he argued that perhaps people ought to give to the point of marginal utility, “at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s dependents as much suffering as one would prevent.” This classic utilitarian claim is quite demanding – our question, then, is whether or not this argument is weighty for Christians.
Surprisingly, utility-driven reasoning makes an appearance in the Bible. In Luke 3:11, John the Baptist says, “anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” This reasoning is marginal utility in action – when a resource is more useful to another than it is to us, this suggests we may, at first glance, have an obligation to give up that resource.
To be sure, this does not necessarily imply that we should obsess over creating a world that guarantees equal utility amongst all people. Rather, this simply furthers our understanding of how we might prioritize giving, and how we can consider why we ought to give extravagantly.
To be sure, this obligation requires the ability to give; 1 Timothy 5:8 makes clear that we have a strong obligation to care for our families’ needs. However, in the developed world, we may tend to consider the idea of “needs” a bit too liberally.
In practice, Christian giving ethics likely compel us to give according to our abilities, which means well beyond 10% for many people. This likely means giving up many of the “luxuries” of life in wealthy countries. A daily $5 coffee is probably not justified. Eating out ought to be something of a rarity. If your house or apartment is well beyond your needs, then a change might be necessary.
This also means giving to effective organizations. As Alex Rattee, a writer for a blog called Christian Effective Altruism, noted in a post, “if there is an available charity that alleviates more suffering than another, then all other considerations being equal, a Christian has reason to donate their money to the charity that alleviates more suffering over the charity that alleviates less.”
In this piece, I have defended the claim that Christians likely have an obligation to give self-sacrificially, and must have a strong reason when they do not. I purposely leave a little ambiguity in my claim because this is an ambiguous question, which requires a nuanced answer.
This is by no means a free pass to give frugally, but rather an admission that not all people are required to sell all that they have to give to the poor, as the “rich man” was required to by Jesus. If you aren’t called to give to this point of marginal utility, there must be a compelling reason, a specific calling not to. What this means is that Christians should understand that this call to give sacrificially and extravagantly is a likely possibility, one that should be taken seriously. Surely, Christians are not called to live in extreme wealth while so many barely have the resources to live at all.
Note: This post is adapted from a piece I wrote for Christian Effective Altruism.