Christian generosity

Piggybacking on yesterday’s post topic (again): I heard an amazing (-ly awful) sermon on the radio the other day, by California megachurch pastor and radio/TV ministry leader David Jeremiah. It’s about generosity. Specifically, it’s about how generosity, sincerity, humility, sympathy, and hospitality are essential to being a good Christian. In fact, those five subpoints fall under just one point in a broader series on the “signs of life,” based on Jeremiah’s book of the same name. Those signs are “dusty shoes,” “worn-out knees,” “rolled-up sleeves,” “open hands” (this is where the generosity, etc. comes in), and “outstretched arms.”

My first reaction: that’s a lot of organizational structure — and that’s only what I heard in one sermon out of a many-part series. Sounds like a guy who isn’t very confident in his audience’s ability to follow him … or a guy who really wants you to take notes on what he is saying. Probably both. He lists all the signs, and recounts these subpoints, many times in a 15-20 minute sermon. He also offers handy flashcards for free on the Turning Point ministry website as “a helpful reminder” of his points in the series. When he reads a verse that uses the phrase “open hand,” he instructs everyone in the congregation to open their hands and chides them when they don’t do it enthusiastically enough the first time, like he’s trying to get a classroom full of kindergarteners to yell “Good morning!” at him.

So what was so awful about the sermon, aside from the somewhat condescending tone? After all, the values Jeremiah’s advocating here are pretty uncontroversially good ones. My real problem was that, despite being stated so simply and straightforwardly, there are glaring contradictions and general points of confusion to an extent that honestly shocked me. Did Jeremiah deliberately try to obfuscate them using excessive subdivisions of his points and confident proclamations? Is he honestly unaware of them? Is his congregation unaware of them?

He begins by saying that Christians should “have a spirit of generosity.” But why should they? Because “God says keep your hands open.” Later, he says that this is “how God wants us really to live all the time.” A good Christian should do whatever God says and wants, all the time. (Implied: because you know what happens to people who don’t do what God wants.) Then, just moments later, Jeremiah moves to sincerity and quotes Romans 12:9 — I think he must be using the NASB translation — saying “Let love be without hypocrisy.” He applies this to the practice of giving:

Let’s don’t be posturing here, let’s don’t be acting when we’re not real. … [Etymology of the word hypocrisy, plus rapid-fire citation of 1 Peter 1:22, 1 John 3:18, 1 Timothy 1:5.] … God wants us not to be generous because we want people to think well of us. He wants us to be generous because down deep in our hearts that’s who we are. We have developed a spirit of generosity.

Recap: be generous because God says so (or else). No discussion of moral philosophy, just some assertions and a sort of troubling anecdote about an adult swallow pushing its chicks off a tree branch. (At first I thought this was about being a jerk or something, but then it turned out to be about teaching them to fly. Apparently, since birds are “perfectly designed” for flying, it follows that humans are “perfectly designed” for being generous. QED.) Then — be generous because you really mean it, not because you’re trying to please anyone else. It has to come straight from the heart.

How can one point follow the other without even a hint of irony? This is exactly why atheists dispute the idea that Christians are more moral than other people. Christians do understand that sincerity is important, that people appreciate it more when you are kind and compassionate because you really want to than because you were coerced into it or have some ulterior motive. When they claim that their morality is derived from what they believe to be God’s words to them, and that without belief in God they don’t think anyone could behave themselves, it’s pretty scary! They’ve admitted that they feel incapable of making their own moral judgments. On the other hand, atheists are often, dare I say usually, making their own moral judgments. Both Christians and atheists are susceptible to the desire to please others or the desire to act selfishly (even when that’s not the most moral course of action), but these Christians are saying that even when that’s not the case, they’re not really being generous deep down in their hearts, because they’re just doing whatever God said to do.

I guess even the “be sincere” part of this is just in there because God said so (or because God inspired Paul to say so?), so the whole thing is pretty bogus. How can you be sincere if even your sincerity isn’t?

The next major issue with Jeremiah’s presentation of sincere generosity was a not-very-subtle invocation of prosperity theology. If you’re supposed to be giving from the heart, just for the sake of giving, why should you care that when your hands are open in giving “God just keeps putting more and more in your hand”? He promises, “God wants to bless you that way.” Near the end of the sermon, he reiterates the message:

I want to remind you again that when you keep your hand open, God wants to put in your hand so much, and when he sees you know what to do with it, he will just keep putting it there, over and over again.

In other words, the more money you give away, the wealthier you’ll be! (And if you’d like to donate to my ministry, here’s the toll-free number to call. Cough cough.)

It’s funny that he would go the prosperity route, given that the sermon also contains an exhortation to be “a living sacrifice” and a discussion of humility that instructs the congregation to “have a servant’s spirit” and remember that “there is nothing that is beneath your dignity.” (Erm. While I do think humility is good, that’s a little farther out on the continuum than I think is necessary to go. I value self-respect, too.) But then, we’ve learned by now, coherent and non-contradictory messages are not David Jeremiah’s strong suit.

Then there’s this part, also during the discussion of humility, which really got my attention.

Give preference to somebody. No one ever does that anymore! But if you want to be a Christian with a spirit of generosity, give preference to others. … Here, the meaning of the phrase is that we are to put other believers in the forefront and place them in the place of honor. We’re to look beyond our own needs to the needs of others. What a gift. The gift of preference. Hardly ever does that gift ever get given today. And it takes humility to do that.

