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The theology of giving

Author and Yale professor Miroslav Volf says generosity and forgiveness are at the root of knowing God

The theology of giving

Miroslav Volf grew up as a Pentecostal in Croatia. In college he played guitar and sang in a Christian band, but in one town young Communists beat up the band members and slashed the van's tires. And that was before the war that upended his hometown and all the Balkans. As a professor at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, he now lives in a more polite environment, one that many evangelicals view suspiciously, so it's a pleasure to see the biblical grounding of his latest book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Zondervan, 2005).

WORLD: Your book explores theological principles in a deeply personal way, so let me start out personally: You write about how infertility felt for nine years like a poison and a curse, but after you and your wife adopted your two sons you came to see infertility as "God's strange gift." How can those who also feel cursed keep God's gifts in mind?

VOLF: When we feel "cursed" our souls oscillate-we weep and rage, we beat on heaven's doors, and we sit dejected and incapacitated, wondering whether heaven has any doors or whether there even is any heaven. We look for God as source of hope, but when we turn to God we see only a dark face.

And that is, in a sense, as it ought to be for those who believe in an all-powerful and good God while facing undisputable evil. Because we believe, we run to God for help. And strange as it may seem, because we believe we also lament and protest. For if we did not believe, there'd be nothing to protest about because we'd have no reason to expect to live in a good world.

Of infertility, we'd simply acknowledge that that's what human bodies sometimes do-they fail to produce offspring-and there would be nothing more to it except to try to fix the problem. So God is both the source of our protest and the source of our help.

So first it's OK to lament and protest, which means, second, that a "curse" can't be seen as a gift while you're in it. A curse may become a gift (or give birth to a gift), but while you're in it, it's not yet a gift. Only when the resolution comes does the "curse" reveal itself to have been a gift. That's what happened to me. When our adopted children came, infertility showed itself as a painful but welcome gift. So what those who feel cursed can do is hope in (that is, count on or expect) the goodness of God, which will, in its own time, transform our curses into gifts.

I should add that I'm not so sure all of our curses-all the curses in the world-will be transformed into gifts. The Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing, Stalin's purges as gifts!? Something in me rebels at the mere thought of that idea. As a Christian, I live with the pain of these incredible wounds and with hope for a new world without them.

WORLD: You write that God's gifts themselves oblige us to give freely to others, and that God's commands reinforce that obligation in a way that allows the constraint to work for beauty and delight. How does the Bible offer liberty in giving by providing order?

VOLF: The big issue behind your question is the proper understanding of freedom. Our Western culture, especially I'd say our American culture, is all about freedom. But what does it mean to be really free? It does not mean simply having choices and living as you please. It does mean living with every fiber of your being, including your will, in sync with who God created you to be.

Freedom isn't just a matter of will; it's a matter of being. And that's where certain forms of constraint of freedom can legitimately come in. Why? Because our desires are often not in sync with who we truly are as creatures of God. Unconstrained, we work against ourselves and generate our own slavery-sometimes even pleasant slavery for a while, but slavery nonetheless-as those addicted to drugs, pornography, gambling, or anything else will attest.

When God commands us sinners how to live, we experience God's commands as constraint. But what the commands really do is simply tell us what it means to live in sync with ourselves as God's creatures. In the world to come, when we've been made thoroughly good, the content of God's Law will remain unchanged. We just won't experience it as constraint, because we'll do spontaneously precisely what God's commands tell us to do. Then we'll be truly free. The command to give nudges us, reluctantly generous sinners that we are, to be joyful and free givers.

WORLD: Our natural worry is that if we give what we have, we ourselves may go without later. You counter that by teaching, "Those who pass gifts on receive more abundantly from the source of all gifts"-from God. What are the advantages but also the dangers of thinking of giving as a triangular exchange rather than simply person-to-person?

VOLF: You mean triangular exchange with God as the third party, right? The advantages are immense. Take God out of the picture and it's hard to know how to justify and how to practice genuine giving. We either simply seek to maximize our own benefits, or by giving are doomed to lose-even lose ourselves when we give radically. With God in the picture, our genuine giving and our benefiting coincide. Then, as Kierkegaard puts it in his great book, Works of Love, those who love receive what they give, from God and eventually from others, too.

