It was about 10 o’clock at night. Some friends were graciously giving me a ride home from my church’s small group so I didn’t have to take a taxi. We were waiting at a traffic light when we heard a small knock on the window.
A little girl pressed her solemn face up against the glass as she pointed to the flower chains she clutched in her other hand, wordlessly begging us to buy them. My friend opened the window slightly and handed her some money, but he told her he didn’t want any flowers.
At this point, street children usually either try to talk you into buying something more or take the money and try another car. This girl did neither.
After my friend refused her, she began crying much like a toddler does when they don’t get their way. She tried to stuff her flowers through the crack in the window to force us to buy them. When she couldn’t, she collapsed to the ground, wailing as we drove away.
The image of her bursting into tears is forever seared in my brain.
I had been living in the Philippines for nearly a year at this point, having moved there to volunteer with an anti-sex trafficking organization. I was used to seeing children begging, but never had I been confronted with such desperation nor felt so helpless and guilty.
Selling flower chains as a street child is a good indication that he or she is part of a gang and likely doesn’t receive much—if any—of the money they earn. I will forever wonder if she cried because she wasn’t allowed to go home until she sold everything, if she was tired and hungry, if she often roamed the streets knocking on car windows through the late hours of the night.
The two years I lived in the Philippines profoundly altered my understanding of Christian giving.
As a Christian, I believe all good things come from God, including my finances. In everyday life, I don’t always act that way. When I have a salary, I tend to see that as my money. I give a little of it to God because that’s what Christians are supposed to do.
Fundraising forced me to abandon that line of thinking. Literally EVERYTHING—every dollar I raised—came from the Lord. Living in total dependence left me with two major questions:
- Why was I born into such wealth when so many others struggle just to survive?
- How could I be stingy and greedy when He was so graciously providing for each of my needs?
Question #1: Why me?
Living in the Philippines confronted me with the incredible privilege I received at birth. Despite living in an apartment building in one of the financial districts, nearly every day I passed begging children, mothers with babies, and people with obvious physical disabilities. Seeing people in such need bothered me at first, but over time I began filtering them out of my vision. It became easier to brush past and avert my eyes.
I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes these suffering people even annoyed me. They were forcing me to confront the painful reality that I am incredibly privileged—and, of course, with great privilege comes great responsibility.
It’s not to say that being privileged means one never experiences hardships—I definitely have undergone many trials throughout my life. Still, the fact is, because I don’t have to worry about my basic physical needs like food, water and shelter, I am a lot better off than the majority of the world’s population.
I don’t have an answer to why God spared me from proverty, and I’m not sure the question is even meant to be answered. No one knows the mind of God, and although He often graciously reveals Himself to us, more often He calls us to simply follow Him in faith.
For me, trying to answer this question is dangerous, because my motives for even asking are often not because I feel a burden for the poor, but instead because I’m seeking validation for my existence. Perhaps I am even hoping to learn that I deserve my good fortune.
Far better to simply accept the fact that I have been born into privilege and rephrase the question: For what purpose has God given me my wealth, talents, etc.? How does He want me to further His kingdom and bless others?
Question #2: Why is giving to the poor so hard?
There could be many answers to this question, depending on the person and the situation. However, as I examine those reasons in more depth, they usually boil down to one thing: doubt.
While in the Philippines, most of my struggles to give freely stemmed from a fear that I wouldn’t have enough for myself—that I would lack necessary finances to meet a future need, or, more selfishly, that I wouldn’t have enough to treat myself.
My logic was inherently flawed because, in reality, all my money was coming from the Lord. He had never failed me before. His Word tells us He loves a cheerful giver and repeatedly commands us not to worry about our needs because He has promised to provide. Thus, I can give generously because it’s His money anyway and He has promised to care for me.
Even knowing this truth, I wrestled with the dreaded “what ifs.” What if this became the one time when God would fail me? On the other hand, what if I wasn’t being a good steward with what He gave me by giving to whatever person, cause, etc. that needed it?
The first question is answered simply enough with faith in God’s providence, but the second has some merit. As a partial answer, I think it’s good to seek the Lord for wisdom in knowing whom to support, because there are so many good causes to which you can give.
At the same time, the challenge here is giving sacrificially—giving beyond what you think you can afford to give. In the Philippines, many of my friends supported their parents and siblings financially far beyond what the average American would even consider. More than that, Filipinos show great hospitality and generosity even to strangers.
Once I was traveling alone on one of the islands and had to wait several hours for a ferry. While I was waiting, a group of Filipinos invited me to sit with them. We laughed and chatted for a while, then they asked me to stay for lunch. They joked, “It’s Sunday though, so we don’t have meat because we can’t afford it.”
But lo and behold, not only did they buy all the vegetables and refuse to let me contribute, not only did they prepare everything and refuse to let me help, a small plate piled with lechon (the best pork meat in the Philippines) was placed in front of me.
“You’re our guest,” they told me. “We want you to have this.”
That afternoon really humbled me. These people presented a total stranger with a feast though they themselves had little money, and they were happy to do it.
I could share many similar stories of the generosity I received during my time there. Interestingly, many of these instances occurred during my second year—the year I struggled the most financially, as well as the year that I felt God calling me to start giving to Him out of my finances. I wish I could say I was a cheerful giver, but when I obeyed, it was often grudgingly.
Rather than being excited to see how God would provide, I worried I wouldn’t raise enough money to get me through the remaining months. I often fantasized, “If only 100 people would each give $10, that would get me so far.”
I worried so much about the lack of checks that I nearly missed how God was providing for me through the generosity of the very people I had come to serve.
So many Filipino friends treated me to lunches and dinners, which helped me cut back on a lot of daily expenses. Some friends even treated me to movies, and I also had two people pay for my hotel expenses on two different occasions so I could go on a weekend trip with them. Despite my selfishness and struggle with obedience, God not only provided for my needs, but He “treated”me, too.
The greatest thing I learned about finances is that you cannot out-give God. He blesses each of us—not just for our benefit but so that we might bless others. As we pour out, He refills us over and over again. He might not do so monetarily. In my experience, He didn’t give me new supporters like I hoped, but He provided in unexpected ways that demonstrated His power and glory.
We are called to reflect God, and our Lord is generous, loving and self-sacrificing. There is great need in the world. Reflect on all that God has blessed you with and ask Him how He wants you to use it. It might be painful. God might have to prune areas of selfishness and self-dependence in your life first. But it’s worth it, for you will receive more than you could ever hope to give.