I’m not sure when the moment came that I started to feel a little conflicted about our current obsession with compassion voyeurism. Maybe it was the photo that went viral of a Chick-fil-A manager praying with a guy who was asking for food. Maybe it was watching a video of a little girl selflessly sharing her food with a homeless guy. It might have been the video of the kid getting shoes from his classmates. Or maybe it was the annual event on my local radio station where poor people are given gifts and then they sob about how much this came at just the right time. Each one of these can be an inspiring example of the way we should be living with compassion and empathy towards those in need. But is it in some way robbing that “needy” person of their dignity to record them in that moment of vulnerability and then broadcast it to the world?
We have been in a tight financial spot for the last. . . well, forever maybe. Things have been especially hard over the last year, but having six kids has meant that things have always been a bit of a struggle. Because I try to be pretty open on my blog, I’ve thought about writing about our financial struggles at least a dozen different times, but the reality is that financial struggles are shameful in our society. They just are. I couldn’t find a way to write about them without feeling like I had to explain exactly why we’ve been in the spot we’re in and at some point that just felt like I was being defensive because these decisions are intensely personal.
All that to say, we have had many opportunities to be the recipients of help and there are lessons we’ve learned in the process. Lessons we often don’t hear about because of the shame involved in learning them.
When I see these videos, I can’t help putting myself (or my kids) in the position of those receiving help. I try to imagine what it would feel like to receive much needed money or food and be filmed while in that position of humiliation and helplessness. I would feel thankful for the help, but would I be okay with being filmed? Is that just the price you pay for receiving assistance these days? Would I be okay with my kids being filmed receiving a gift at school and having that posted for the world to see so the people who took pity on my child could be praised?
I remember being in a theology class in college and having a fellow student praise the professor for some act of goodwill the professor had done. With a smile (and a characteristically dry sense of humor) the professor said something like, “Well, thanks a lot for that. Now that you’ve praised me before men, I’ve received all my reward and won’t get one in heaven.” That sentiment is something I’ve never forgotten. He was referencing Matthew 6:1-4 in an intensely practical way. This wasn’t just a theological idea about how to live your life, but a guide on how we’re supposed to do our giving.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I can think of no better example of this principal than the couple who helped finance our first adoption. We were working in a ministry job and were having a tough time coming up with the funds. Brian felt strongly that we shouldn’t borrow any money or fundraise, so we were slowly saving up for this, but we knew it would be a long process. One day friends of ours told us they had received an inheritance and felt God was telling them to give a large portion of it to us for our adoption. They told us not to tell anyone (we lived in a small community and it could have made things awkward) and for us to always remember that this didn’t actually come from them, they were just the vehicle God used to get His resources to us. We will be forever thankful both for what they did in helping us and for how they didn’t muddy up our relational dynamics by expecting a debilitating level of gratitude from us for their sacrifice. The truth is we will likely NEVER be able to pay them back, but we know that their investment was still worth it because we trust that GOD WILL.
I had a conversation with my kids about why anonymous giving is important during a particularly tough time for our family. I explained to them how people had been helping our family, but some of them had been doing that in secret so we couldn’t personally thank them. I told the kids that when someone chooses not to take credit, it causes us to thank God, which is where all our gifts come from in the first place. We thank God, God rewards the giver. It is good for all of us in the strengthening of our faith and our relationship with God.
We have been incredibly thankful for the help we’ve received. If it came with strings attached (like having to break down sobbing on local radio), I might still have taken it if I knew it would benefit my kids. And I would still be grateful. But it would have been humiliating. I feel blessed that in today’s day and age I never saw a social media post about the gifts we were given or about how #blessed somebody felt to be able to assist our family in our time of need.
Of course there have been times when the help wasn’t anonymous. And that’s been beautiful, too. It’s been relationship strengthening at times to know who is behind our family and on our team. We have been very well loved and supported in big and small ways by family, friends and our church community over the years. And we’ve had many opportunities to be able to help others, too! It’s not that we shouldn’t ever know where our help is coming from, but I start to have a problem when we exploit other people’s pain, shame and poverty in order to say what a good thing the more advantaged person is doing. When do these people just become props to help us feel good about ourselves? At what point do we become complicit in their exploitation with our likes, clicks and shares?
So I’m conflicted. My heart is encouraged when I see acts of kindness and generosity performed. I want those moments to be inspirational to others and for us to focus on “paying it forward” as we begin to recognize compassion happening around us. But I also know how my life has been impact by the quiet acts of obedience of those who have helped us who never asked for public recognition. Their gifts came with no strings, no shame, only love for us and a desire to encourage.
I would hate if somebody read this and thought the message was, “Don’t help others.” I hope instead that we can think about the kind of help we’re offering and encouraging (even encouraging with our shares, likes, and clicks). If you help someone and they want to publicly thank you, that’s great. But if you are helping someone, please don’t assume that this feels like an entirely positive experience to them. It may be a painful reminder of their need, their helplessness, their failures. And they may not want that moment shared with the world. Doing your giving in secret is not only a good idea because God says it is, but also because it gives dignity to the one who receives. . . which may be one reason why God incentivized that kind of giving in the first place.