What a phrase!
Ever been asked to donate your “gently used” stuff for the poor?
Listen carefully here. I am all in favor of donating “gently used” stuff. “Gently used” is way better than donating your trash. Sometimes people use charity as a dump – a haul-away-my-trash service – in disguise. That is such a lousy thing to do, and it prompts people in charity service to tactfully stipulate they are interested in your nice (“gently used”) stuff rather than your garbage.
It’s so sad that the phrase had to be invented, but I guess it did. “Reasonable” and “caring” people (at least in some cases) wouldn’t get the hint any other way. (I wonder why no one writes a When Helping Hurts book about that! No doubt the title could cover that aspect of charity problems too, but no one seems to think of it.)
But we are already running off in a CERTAIN KIND of direction with this, a direction I am not convinced even needs to be considered at all, much less presented as the only option. Maybe it does matter, but it sure shouldn’t be the only way considered.
What do I mean?
(Glad you asked.)
Well, here’s the thing: No doubt we Americans already have enough stuff and sharing it is a good idea. My home has five televisions and at least four computers, two toilets, and five drivable vehicles with four drivers! We have stuff to give! We could part with some of our stuff and hardly suffer it – most of it is even “gently used”. However, if I went out and purchased any of these items new to give away, as great and wonderful as the gift would be, the sacrifice would be very intense AND unnecessary. Donating the “gently used” stuff would be adequate and generous for most people in need.
Can you see the direction this takes?
Yeah, there is a whole conception revealed here. A certain kind of worldview that really misses the point, I think.
We start by looking at all the stuff WE already have and the tremendous need THEY (the needy) have. We feel concern for the needy and guilt for our own extravagance. Then we take the seemingly very loving/caring step of redistributing the wealth. The rich guy (us) gives the wealth to the poor (them).
This isn’t bad. In fact, it’s rather biblical, as far as that goes. But…
But there is a subtle superiority complex at work here too, and I am not zeroing in on a “savior complex” either. (When Helping Hurts does exactly that). No. Hear me out, because the attempt to side step the “savior complex” will ironically prove elitist in all the wrong ways.
No. We now feel a burden, maybe even a bit guilty because we are glutted with stuff – too much stuff we don’t even need in the face of poverty. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we ask (along with the original murderer in all human history). We are the beneficiaries of God’s blessing and our own wise stewardship. Apologizing for it doesn’t seem right. So we tell ourselves that we should not feel guilty for this; on the contrary, we should feel proud! Our lifestyle should be celebrated! Thus, on the one hand there is a sense of responsibility to be acknowledged there, but on the other, there is a sense of power, wisdom, elitism as well. And what a relief to consider it all in terms of the latter?
But all I have done so far is point out how jumbled up these otherwise good ideals are with a latent selfishness. And honestly, if we are stuck in this worldview, it seems there is no clear way of avoiding a bit of entanglement with a little necessary evil, thus we will happily choose the lesser of two evils, and hold a class at church about “seeking shalom” or read a book about “when helping hurts” that reinforces for us the bright side of this dilemma.
And that is the direction – the CERTAIN KIND of direction – we go with, and thus the tactful insistence on “gently used” stuff becomes a necessary distinction in hopes of weeding out overtly selfish or thoughtless people who abuse charity.
But there is another way. A way even more biblical, actually. And it involves a different concept of God, of Jesus and an appropriate worldview to go with it. And that concept goes like this:
What if that needy person/those needy people is/are not, in the ultimate reality, simply “down on their luck”, or lacking self discipline (and by virtue of that, deserving of discipline by the rich – of being manipulated and leveraged with NOT HELPING TOO MUCH so as to NOT HURT BY HELPING). What if instead (or better yet, by way of paradox) the needy person/people actually are Jesus (Matt. 25:35) and/or angels (Heb. 13:2 anyone???)?
Yeah. What if?
If that bum you drove past on your way to the When Helping Hurts seminar is really the Matthew-25 Jesus, and not just a no-good bum, then why are you wasting your time on “gently used” stuff?
I mean, think about it like this: Who is your favorite movie actor? Who is your favorite novelist? Rock star? Politician?
Have you ever met this person you so admire? Most of us have not.
I think Tom Hanks is one of the greatest actors in Hollywood movies, but I never met him before. I bet he would be a very interesting person to share dinner with one evening! If he knocked on my door, I would flip out! I would be embarrassed that we hadn’t dusted the furniture in a few days, that the carpet is cluttered with kids toys, that I don’t have a fine steak dinner prepared to offer him. I would be embarrassed to offer him a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, but some evenings that might be all I am having. So…
But then there is this really extra strange idea at work in this more biblical worldview: What if Tom Hanks stopped by incognito, and I didn’t recognize him. Would I welcome him in? What if he didn’t reveal his true identity to me? Would I invite him in? There is a chance I would, and a real chance I wouldn’t feel bad about giving him PB&J for dinner!
But what if after I rejected him, he went to my next door neighbor’s house and they welcomed him in to eat? And what if during dinner, he revealed his true identity to them? And what if my neighbors were so excited about having Tom Hanks in their home to eat that they then called me on the phone to insist I come meet their guest???
How would I feel when I put it all together??? I just missed my chance to host Tom Hanks! And now I am even more embarrassed that I rejected him, and so I have to take my foot out of my mouth and explain my jerk-behavior to everyone at the party.
Well, that is the way God’s creation works, and the worldview Jesus invites us to have as Christians. And yet we may never really know (until the great day of Judgment) which of those bums were really Jesus in disguise and which were his angels!
Ever read who comes to dinner with Abe and Sarah in Genesis 18? How about Luke 24?
Yeah, it turns out this stuff is peppered all through the Bible. This stuff is actually BIBLICAL!!!
Look. I am not down on “gently used” stuff at all. Neither the rich nor the poor should be too proud to deal in PB&J and in “gently used” donations. Those things are well and good as far as they go. But we have allowed ourselves to use such a phrase like blinders that inhibit our love for Jesus. And I really, truly, deeply, urge my church and any church leaders reading here, to consider teaching this worldview when you go “seeking shalom”.
Otherwise, you are getting gently used by the devil, and that is just wrong!