If you asked 50 people what they wanted in life, you would probably get 50 answers. But at the heart of each answer would run a common theme: meaning. We all want meaning in our lives. We all want a sense of purpose and gravity around something bigger than ourselves. This is part of what John Wesley called Prevenient Grace. It is God’s gift to us which includes our innate awareness of the need for God. It is not taught but is a universal characteristic of all cultures. Without it, we wander through life with an empty feeling of angst and cynicism. This feeling goes away when we discover a cause for which we can give of ourselves.
Victor Hugo illustrates this in his classic novel Les Miserables. The bishop befriends Jean Valjean and gives him lodging. Valjean repays his kindness by stealing the bishop’s valuable candlesticks. After the bishop reports the theft, the chief magistrate questions Valjean in the presence of the bishop. Just when it seems Valjean is headed for jail, the bishop suddenly retracts his accusation and offers a plausible explanation for the missing candlesticks.
Jean Valjean is amazed at the bishop’s sudden act of mercy. When they are alone, he asks the bishop, "Why did you do that? You know I am guilty."
The bishop replies, "Life is for giving."
The bishop spoke volumes with just four words. Life is for giving. Some people cynically observe that the church is all about money. This is not true; the church is all about life, and giving is a necessary ingredient of the full life. Our possessions are often the last thing we give up on our spiritual journey. Those who want everything the church has to offer without making a commitment to giving are ultimately disappointed, because the happiness and meaning they really want eludes them. While it is true that the church needs money to do ministries, there is a deeper truth at work here. Each of us has a need to give that is greater than the church’s need to receive. Even if the church was flush with cash (which hasn’t happened in, like, forever), we would still pass the offering plate, because we all need the opportunity to give unselfishly.
The bishop was right. Life is for giving. Paul’s instruction to Timothy was to advise people that "they are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life" (1 Timothy 6:18-19). There is nothing here to suggest that the treasures we would store up are "treasures in heaven," or that the future is the "pie in the sky by and by when we die." Paul is pointing the way to rich, abundant life in this world, predicated on habits of good works and a generous spirit. We often see a wealthy philanthropist and say to ourselves, "I wish I had extra money so I could be that generous." The philanthropist’s dirty little secret is that he or she developed the habit of generosity when they were still rubbing two nickels together in their pocket. It became for them a treasure of a good foundation, and their future is here.
It is in giving that we find meaning in life. It may be giving money, or time, or talent, or some commodity, like canned goods. Usually, the more we give in any of these ways, the more we give in all of these ways. It’s the life that really is life.
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.