Imagine yourself walking to a job interview dressed in your finest professional outfit. You pass by a pond and notice a small child drowning. Would you be doing anything wrong if you just kept on walking?
Of course. It doesn’t take any special ethical insight to realize that the drowning child imposes a moral requirement on you. Even if it requires ruining your clothes to wade into the pond, the child’s life is worth it. Even if your clothes are worth thousands of dollars and you’d miss your interview, that child’s life is infinitely more precious than any of your material possessions or financial resources.
This thought experiment was made famous by the philosopher Peter Singer in an attempt to show why most of us have a moral obligation to give to high-impact charities. For most of us in the West, our affluent lifestyles make us like the person walking by the child in the pond.
There is much easily alleviable suffering in the world that only requires that we forgo our luxuries and instead give that money to cover the cost of fistula surgery for a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo, deworm children in Uganda, or provide vitamin A supplements to prevent cases of blindness in children in Burkina Faso.
There is much easily alleviable suffering in the world that only requires that we forgo our luxuries.
Singer’s not saying anything new here. Jesus gave us the original “pond” example when he commanded us to be like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). In that parable, a man on the brink of death is ignored by various passersby until a Samaritan rescues him. He bandages him, transports him to safety, and pays all the expenses for his recovery. Almost as if to shatter any notions about the Samaritan’s heroism, Jesus ends the story with the command to “go, and do likewise” (v. 37).
The passersby who walked around the dying man were not simply forgoing a heroic act, they were doing something wrong. They were failing to obey the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27). Jesus reminds us that loving others will inconvenience us and even cost us a lot, but it’s required of us nonetheless.
We tend to think of giving to charity as a heroic act: something that’s good and praiseworthy when you do it, but not bad if you don’t do it. I myself had this attitude into my early adulthood despite inhabiting biblically faithful circles all my life.
How did we lose track of such an important thread of the biblical narrative? Scripture makes more than 2,000 references to the poor and uses strong language to describe our obligations to those who can’t acquire their basic necessities:
Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise (Luke 3:11)
If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17–18)
If we can feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked by forgoing some extravagances of Western living, are we not required to do at least that? How can we claim to love with Christ’s love if we use our financial blessings on our luxuries when there are people who have neither food nor drink?
Here the inevitable question arises: “But how much should I give?” In response, C. S. Lewis offers some wisdom and a much-needed exhortation in Mere Christianity:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them. (86)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Christian life requires sacrifice. We knew that all along.
Not All Charity Is Good
This is not a call to haphazardly throw our money at anything with the label “charity.” We’ve probably all heard by now of U.S. missions teams building $30,000 homes in Honduras when they could have been built by locals for less than a tenth of that and of how clothing donations crippled textile and shoe industries in Africa. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in When Helping Hurts and Robert Lupton in Toxic Charity provide, unfortunately, lots more examples of well-intentioned, detrimental aid projects.
If we can feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked by forgoing some extravagances of Western living, are we not required to do at least that?
This is a call to support evidence-based aid—to help independently evaluated, high-impact organizations carry out the good work they’re already doing. Given that American Christians are much better than nonreligious people at giving to churches and local charities, and given that we still have plenty of resources left over, it’s worth thinking about where that additional money could do the most good. A dollar here or there can be significant if it’s carefully funneled toward a high-impact charity. Consider what good $100 can do:
- Purchase 50 long-lasting, insecticide-treated nets to protect those living in malaria-stricken areas from infected mosquitos—for every 600 nets distributed, one child’s life is saved and 500 cases of malaria are prevented (Against Malaria Foundation)
- Deworm 200 children (Evidence Action)
- Provide clean water for 70 people for one whole year (Evidence Action)
- Provide 4 cataract surgeries to reverse blindness (Fred Hollows Foundation)
- Fund 416 antibiotic distributions to prevent blinding trachoma (Fred Hollows Foundation)
- Provide vitamin A supplements to prevent 90 children from going blind (Helen Keller Foundation)
- Deliver treatments to protect 232 children from schistosomiasis (SCI Foundation)
Share God’s Blessing
Why don’t we do more of this? Perhaps it’s because we’ve come to, unfortunately, see talk of caring for the poor as a mark of liberal theology. Or perhaps it’s because we think that what’s really important is a person’s soul and not their material conditions. After all, Jesus did say that his kingdom is not of this world, right? Or perhaps the answer is one we’d rather leave unacknowledged, namely that we’re far more selfish than we’d like to think—“that there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12, NIV) and that which we want to do, we do not do (Rom. 7:15–20).
In 2 Kings 7, we encounter four lepers outside the walls of Samaria as the Syrian army besieged Elisha and the city’s many inhabitants. The siege left the city starving (to the point of cannibalism) and on the brink of ruin, but the Lord drove off the Syrian army one night, as he promised he would do. However, only the four lepers knew that the Syrian camp now sat deserted. They went to the camp and “ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them” (v. 8). It then dawned on them that their current position placed them under an obligation—a moral requirement to not hoard the recourse they found, but rather to share God’s blessing in relief of the city’s horrid conditions:
They said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.” (v. 9)
May we be like those lepers who recognize that God’s blessing is never only for us—just as he has provided for our needs, so too does he expect us to provide for the needs of others. May we, as the apostle Paul exhorted us, “be content” with food and clothing (1 Tim. 6:8), remember that everything we have is from above to be stewarded well, and love our fellow image-bearers with the financial resources that our Lord has blessed us with.