I love you (just don’t take advantage of me).

I remember that at a certain church I used to be involved with we would give out grocery store gift cards to folks that came in looking for money. The pastor was always interested in sitting down and chatting with the people before actually handing over anything of monetary value. Now this can of course be a good thing depending on the motives of the pastor. However, the reason why the pastor would want to sit down and chat with the individual would be to suss out whether or not the church was being “taken advantage of”.

I’ve heard this sentiment a good bit recently. We assume that charity is a generally a good thing but that it can be taken advantage of. And so we find ourselves in a conundrum. We want to be charitable of course, because this will help us to feel good about ourselves and will massage our consciences so that we feel we actually give a shit about folks other than ourselves. Charity = good. But damn the bastard that ever try to take advantage of me and my charity. The charity I offer is valuable and is not to be trampled upon. If I’m being charitable to you then you damn well better be grateful and may God help you if you think of taking advantage of my kindness. And so we’re charitable, to a degree, so long as our dignity remains intact. So long as people realize that we’re not just some sort of goodwill vending machines that dispense love and goodness for free. No sir, our charity comes with expectations. And this all works well for us, especially since, for the most part, our bourgeois Western Christianity trains us to ignore the cost of the gospel.

But of course, this talk of “making sure we’re not taken advantage of” comes into conflict with the gospel. Now, I’m not suggesting that love ought to look the same in every situation. I believe we’re to be wise and in this sense there’s no need to treat everyone exactly the same. Some folks out there genuinely have impure motives and desire to take advantage of the love/kindness of others. However, if we’re seeking to follow Christ Jesus we can never from the outset decide that we will not be taken advantage of. Take 1 Corinthians 13 for example. A passage that is usually read at most weddings and has become rather sentimental:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres, (1 Cor. 13: 4-7).

One blogger remarked that in light of this scripture, love is fucking stupid. Sure, we love those who are in need because it helps us feel good about ourselves. It helps us feel like we actually love folks other than ourselves. Yet, in reality, this “love” is merely something that props up a particular image of ourselves, that we care for the poor and oppressed, that we are generous and charitable folks. But perhaps it’s worth thinking about the consequences of bracketing our “love for others” with “we will not be taken advantage of.” Love is patient? Does not dishonour others? Is not self-seeking? Keeps no record of wrongs? Always trusts? Always perseveres? Always hedges its bets in order to protect itself? Hell no. To be sure, the love that Christ Jesus calls us to is a love that leads to the cross. It’s a love that ends in death. And the way there is no parade. It’s a love that is abandoned, trampled upon, spat at. It’s a love that claims nothing for itself. In short, if we love as the gospel demands we do then we can be sure that we’ll be taken advantage of. We don’t like this of course, because we like to think we’re entitled to respect and gratitude. I mean if there’s one thing we can know about Jesus it’s that he was never taken advantage of.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Am I just being an ass?

Can we truly love others while being concern about protecting ourselves and making sure we don’t get taken advantage of?

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7 comments
  1. Andrew said:

    If you are right on the motivations of that pastor, then he needs to check his motivations, because they are not right.
    But I’ve known a man who was swindled into every charitable offer out there, and ended up losing his life because of money issues.
    I’ve learned that to be able to love consistently, and over a longer period of time, you need to be prudent about where you spend your time, energy, money, etc. Also, when X is being taken advantage of by Y, then that is making it so that Y is spoiled, in a habit of expecting perks (this habit will make it so that he can never properly love others, and so that he is constantly depleting the resources of X). It seems like in such a case X is not really helping Y, and therefore not being charitable in the best and wisest way.
    AS far as I can tell, my theory seems to only break “love always trust”. In the passage you quoted. That’s not too shabby. But then again, undifferentiated trust results in conflict? Can one both trust the devil and God? I suspect there is more going on here than I understand, but we must learn to understand charity more charitably, that is, trusting and hoping that love does not exclude wisdom, but depends on it in a way.
    See you in Greek class.

  2. jt* said:

    Fair enough. And this post wasn’t long enough to be as nuanced as it could have been. In examples like the one you gave (X and Y) often what happens is that charity actually becomes part of the problem for it keeps those who are in need of charity needing charity (and keeps those who are giving charity in positions of power). I didn’t draw this out as much as I perhaps should have but yes, I agree, that we can’t be totally naive about loving folks. We need, as you suggest, wisdom, but the sort of wisdom that’s rooted in Christ Jesus as opposed to the world.

