Drawing the Line

I’ve been convicted over the past year of giving that I impose too many preconditions upon the act of giving.  Essentially, the person has to measure up to some sort of ill-defined set of criteria in order for me to give them a dollar or ten dollars or whatever.  I’ve been convicted that this is more often than not, a means of justifying not giving them something.  A means of validating that decision to myself, or making me feel better about the fact that I turned away from another person in need.

And yet Scripture doesn’t tell us to unplug our brain, either.  Perhaps that’s part of what it means to be as “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).  We aren’t to waste what has been entrusted to us, any more than we are to hoard it.  This makes for an interesting tension – one that the Biblical witness doesn’t do a lot to clarify.  It’s something that each of us has to work out for ourselves, in each instance where we are presented with someone asking for our help.

I was confronted by a man a little over a week ago.  He arrived at my office at wits end.  No job. No car.  No home.  His wife and children had left him.  He couldn’t find work.  Nobody else could help him.  As I try to do in these cases, I sought to clarify his situation.  No friends, no relatives, no support structure.  No prospects for work, nothing that needed to be sustained or jump started.  He had nothing, and that included prospects.  He was hoping to get money to rent a room from someone for a month. 

Despite misgivings and bad vibes, I agreed to help him.  What ensued over the next few days was a constant shifting of what he wanted or needed, and who he had found to provide it for him – assuming that I could provide the cash.  I think the problem was that I was demanding to see the vehicle or the room and to ensure the deal was on the up and up as much as I could.   

After a few days of shenanigans, I was sick.  Sick that I had given this guy my word that I would help him.  Sick that I felt like he was not on the up and up.  Sick to think of the young family I had helped the week before who had been so kind and grateful, who had volunteered to come down to the church and help out in our garden for a bit.  Sick to think of other people like that who wouldn’t get this money, and what this guy was likely to do with this money and whomever he was paying to pose as his future landlord.   But I had given my word.  I felt trapped.  I was on my way to take him the check and be done with it – even though once again he had failed to ensure that the guy he was going to rent from would be there to meet me when I showed up with the check. 

I pulled off the freeway.  I couldn’t do it.  I was torn between giving my word to this guy, and being convinced in my gut that my word was being used against me.  He hadn’t done anything that I had asked to try and demonstrate the need of his situation, or the legitimacy of his need.  I felt guilty for setting up hoops, but we were talking about a sizable amount of money, and given my misgivings, it seemed like the best option.  I was trying to be faithful to not judging when being asked, but was also being convinced that perhaps I didn’t understand all the nuances of the Biblical injunctions in terms of giving.  And if all that wasn’t enough, I decided that I had an obligation to the people that had entrusted these monies to my church, and that perhaps in some situations, that obligation had to be weighed just as equally as the obligation to a particular person asking for help.  

I felt good about the situation almost immediately.  I turned around on the freeway and headed back to town.  I had just pulled off the road to call and let him know I wasn’t coming, when he called me.  He was shocked when I told him.  And suddenly, despite the fact that 30 minutes earlier he had told me his landlord couldn’t make the meeting, he was telling me that he was there with him, and they were waiting for me.   He pleaded, but there was no point, and eventually I wished him well and hung up.  No hesitation.  No second-thoughts.  No nagging uncertainties or latent guilt.  Just a feeling of relief, as though a bullet had been dodged.  

Being a steward means that you have to constantly weigh the options in front of you.  Simply giving without any thought of the giving doesn’t seem to be the type of steward we are called to be, just as finding excuses not to give in order to make yourself feel better about it is not the type of steward we are called to be.  I’ve tried to give the benefit of the doubt, to bend over backwards to meet people where they are and honestly attempt to help them.  But at some point, I think I’m also called to say this just doesn’t seem right.  If it was a few bucks, maybe I go through with it regardless of misgivings.  But when it’s a substantial amount of money, then it seems as though a greater level of oversight is warranted.  

I keep thinking about this situation.  I don’t spend a lot of time second guessing my final decision.  But there are always those nagging doubts.  Perhaps that’s good.  Perhaps that’s a sign that there is some small amount of innocent dove at play in this situation, as well as a healthy dose of serpentine shrewdness.


One Response to “Drawing the Line”

  1. Marie Says:

    Am I wrong or was your gut telling you this guy was trying to steal from your church? There are a lot of confusions about giving, I’ll grant you, and a lot to untangle. The stereotype is giving a man money he uses to hurt himself, there’s a Steinbeck book, The Winter of Our Discontent? But it seems like in this case you were sensing this guy was a kind of grifter. We never have an obligation to let someone steal from us, do we?

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