Are there dangers in such an understanding of gift-giving? It does involve some risk-exactly as much risk as believing in God involves in the first place. And the risk consists in the gift-giving itself. Every gift given is a risk taken.

Even when we write up contracts to set up the terms of a mutually beneficial exchange of equivalents, we run some risk that the contract will not be respected, that we'll lose the deal, will have to go to court, etc. The risk is much greater when it comes to gift-giving. When we give a gift, we don't make an advance agreement to get anything in return. In a certain sense, we make ourselves vulnerable to those to whom we've given. When they reciprocate our generosity, we rejoice. Community is created, and the risk-taking has proven worth doing. When they are selfish-well, we know that those who give in love receive back love from God.

WORLD: Let's say a reader of Free of Charge nods his head when you write that "those of us who have tend to squander or hoard," but he nods equally emphatically when you note that "what we do pass on is often misappropriated by middlemen," so that it's not clear that increasing the size of gifts will actually help. What should we do to avoid falling into "compassion fatigue," which results sometimes from sin but other times from our awareness of misspending?

VOLF: We should not forget that many middlemen act with integrity and even generosity of their own, though there are plenty of bad apples in the basket. We should be smart in the way we give. What good is it to give a gift to a person in need, only for it to end up in the coffers of those who've made it their perverse job to plunder the fruits of others' generosity?

Yet we realize that we live in a fallen world. The practice of gift-giving is in no way exempt. So we monitor our giving, put pressure on middlemen for transparency and accountability, change venues of giving when necessary. And all along we realize that our giving will be partly thwarted. But we still give-and we give because there's the divine Third at work as we give.

The benefit to the recipient isn't reduced to the amount of "stuff" we give; our gift is a seed that God multiplies for recipients as well as for givers. Notice an important contrast: When you and I exchange equivalents-say, when we barter-you get no more and no less than what has parted from me. It's different with gifts. When I give you a gift, you receive more than the stuff that has left my hands, partly because you receive not just my gift but also my generosity. Gifts are not simply the "stuff" that travels from one person to the other. Gifts are seeds that God makes grow, sometimes into a bountiful harvest. So I can give in hope, and that hope does not disappoint even if unethical middlemen siphon off more than their share.

WORLD: How does the understanding that "God is wrathful because God is love" help the affluent to avoid being either implacable judges or doting grandparents in relation to the poor? How does that sense of how to give also inspire forgiving?

VOLF: Love without wrath on account of harm inflicted on the beloved is mere sentimentality. That's why God is wrathful in the face of human sin. We who are affluent often don't know how to be good givers. We give-but for all the wrong reasons. We give in order to get something, which is to say that we give to ourselves-to puff ourselves up or to atone for our transgressions, for instance. I suspect that God is sometimes wrathful toward us because we are bad givers.

Is it appropriate for us as loving givers also to be wrathful? Certainly we should avoid both the stance of implacable judge ("You're undeserving, therefore you'll get nothing from me!") and of doting grandparent ("I could never give you enough, sweetheart."). But is there a proper way to be wrathful? Let me put it this way: It's important to educate recipients about how to receive responsibly. It's an art to receive well, just as it's an art to give well; and we can sin not just as givers but also as recipients, and sin gravely. But givers aren't best suited to teach their recipients; for when they do so, their giving has a tendency to turn into rewarding and therefore to cancel itself as giving.

WORLD: You write, "It's morally wrong to treat an adulterer and a murderer as if they had not committed adultery and murder . . . such offenses should not be disregarded. Instead, they should be forgiven." How does that work out in practice concerning criminal justice and incarceration? Why do liberals tend to disregard offenses, while conservatives tend to refuse to forgive?

VOLF: I don't like using the labels "liberals" and "conservatives" because they miss so much. But since you use those terms, let me give you only two considerations about what is a very complex issue. Some liberals think that any form of passing of judgment is already an act of exclusion, while one of liberalism's main impulses is to include. So if you can't pass judgment and still include, you must disregard the offense.

