They gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
2 Corinthians 8:5
The Spirit is willing, but the wheel is stuck.
One of NASA’s two Mars Exploration Rovers has officially been designated a “stationary science platform” as of January 26. After a 286-million-mile journey from Earth and an ambling six-year scrutiny of the Martian surface, Spirit’s right rear wheel ensnared itself in a patch of soft soil. For nine months NASA attempted everything, save sending a sand wedge, to extricate the rover. But with no progress in freeing it, and with all Spirit’s instrumentation still operative, NASA elected to modify the rover’s mission, focusing its attention on the three-square-meter piece of Martian real estate it now occupies. Spirit now has an opportunity to dig more deeply into where it is.
We know our faith has innumerable implications for how we think of, and use, our wealth. We may prefer to give cursory attention to those implications. Yet, what’s happened to Spirit may be just what we need: an unhurried look beneath the surface of where our hearts are with respect to what we have.
From cover to cover, the scriptures commend a generosity toward God with all that we are and all that we have, in light of and in response to God’s generosity toward us. Still, it’s our instinct to be miserly rather than magnanimous. We unconsciously ask, “What’s the least I can do in order to fulfill my obligation?”
What would we find if we, like Spirit, dug deeper beneath the surface of our hesitant generosity? Likely we would find one thing: fear. In fact, both frugality and self-indulgence are often born of that same motivation. There’s the fear of what we might miss out on if we devote that portion elsewhere; or the fear of how we might be interpreted or regarded by others if we don’t demonstrate the same accomplishments, priorities, or trappings. And then there’s the fear of what we might not have later if we give it away now.
If you were to sit stationary in your living room, like a gimpy robot on Mars, what might you find beneath the surface of your motivations for what you have and what you seek? If it’s fear, then you’re in a kind of tyranny.
Fear impairs generosity—what must motivate it? If we dig beneath the surface of the generosity God intends, we’ll find one thing: love. Not only does perfect love cast out fear (1 John 4:18); it’s the only sufficient motivation for true generosity. Though God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7), some give out of fear of what might happen if they don’t. Though it’s our privileged duty to serve (Luke 17:10), some give out of the expectation of reciprocity. And though we’re to keep the left hand from knowing what the right hand is doing (Matt. 6:3), still others give in order to enrich their reputation. In each of these, something other than love compels the giving.
It’s February, and perhaps you’re receiving those notices that itemize your charitable contributions. If you were to sit with those documents, what might you find beneath the surface of your motivations for giving? Is it love, or something else?
Which leaves one last artifact to search for beneath the surface: in the matter of generosity, what shall move us from fear to love? As we heard Sunday in the words of Paul, the only way to move from hesitant generosity to a love for it is through the Cross. Jesus sets an unsurpassed example of forsaking deserved riches to enrich those who are impoverished in the worst way. But His self-imposed impoverishment exposes the senselessness of our fear of generosity, or the false motives for it. What we have from Him defies calculation. What we can lose here is nothing compared to what we gain in Him. What we can give for His sake we shall never lose. In the words of Thomas Merton, “love can be kept only by being given away.”
Almost from birth, Jacob had deceived and defrauded his choleric older brother, Esau. When Jacob encounters his brother much later in life, he fears Esau’s vengeance. Instead, Esau shows him great love and grace (Gen. 33:4ff). Jacob marvels at it and offers his brother a great gift of material kindness, saying, “Accept my present from my hand. . .for I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me.” Beholding grace and love in the face of Esau liberated Jacob’s generosity.
In Christ’s face we see (and have) God’s acceptance. His acceptance elicits and sustains our generosity.
Spirit sits stationary to explore a richness that a more energetic mode might miss. Is it time to adopt its same posture and, with the help of God’s Spirit, look beneath the surface of our sense of His richness toward us?