We bought our first house in the Fall of 1988. We were a young couple with one baby girl, and excited about the way things were playing out. Of course, buying the house, putting up window treatments and furnishing it with lots of hand-me-downs resulted in two things: We were thrilled, and we were broke.
The future looked bright, at least for a little while. Shortly after buying the house, I was laid off from my job. I was unemployed right before Christmas. I spent that time hustling to make money wherever I could. I worked part-time at an old job, filled in at a friend’s company, even sold cords of firewood that I hauled down from the mountains. We were surviving – kind of.
Christmas was coming, and it was obvious that it would be a spartan year. There was barely enough money to keep the lights on let alone spend money of gifts, etc.
One evening, the doorbell rang. We went to the door to see who it was, but there was nobody there. Thinking someone was just ding-dong-ditching us, we were about to go back inside when I noticed an envelope sticking out from under out doormat. I took it inside and we opened it.
$200. In cash.
It was a godsend. $200 may not sound like that much nowadays, but to a young struggling family, it was huge. We felt greatly blessed, but had no one to thank – except for God and His anonymous helper.
To this day, we do not know who gave us such a wonderful gift, but I like it that way. I hope the anonymous giver feels that way, too.
Christ had a bit to say about the beauty of anonymous giving in the Sermon on the Mount.
“Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
I once wrote a blog post looking at our motivations for obedience as a “Good – Better – Best” scenario. (link) I see our motivations for giving to be very much the same: There are good, better and best ways to go about it. When I say “Giving,” it means service, charity, kindness acts or yes, even cash in an envelope. For discussion’s sake, rather than using “Good, Better, Best,” I’m going with “Giving, Givinger, Givingest.” (Work with me here.)
Some giving is not necessarily “selfless.” You have all seen celebrities and politicians doing humanitarian work, or dishing food in a soup kitchen. You know there is a Public Relations element to it, as it miraculously occurs right before a film release or an election. If there isn’t a film crew, it ain’t gonna happen. The motivation can be a pretty obvious thing.
But, the giving still happens, and it can draw attention to needs that are out there. Because of that, it is good, because good still comes from it. I noticed that while Christ rejected the Pharisee’s attitudes, He did not reject their alms. As for the PR benefits: “Thus they have their reward.” Giving to show off, is short-sighted in that it while it may reward a needy ego, it will not reward eternally.
I saw this often in my humanitarian work. Some people were disposed to donate and offer help, but the willingness was often contingent upon what the donor might get out of the deal – whether it be recognition, a special experience, or some kind of leverage. The donations might have come from a mix of motivations – charity, pressure or pride, they were still appreciated, and good, even if the motivation was not always the best.
But the bright side is that if you have a negative attitude when you give a hungry man some money, he will still be able to buy something to eat. His stomach does not care about the motivation of the giver.
Sometimes we give with the expectation of a specific upside – in particular, blessings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as even Christ uses “getting” as a motivator when He offers that Heavenly Father will reward us. Giving with the hope that Heavenly Father will notice and bless us is effective, and can lead us to being more charitable.
Recognition or gain can also come without actively seeking for it. We can’t always give in secret, but charity does not have to be anonymous to be worthy. Often service and kindness is inevitably visible. This does not diminish the act, but the true worth – for us, the giver – is dictated by our motivations. Humble, quiet acceptance of recognition is not what the Pharisee’s of Christ’s day were after, but it is what Christ recommends.
Some years ago, I had a calling that required a tremendous amount of time and effort. Upon completion, my leader gave me a Thank You note. Inside was an expensive gift card to a very nice restaurant.
It felt weird.
Even though the food was delicious, the words “Thus they have their reward” kept nagging at me. I know the gift was meant as a sincere thank you, with pure intent, but in a spiritual way, it seemed to gum up the works. Interestingly, years later that gift card came up in conversation and my leader/friend apologized, and told me how he regretted having done it – for precisely the same reasons I just mentioned. A Thank You note, minus the gift card: Priceless. (Personally, I have always been uncomfortable with celebratory activities or thank-you gifts for people for doing their religious duties. I figure that the Lord would take care of that in a much better way.)
I’m sure that some of you agree with me when I say that there is an occasional calling that you couldn’t pay me enough to do – but I’d do it for free. Something about being rewarded or overly-acknowledged for good works seems to diminish the work itself. (Anyone who has done volunteer work that has morphed into a paying job knows exactly what I mean.)
Im referring to temple workers, President Hinckley said, “These are men and women who love the Lord, who understand His eternal plan, who are imbued with a selflessness that prompts dedicated service without expectation of thanks or reward.” (Link)
Blowing our own horns is not the best way to go about serving, but In some instances, sharing details of our charitable efforts can help motivate others to do the same. A PR program like #LightTheWorld can bring attention to people outside the church, and inspire and motivate those of us inside the church to get busy. It is not in secret, but it still works.
Jesus describes this level best in the scriptures preciously cited. Elder Richard G. Scott responded to this passage by saying, “I am convinced that when we give unconditional love; when our interest is first in serving, building, edifying, strengthening without thought of self; when we do not expect an automatic return for each act of kindness, generosity, or sincere effort to help; when we are not concerned about what we will receive or what others will say or whether our own burdens will be diminished, but selflessly seek to build another, the miracle of the power of the gospel is released in our lives. When we permit the Lord to work through us to bless others, that sacred experience releases power in our own lives, and miracles occur. Well did the Master say, “For inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these, ye do it unto me.” (D&C 42:38.) (Link)
When giving is not about us, we are on the right track. Of course, giving at any level is still better than not giving. We might lose our reward, but the recipient will still be blessed.
There is something pure about anonymous giving, and God treats it differently. President Monson reminds us that, “loving service anonymously given may be unknown to man—but the gift and the giver are known to God.” (link)
This past week I was fortunate to see the movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” which was about Charles Dickens’ writing of the Christmas Carol. Ebeneezer Scrooge is truly a perfect example of the spectrum of non-giving to giving, so, to finish up, here is a quote from that work:
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.”
And to whomever gave us that $200 all those years ago, we thank you, and hope you feel that God has rewarded you greatly.
A terrific talk by President Monson deals with this topic, and Christmas. “Anonymous.”
One of my all-time favorite BYU Speeches was from Arthur C. Brooks, titled, “Why Giving Matters.” It is mind-blowing and life altering.