What are our primary obstacles to giving? I think many things stand in our way but I want to focus on three issues that are obstructions for me.
First, there is “the language of need.” Next time you are in line at a fast food joint listen to how many times you hear customers declaring something like “I need a Whopper with cheese.” Need a Whopper with cheese? I’m aware that a Whopper may be tasty. It may even be highly desirable on occasion. But need?
Years ago I read a book written about need. It challenged me to listen to my own speech (internally and externally) for how often I use the world “need.” It was striking. It is not that using the word is always wrong. I might say, “I need to put gas in my car.” The implied logic is that transportation is an important part of my daily functioning. If I’m going to function normally, then I need to put gas in my car.
The problem is, that if I listen to myself often enough, I find myself articulating a “need” to satisfy something I can’t immediately identify. Often I just mean “I want” or “I would like” a particular thing. Upon reflection, I’ve learned that sometimes my desire for something is an attempt to compensate for some insecurity, medicate some hurt, a reaction against parental values I was raised with, or driven by some sense of “ought-ness” that I learned from who knows where. I’ve worked over the years to avoid the “need” word unless I can be clear about what the basis of the need is. I try to use “I want” or “I would like.” (And even here, it is good to probe why I “want.”)
We have an entire culture that obsessed with “need” gratification. Yet the attempt to meet our needs outside of a relationship with God usually leads to more anxiety. If we have not carefully examined our personal language of need, then we are susceptible to every tug and pull on our psyche, drawing us into ever expanding needs.
Often the things we purchase lead to ongoing investments of our time, energy, and financial resources as we now have to maintain, service, update, repair, insure, and make payments for the stuff we bought. Our sense of need escalates. Furthermore, without a plan in place, we can quickly find ourselves in debt and our options greatly limited because we need to maintain a level of income in order to perpetuate a lifestyle. Fewer things are more enslaving than having a negative net worth and having your identity defined by the things you own and buy.
This brings us back to the issue of simplicity. Simplicity is not about how many things we should own or not own. Simplicity is singular focus on God and the narrative God is unfolding in the world. It is about having our personal narrative integrated with God’s larger narrative. It is about sanctification. It is about being set free from the multitude of insecurities, dysfunctions, and sins that too often drive our needs. It is about having “need” and “want” reframed by God’s narrative.
When I can come to grips with the “need” I’m experiencing versus what I really need, I often find that generosity emerges. But it is also true that giving, even when I don’t feel generous, can actually break the spell of need. Some of us are natural givers. Others like me need to make it a spiritual discipline. Each has our own path of spiritual formation we must pursue. And that brings me to my second issue. It is about something that I find disturbingly absent from most of what I read and see concerning spiritual formation.