Did you catch it? That’s right, the meaning of “give preference to others” is to put other believers in the forefront. Help other people, think of their needs before your own, but only if they believe exactly as you believe. Otherwise, they’re unworthy of the attentions of you and your kind. Do they really think this is what humility looks like? What happened to “there is nothing that is beneath your dignity”?

Interestingly, that’s the only place in the sermon (that I caught…) where that specification is given. Jeremiah says that Jesus “asked us today to wash the feet of those we don’t even know, to minister to those we have not yet seen,” and that “there’s lots of needs all around us.” He points out that most generosity happens on a small scale, and suggests that we ought to “listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of telling him to get lost, give a cup of water to a shaky old man who needs help.” So, should you make sure the neighborhood is entirely evangelical Christian before buying a house, so you don’t accidentally listen to the troubles of a nonbeliever? Should you ask that old man about his religious beliefs first, and just let him hobble away thirsty if he’s a heathen or a heretic?

The last big issue I want to talk about here is one we’ve discussed a bit before: the conflation of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. The Great Commandment is what I’d expect you’d be talking about in a sermon about generosity and open hands. But we still have statements like, “When they see [our generous acts], they know it can’t be us, and they glorify our Father who is in heaven. That ought to be our goal.” Really? I thought the goal was supposed to be generosity for generosity’s sake … but now it’s just a sneaky PR pitch. What was that about not being a hypocrite, again? Jeremiah doesn’t help his case by telling an anecdote about distributing groceries to pastors in North Carolina, who were then to pass them on to their church’s members. He explains that this was done in part because the pastors would know better who was most in need, but also significantly because “we wanted the pastors to be the heroes in all of this, we wanted the people to know who the pastor was so they would have a relation with them.”

David Jeremiah has a lot of platitudes in this sermon, and they’re arranged into neat little blocks that you can write down on your steno pad and feel very holy about … but if you take a moment to think critically about what he’s actually saying, the nice message crumbles away. I can’t help but think that the only way thousands of people can stand to listen to this kind of garbage every week is if they never think about it, just accept it unquestioningly.

Oh, by the way — it turns out that Turning Point is giving away copies of Signs of Life in exchange for donations of “any” amount. I tried putting in $0.01 and it took me through to the next stage of the form, so I guess they’re serious. I can’t stomach any more of this — and I’m not interested in giving them any information about myself — but I thought some of you might get a kick out of it.

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  1. The prosperity preachers definitely talk out of both sides of their mouths, on one hand it’s “theres no use giving if you don’t want to” then it’s “you’re supposed to be giving whether you want to or not out of obedience”. It’s how pastors like him get rich.

    The sermons coupled with the motions encourage “group-think”. They make it almost compulsory to go through the physical motions and repeating certain catch phrases. That way when the collection basket goes around everyone is on the same page if you know what i mean.

    Its a very cultish atmosphere and it is a growing movement which plays on our selfishness: “Give more to get more. What, you aren’t getting more? Well give more and this time love God a little more. What? You still aren’t getting more? You must not be loving Jesus hard enough, keep trying you’re doing it wrong!”

    Once people get into those churches its hard to get out of the “name it and claim it” mind-set.

  2. Just feeling the need to let out a pet peeve of mine:

    The “Great Commandment,” as Jesus describes it in the Gospels, specifically does not have anything to do with “neighbors,” or indeed with other human beings or generosity toward same at all. Liberal Christians (and I see from your link, alas, that Wikipedia joins that club) constantly misrepresent this, but the “first and greatest commandment” is 100% deity and 0% humanity:

    And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?

    And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

    And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

    – Mark 12:28-31

    But when the Pharisees had heard that [Jesus] had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

    Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.

    And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    – Matthew 22:34-40

    It’s about as clear as it can be: the singular “Great Commandment” is just the one about loving God—which gets all sorts of embellishment about heart and soul and mind and whatever. Then there’s the second commandment (no such embellishment), which is inferior and subordinate to the Great one about God. The structure of Jesus’ answer makes this very clear: he’s explicitly describing two commandments, not one, and one takes precedence over the other.*

    With the (I think very minor) additional premise that “loving God” requires obeying God, it seems to me that the hierarchy Jesus is arguing for here simply obliterates any hope of setting the guy up as a hero of humanistic ethics. It’s not exactly difficult to find examples in the Bible (or in the texts of other religions, or in the beliefs of myriad adherents in the modern world) in which God and his chosen heroes (including Jesus) command their followers to do things that are savagely unloving to their neighbors: in one or both Testaments believers are enjoined to take their neighbors’ possessions, enslave their neighbors, rape their neighbors, slaughter their neighbors outright, and finally watch their neighbors tortured in a Lake of Fire.

    All of that ugliness is, in fact, consistent with the Great and second commandments Jesus describes in the Gospels—because he makes it clear that loving and obeying God takes precedence over loving neighbors. It’s not consistent, however, with the disingenuous liberal-Christian notion that the first and “Great Commandment” somehow mentions loving neighbors. It doesn’t.

    In light of the frequency with which the GC comes up in discussions of the Gospels’ Jesus character, it seems to me that aligning it with anything about neighbors gives said character more credit than he deserves.

    * Luke 10 has another version of the same story, though in that one the “lawyer” (as an attorney myself I find the Gospel writers’ sneering attitude toward lawyers awfully annoying) is the one to answer the question, and that lawyer makes the distinction between Great and second commandments a little less clear. Let’s hear it for lawyers….

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