What is True Charity?

By Martin Poehler

Imagine that something had happened in your life so that you needed help, and you didn't know where to turn for it. Things had gone wrong with your health, your finances, or your family life. You weren't sure how long it would take to get things right again. Imagine someone from a charitable organisation offered to help you with financial assistance. What would your reaction be?

Some of us would probably tell them, "I don't want to take charity. It is demeaning . I can get by on my own, thank you!"

Cheap Charity

Why do we sometimes have this attitude to charity? I believe it's because we think much about charity is "second-best." We see that some charities stock their retail shops with clothes donated by people who don't want them anymore. We've probably often been asked by beggars if we have any "spare change"-money we can easily afford to give away. If we give to them it's often out of guilt, not out of a sense they will better their lot with our money. We even suspect large respectable charitable organisations are operating at a second-best level. We give to the organisation and they give our money to those in need. But we are not really sure how much of our money gets to the needy people, and how much goes to the running of the charity itself.

Does the nature of "charity" mean it has to be second-best? Or have many people today who operate charities perverted the true meaning of charity?

Real Charity

Imagine this situation: if you desperately needed help in your life, and a person gave you a costly gift that you knew was valuable to them, how would you feel? How would you react if they took time to show you ways you could help yourself, and showed you real concern? Of course, you'd feel lifted up and have hope to go on! You wouldn't be offended such as when people "charitably" offer you what is second best. Instead you'd feel someone was acting in a true spirit of charity. So we sense real charity is possible, even though we don't see it in everyday life.

The Heart of Charity

What makes up true charity? It seems for charity to "ring true" to us and not be hypocritical, it must include grace. We know grace involves goodwill and consideration for others. One dictionary helps us better understand what grace is when it says grace is, "on the part of the bestower, the friendly disposition from which the kindly act proceeds, graciousness, loving-kindness, goodwill generally." 1 Grace has to do with the heart of the person giving the gift, not just the gift itself. A gift can be given with wrong motives -- having a guilty conscience, or wanting to have unfair influence over another person, for example. This isn't charity, of course. Charity involves a selfless giving, giving without the goal of personal gain. Gracious giving to someone regardless of whether we benefit or not, is closely related to love. One book, the Bible, says this: "Love is patient and kind... Love does not insist on its own way." 2 It seems grace and love -- giving things to someone that cost us a lot, while not seeking anything for ourselves in return -- is the heart of true charity.

If we ourselves want to give in a true spirit of charity, what can we do? It seems giving what is second best isn't charity, but giving something very valuable to us will be received with gratitude by the other person. In order to find out what that person needs to help them get back on their feet, we need to spend time with them to understand their needs. It's obvious that giving money alone can't solve a person's problems. Often wisdom, guidance, or personal attention from someone who genuinely cares about them, along with money, is what they need. Only when we give time and money and true concern can we "connect" with the other person -- and he have the chance of learning how to help himself in the future. This isn't as easy for us as giving a bit of money to an organisation, or to a beggar we will only meet once. It will cost us much, but it is the only way to truly meet someone else's needs and help them get a new start.

Many of us would like to give with true charity because deep down we think it is right to wholeheartedly give something valuable of ours to another person. As we give "our best" to someone we find in a strange way we are fulfilled -- and the person we give to doesn't just get a handout, but is encouraged to get back on their feet.

1 Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words; Thomas Nelson, Publishers.

2 The Bible-Revised Standard Version. 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, verses 4-5; William Collins Sons & Co, Ltd., Publishers.

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