Why Beauty Belongs in the Sacrificial Life, Pt. 2: A Tight-Fisted Giving

1. A Tight-fisted Giving

“We don’t need art. We have the Bible. Why are you even quoting other books?”

“How can you sit there listening to music or planning a celebration or reading a story when there are people dying of hunger? What frivolity.”

These statements sting because I’ve overheard them recently, and the voice behind them is hauntingly familiar to my inward ear. Not too long ago, my husband and I had a conversation about that voice in regard to our budget. We discovered that we were both dogged by the feeling that we ought to be generating income mainly — if not solely — to send it to disaster zones and food banks and human trafficking foundations.

We are deeply honored to partner with organizations that carry out the work of active and tangible love. But in the midst of our talk a sudden picture sprang to my mind: of the woman I might become, if I believed that I must keep my ears tuned constantly to updates of poverty and disaster, relentlessly impress upon my children the social evils in the world, and give, give, give without wasting thought or money on anything else, especially “frivolous” things.

This woman is a tight-fisted soul.

She hasn’t always been this way; it’s taken some time for her empathy to shrink, but the right conditions have telescoped her face into a permanent frown of concern. Guilt over missed quiet times. A barrage of headlines in the wake of a scandal or tragedy. New legislation concerning an ethical or moral matter. Over time, declaring that the commands of God and the crumbling state of the world leave no time for seeking beauty or wonder or awe, she has shut out experiences that smack of fluff.

Travels, for one. Or listening to music. Or browsing bookshelves. Or looking at paintings. Walks in nature are permissible because exercise is useful for the body, but she never pauses to hear the wind sweeping through paper-leaved branches, or watch a slow waltz of tree crowns against an evening sky.

Having shed these unnecessary things herself, she demands to know what is being done with the money she has sent “to the field.” A browbeaten missionary hesitates — with good reason — to share news of his family vacation; he knows she may think it undeserved or unnecessary, and therefore withdraw her support. Who has time for vacations? Where are the demonstrable results of her investment?

And so this alter ego of mine continues on, donating great sums perhaps, but always giving out of a sense of critical and urgent compulsion. Though she cannot grasp it, her single-minded focus on her wallet has shrunk the expanse of her heart; in the end, she loves little because she has allowed herself to taste so little of the love that is held out to her. 

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch of Narnia happens upon a party of woodland creatures feasting together. Her rage boils over at the sheer existence of the celebration:

“What is the meaning of this?” asked the Witch Queen. Nobody answered.

“Speak, vermin!” she said again. “Or do you want my dwarf to find you a tongue with his whip? What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence? Where did you get all these things?” (Ch. 11)

Gluttony — waste — self-indulgence. The Witch sputters curses at the richly laden table because the threat it poses is a grave one indeed. This feast, with its fare and its merriment, signals the presence of Someone Else — someone whose character is entirely different from her own.

We have seen Him in our own world. He was a king who transformed water into wine that tasted better than any other at a wedding, and made sure this detail was preserved for us to note. He was a shepherd who spread a repast of fish and bread for thousands, not in stinting measure but surpassing abundance. He was a redeemer who praised a woman’s lavish gift of pure nard: “She has done a beautiful thing to me. . . . And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk. 14:6b, 9; ESV). Meanwhile, onlookers pronounced him a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19, ESV). They scorned His willingness to receive prodigal gifts.

Gluttony. Waste. Self-indulgence. Christ’s nature, it seems, often runs against our notions of how to solve the world’s problems.

In contrast, our Enemy would like to convince us that if others have little, everyone should have little — that this is what “love” means. Under this rule, we can only fully sympathize with someone in mourning if we, too, enter into grief without hope. Under this rule, those with homes and food and close relationships ought never to have them so long as others are homeless and hungry and lonely. The gift itself becomes a curse; the blessing becomes a burden.

In this “his craft and power are great,” for if we will only believe these things, then we’ll keep pulling at each other’s pursestrings and social consciences in an endless tug of war. Every bite we eat will be laced with guilt; every neighbor who enjoys a privilege will meet with condemnation in our hearts. We’ll strive feverishly, if not bitterly, as though the mending of this broken world relies on how efficiently we advertise our cause, or funnel our resources to places of need. Of course there is no room for music and dancing, or story and laughter; we have a hard and exacting Master who gives us limited means, you see.

Our reality, however, is just the opposite.

We are children of a Father who is the giver of every good and perfect gift, who abounds in steadfast love towards us. One reason that we may give fearlessly and cheerfully, even sacrificially, is that our welfare is secured by our King; our treasure-troves are filled with wealth that cannot be depleted. “What though my joys and comforts die?” says an old hymn; “The Lord my Savior liveth. . . All things are mine since I am His.” But this is more than a matter of putting an optimistic spin on things — Paul prays that the saints will catch the vision of “the magnificence and splendour of the inheritance promised to Christians” (Eph. 1:18, Phillips) because our inheritance is no idealistic mirage.

Consider that the Lord Himself is our portion. Why quote books besides the Bible? Why share the music that moved us to tears during our commute? Why — because His glory can be seen in more places than the church pews, the laminated Bible verse memory cards, the praise team practices, and the squares of carpet that we allot to our devotional times. Seeing His beauty reflected throughout creation — including the subcreations of His saints! — is one crucial way to open our eyes to “the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ (Eph. 2:18). Beauty shows us that He is already at work in a thousand places, and it is we who join Him when we give, not the other way around.

All our best acts of loving, serving, and giving begin with a proper understanding of the nature of God, and our portion in Him. And such an understanding, I propose, is aided mightily by looking for and accepting His intimations of love everywhere that they can be found. A deep knowledge of His love allows us to notice and to fully receive His gifts. And that same knowledge makes it a joy to freely give them back to Him.

Like travelers stumbling upon a holiday feast in an icy forest, we have in our own lives glimmers of the coming Kingdom that deepen our understanding of the creativity, the joy, and the glory of Christ. And oh, how we need them.

Beauty and generosity, hospitality and celebration — these often have the power to loosen our clasp on our contributions, and reorient us in the best way: for before we are givers, we are recipients first, of grace upon grace.

 

Part 1

Continued in Part 3:

A Fearful and Anxious Mother

I haven’t actually withered into a flint-hearted donor — yet, by sheer mercy — but I have stood in a similarly bleak position: a mother pinned under the iron thumb of fear.

 

 


Header Photo: Zieger, Philipp. Beauty. 2013. Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND-2.0, 7 Feb. 2018
Footer Photo: “Path,” by Gerwin Filius, 2010. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; no changes made.

11 comments

  1. Yes! Thanks for the ever-needed reminder! All the things we give, we received from our Father.

    It’s a little like us giving gifts to our children…we don’t want to see them hoard it, not sharing. But we do want to see them happily enjoying them!

  2. Your words are always comforting to me.

    …wind sweeping through paper-leaved branches, or watch a slow waltz of tree crowns against an evening sky…
    You speak to my heart often as I try to continually move my mind into my heart. Thank you.

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