‘Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,’ says Jesus to the rich young ruler. It’s in three Gospels, and it’s a passage that always provokes a reaction.
Often, it is dismissed as being only aimed at the young ruler. Jesus didn’t mean that for everyone, we say. But it does raise the question: could we give away all we have? And if not, how much could (or should) we give?
Not Just for the Rich
Generosity is a popular movement and the wealthy are taking note. Starting with the uber-rich Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and investor Warren Buffett, a list of very wealthy people have pledged to give away more than half of their incomes, in the Giving Pledge. Gates has given a total of $26bn (£16bn) through his charitable fund, which supports healthcare and education projects in the developing world and the US.
Of course, we can look at billionaires, just as we can the rich young ruler, and say, ‘That’s for those people. I’m not rich. Jesus wasn’t talking about me.’ But in fact, most people in our country have an income that is equivalent to the rich people of Jesus’ day. We’re rich even in our current age, when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world. Someone earning the minimum wage in this country, which is around £11,000 for full-time work, is in the top 11% richest people in the world, according to the Global Rich List website. An average salary of £26,200 means you are in the elite top 1% earners in the world. If you own a toilet, you’re better off than nearly half the world’s population.
Some people are responding to the call. The Christian charity World Vision has one elderly lady supporter, a humble Franciscan, who supports 42 sponsored children and has given £20,000 to the charity in the past 11 years. The generous giving movement is not just for the rich. But neither is it just for people with Christian faith; like Gates, the secular world has generous givers that can challenge us. The Giving What We Can group encourages people to give 10% of their money to the poor, and many of its members have no faith at all. One, Boris Yakubchik, gives away 50% of his £37,000 income as a maths teacher and tutor.
Treasures in Heaven
So what is the treasure in heaven that Jesus promises us, if we give to the poor? There is perhaps no way of knowing. But there are many benefits to giving in the present that we can experience right now. Peter Vardy is an evangelical Christian who gives generously through a wealthy private fund (see p45). (He has also given to Premier Christian Radio, which owns Christianity magazine.) ‘I get a great deal of joy and satisfaction [out of seeing] things built and developed,’ he toldChristianity. ‘It’s wonderful – I get far more pleasure in giving it away than making it, actually. A lot of folks miss out on that. They don’t get the joy of giving unless they get into the swing of things.’
There are spiritual benefits to giving. Aside from the joy of helping others, and the satisfaction of following Jesus’ teaching, it can help us let go of materialistic delusions. ‘Giving helps to protect you from the allure of money by making a clear statement that there are things you value more,’ says Andrew Stott, supporter experience manager at World Vision. ‘It also helps you to remember that all you have comes from God, and belongs to him, and therefore stokes your gratitude to him. Finally, it enables you to play a special part in what God is doing in the world, to partner with God in seeing his kingdom come.’
Where Should We Give?
If you’ve decided to be more generous, there is a tricky question which follows. There are hundreds of charities, as well as our own church and community – and many missionaries abroad. So how do we decide what to send and to whom?
Daniel Jones, the head of business development at Stewardship, gives some basic guidelines to help us. ‘For Christians, there’s got to be an element of prayer and being Spirit-led in these decisions,’ he says. ‘In terms of then deciding on a charity, I’d be thinking about things like vision, ability to deliver on that vision…and whether your money will make a difference to achieving the vision.’ He also advocates considering issues that are close to your heart, whether it is local matters or a topic that has touched you in some way.
Something that often puts people off giving is concern that the money will be used effectively. There have been a number of critiques of developmental aid in recent years, such as accusations that it is wasteful or not tailored towards the needs of different cultures, or is paternalistic. Small projects supported by churches are very dependent on the honesty of the individuals in the project, because it is difficult to keep them accountable.
Jon Bennion-Pedley was concerned where his money would go, but that prompted him to set up his own project. ‘If it was going to be my money, I wanted to make sure it was getting to the people who need it,’ he says. ‘I knew if I just gave the money it would not be as effective as it is when I’m doing the work myself. I’ve run small businesses for years and I’m quite a tough individual, so a big motivator for me is that the money does what it is supposed to. If it all comes from God, then we have a responsibility to guard it and use it well, don’t we? The number of good-hearted Christians and churches I see being absolutely robbed blind by the people they’re helping is one of the things that made me very controlling of what I did.’
Making a Difference
Despite these concerns, there is a great deal of evidence that money given in aid has made a difference. Non-governmental aid has been shown to have improved key indicators of extreme poverty, from the age at which the average child dies, to illiteracy levels. Compassion, which sponsors children in the developing world, points out that aid in recent decades has made significant differences to the lives of those most in need. The World Bank statistics state that in 1981 52% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today 26% of the population live in extreme poverty. The number of children dying before their 5th birthday has been cut in half, according to UNICEF. Deaths from measles and malaria have also fallen.
The call to give has already been heard by many Christians. We may not hear our friends in the pews blowing their own trumpet, but the average person giving through Stewardship gives £187 per month. ‘But for Christians, convicted to give in gratitude for God’s lavish generosity to us all, giving becomes a fundamental part of the monthly expenditure,’ says Jones at Stewardship. ‘For many, particularly those giving large amounts, the ability to give is often what drives their ambition to earn in the first place. You often hear the phrase “Christians give what is right, not what is left”…For many, giving is the first line on the budget, as important or more important than the other big expenses like rent, mortgages, utilities and tax.’
As our case studies of generous givers shows, it doesn’t matter how much money we earn or how ‘good’ a Christian we are. We can all contribute to helping people in desperate poverty around the world...