In contrast, some conservatives think that generosity toward transgressors is a form of weakness that will invite the forces of chaos to overwhelm us. For this reason and some others, conservatives feel compelled to punish instead of forgive.

It's one of the extraordinary features of early Christianity-of any authentic Christianity-that it combines the robust passing of judgment with an even greater show of grace. That's exactly what happens in forgiveness, God's forgiveness and ours. To forgive is to pass judgment, yet not to exact retribution-which, as it turns out, may bridge the liberal and conservative sides in American culture (or further alienate them!).

Because I believe that Christ has died for the whole of humanity and "paid the penalty of sin" for all, I don't believe in retribution, whether personal or social. As far as criminal justice is concerned, my stance implies that the purpose of punishment can never be retribution but must always be protection of the innocent population and/or reformation of the criminal.

I understand that this isn't necessarily the prevalent view in the Christian tradition, but I don't know of a better way to apply God's forgiveness and reconciliation-the center of the Gospel-to the issues of criminal justice.

And of course, unlike some in the history of Christianity (notably the great reformer and my hero, Martin Luther), I think that it's a mistake to distinguish sharply between the Law and the Gospel by applying the Law to life in society and the Gospel to the interior life of the soul and to personal relationships. The Gospel of grace should inform the criminal system, as well as other spheres of life.

WORLD: You observe that government, while it has an important role in tending to social needs, should not replace gift-giving, which binds people together. Has the expectation of government payment tended to squeeze out both the offering and the acceptance of charity? Can we restore community bonds and other cords of concord?

VOLF: That's right, I don't think that the government's distribution mechanisms should replace personal gift-giving, even if in contemporary societies the government has an indispensable role to play. Giving is fundamental to human flourishing, and giving can't be bureaucratized (using "bureaucracy" here in a neutral and descriptive sense rather than a derogatory one).

And yes, I do believe that we can restore community bonds that are forged through giving. That's partly why I wrote the book Free of Charge-I wanted to draw attention to the extraordinary Christian resources for restoring the practice of gift-giving and, as an aside, point out how impoverished secular culture is when it comes to such resources.

However, if we are to restore a culture of giving, it's important not to think of giving simply as help we render to the poor, although that is a central function of giving. Instead, we need to think of giving as permeating all of our relations and all of our activities. Nor should we think of giving only in materialistic terms, as though to give of one's time and talents didn't qualify as giving. A good teacher is a giver, even when she gets paid for her work. The same is true of doctors, plumbers, lawyers, pastors, mechanics, scholars, etc.

And, of course, special relations between family members are nonexistent without gift-giving. You can't be a family if all you do is calculate the equivalents of what each does for the other as you seek to maximize your own benefits. If you approach child-rearing in this way, you'll literally destroy your kids in no time-they'll die of neglect!

Giving is a fundamental mode of human existence. When we identify it as such and nurture it, then we'll be able to be givers in all spheres of life. And let's not forget churches as schools of giving. I think that's an important role of churches, institutions established to celebrate and encourage the passing on of God's gifts of redemption and creation-including material wealth-to humanity.

WORLD: A practical question that weighs on some of our readers-for those who want to give away much of what God has given them, but are concerned about having enough for their lifetimes should they live long-is there a moral problem with bequests or other vehicles that result in the bulk of giving coming after death?

VOLF: I haven't reflected deeply about this issue, but my sense is that there is no problem with the kinds of arrangements you mention, provided that one's generosity doesn't get neglected in the here and now. If there's a healthy stream of generous giving on a daily, weekly, yearly basis, I see no problem with preserving a reasonable amount to live long and well. If a person's giving is for the most part postponed till the post mortem, however, his interest in his own well-being has illegitimately overwhelmed his generosity toward others.

Gift-giving is very much related to one's sense of security. If we find our security in the things we possess, we'll hold onto things; if we find our security in the gift-giving God, we'll be generous-we'll show active and tangible concern not just for ourselves but also for others.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.