    I don’t really know the answer to these questions I’m posing, I just know that talk of protecting ourselves from being taken advantage of tends to rub me the wrong way.

    Actually, I would further add, that when it comes to protecting others and standing up for others so that they’re not taken advantage of (especially those who cannot do it themselves) then we must do so. To work against injustices that others face is love. However, when it comes to ourselves, I think it’s harder to claim such rights. In other words, we want to do what we can to make sure others aren’t taken advantage of but we must give up such rights for ourselves.

  3. I’m with you for most of this. Sometimes I think it’s not really love unless we ARE being taken advantage of. I remember Erwin McManus telling a story once about this lady who they helped pay their rent, and then when they couldn’t afford it anymore, she got angry and freaked out on him, and the whole lesson was about only helping those that were going to be grateful.

    While, long term speaking, I think that might be true, and I think that helping those that are grateful may have a much more eternal impact and help that person. Sometimes I think though it’s better to discipline yourself to be in more situations that you are being taken advantage of and learning that its ok. It’s ok to be spent for someone else. It’s ok for it not to be returned to you. It’s ok for someone not to say thank-you.

    If we start deciding who we will help and won’t help based on how well they receive their help or the good “investment” we are making in their lives, it turns into not much more than a transaction where we only do it as far as the foresight that we can see out of our love. Rather, I think we are called to love without condition, love everyone, be that boring, annoying and dumb person who just can’t stop giving of himself to others, until they eventually die.

  4. anon said:

    I think if we are too careful, or “selective” of who we think deserves our charity (based on how grateful they are or how much they continue to ask for help) is exactly as Nathan said above.

    Before we know it we are questioning everyone and slotting them in as to how much help they deserve and whether they have reached their quota for the month. This causes a few issues 1) in the receiver as they may need genuine help, they could become bitter making it harder to ask or accept help in the future and 2) towards ourselves as it makes our threshold higher. We would start to give only in “major” cases and be blind to the minor ones (though they are not minor at all for the person experiencing them.)

    There is some love in that, but it is selective and not to the fullest. i think with charity should come extended support via information portals etc. Set ups to help those, be that education, jobs etc.

    Great post.

    • jt* said:

      “I think with charity should come extended support via information portals.”

      I couldn’t agree more. In fact, to take this argument further, any sort of charity that does not include this serves only to keep those who are seeking charity in positions where they need to seek charity. This keeps those with power in power and those who are oppressed oppressed. As a result, charity often works against true love.

      Now I’m not suggesting that charity isn’t good and should not be pursued, just that charity itself is not enough.

      Thanks for chiming in.

  5. steve said:

    JT, I agree with much of what you are saying – part of it obviously is that we are choosing to allow ourselves be ‘taken advantage of’ in the world’s terms. Thus the sacrifice. Yet, in my experience (which is mostly seen through my father(a pastor)’s eyes), sometimes particular situations involve consideration as to whether or not to extend ‘charity’ to an individual who is challenging your ability to continue to offer the same charity to others.

    It seems to me that therein lies the rub. In an effort to sacrificially give to all – what if one person is sucking up all the sacrifice?

    – steve (yes that steve from Wycliffe)

    • jt* said:

      “In an effort to sacrificially give to all – what if one person is sucking up all the sacrifice?”

      Hi Steve! That’s an important and necessary question to ask. I didn’t flesh this out much in the original post but I do think that charity can often serve to solidify the lines between the rich and poor and this I think is counter productive. I agree with the anonymous commenter above who suggests that “with charity should come extended support via information portals.” The goal of charity (and love) is not handouts. Handouts keep people in dependency and this is counter to love (and serves to keep the powerful in positions of power, whereas Christ humbled *himself*…). The goal of charity (and love) is, I think, to empower others (and ourselves!) to live a more fully human life. So rather than enforce boundaries between the “giver” and the “receiver” true charity/love tears down these boarders. Rather than “helping the poor”, true charity/love seeks to form a society where poverty is impossible.

      So, the short answer to your question is that we need to use wisdom when giving so that people are not allowed to remain in positions of dependency but rather encouraged to live a more fully human life. However, I would bracket this by saying that it requires much patience, love, prayer and wisdom.

      Thanks for adding. Sounds like you have some neat experiences from the perspective of a PK!

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