Income: undisclosed / Gives: £1.5 – £4m pa
Peter Vardy inherited his father’s highly successful business, and with it, the gift of giving. His strong evangelical faith fuels his philanthropy. ‘I have been blessed beyond measure personally, so with that comes a responsibility to deal properly with the gifting that I’ve been blessed with,’ he says. ‘The job is to find out what I should give to, and that is quite often a struggle.
‘It’s been wonderful over the years to be able to give to a whole range of ministries. There is a lot of satisfaction – a lot of joy – in seeing folks benefit from the giving that we put in place.’
‘I believe that we’ve been given the money for such a time as this, and that the money needs to be spent in our lifetime. Bill and Melinda Gates have said they don’t want their foundations to be everlasting, they want it to be spent 10 to 20 years after death. It focuses the mind, to have to give. It’s a good example.
‘We’re only one cog in the wheel. Everybody else is important; we have to bring the gifts God has given us. Others preach and teach…we’re each blessed and we just have to keep a light touch and hand it all back when it’s needed. We’re only short term holders of it.’
Annual income: $60,000 (£37,000) / Gives: $30,000 pa
Boris Yakubchik is not a Christian, but is driven to give away half of his modest income to help people avoid malaria in developing countries. ‘I do not have faith, though I am confident that helping others is good no matter what,’ he says. ‘A life is a precious thing, and if I can make others’ lives better – I want to do it.
‘I have always given my money to organisations that help in developing countries. This is because helping people there is significantly cheaper than helping people in the developed world; what this means is that I am able to help hundreds more people with my limited donations. I’ve done, and continue, research on the most effective charities – once I find the best that I can, I am confident that with every dollar I send there, I am helping people significantly.
‘What drives me to give away at least half of my income is the realisation that I can help others significantly with little cost to myself. At this time, I am able to provide someone with an anti-malaria bed net for every $5 I donate to Against Malaria Foundation. These nets are proven to decrease the chances for the user getting malaria, each net can last up to ten years, and usually two people will sleep under one. So for less than a cost of a sandwich eating out, I can decrease someone’s chances of getting malaria; a disease that kills over a million people each year.
‘Giving 50% makes me happy that I’m living up to my values. I still hesitate to share this with others as I feel it may seem as though I’m showing off. Though when sharing that I give, my aim is always to encourage effective philanthropy in others; after all, if they see 50% is possible, they may think 10% is not a big deal for their own wallet.’
Jon Bennion Pedley
Annual income: £90,000 / Gives: £50,000 pa
Jon Bennion-Pedley’s life was turned upside down by Jesus. As a successful businessman, he was earning up to £900,000 a year from a series of small businesses. ‘My life before had been pretty dodgy,’ he says. ‘I was involved in alcoholism, crime, adultery, greed and selfishness. In a lot of ways, fairly standard stuff for what society looks like in this country now. In worldly terms I was pretty successful. I have always just made a lot of money by nearly anybody’s standards.’
But finding Jesus at 35 didn’t just get rid of the more obvious sin in his life. At first, he wanted to do what most of us do: live a fairly normal life, but tithe to the Church to salve his conscience. ‘I kind of hoped what I could do was a bit of public speaking, evangelise and tithe faithfully,’ he says. ‘But I got to a place where I realised God wants our time more than he wants our money.’
Using his significant income from the businesses he owns, he decided to set up a project that would help people in Uganda. Now, he runs a nursery that educates 175 children, a medical centre that treats more than 500 patients a month who wouldn’t otherwise have access to healthcare, and has supplied 88,000 litres of drinking water. But he’s aware that despite the material poverty in the country, sometimes the people have a lot more than we have in our own country, in terms of spirituality and community. ‘I wasted so much of my life,’ he says. ‘So much of it has been centred on me and nothing else. When I came to Uganda, I looked at the way things worked out there, the family and community, and found that people with virtually nothing actually had much richer lives than we had here. Now I’m happier than I’ve ever been.’
He decided that he also wanted his aid project to educate British people, but not just people from the Church and its ‘very nice, very saved and very worthy normal Christian people’. Instead, he invites people who have broken lives in the UK to come and work for a month in Uganda – those who are not Christians. From addicts to people without direction in their lives, five (out of nine who have been) so far have become Christians, and all are deeply moved by what they see.
The project is almost totally funded by Bennion-Pedley himself. ‘A lot of what I’ve had I’ve given away,’ he says. ‘I still make a pretty good income but I live poor over here. The Range Rover has gone, the big house has gone. I rent a flat and hire a car when I’m here. It doesn’t matter, I trust God to provide what I need, not what I want.
‘I get real pleasure and excitement about buying a pair of jeans, just because in the old days I’d spend $1,000 on a bottle of wine. When I bought standard stuff like jeans or T-shirts, it meant nothing. Now, because I wear everything for as long as possible until falling apart, when I get a pair of jeans, it gives me pleasure.
‘I filled up at motorway service stations for years. Now I look at prices and think, “I must have been mad.” I tend to relate everything to what I could do in Uganda. It’s another part of me allowing God to strip away all my pride and self-control. Life is so uncertain now, it’s all about generating cash to do the next project and keep the existing ones. So I’m having to depend on him, and that’s not a bad place.
‘I do it because it needs to be done. It is an absolute shame on our world that so many live in desperate poverty without access to basic medical care. It’s just wrong that people are dying on average at the age of 42 of diseases that wouldn’t kill you in the UK; that’s just wrong. And so the rationale in my head is that everything I’ve got, I’ve got because of God. If I take what I need, the rest is needed by others. It goes to redress the balance of what is wrong.
‘I don’t think giving should be comfortable. If giving isn’t hurting, it’s not really sacrificial.’