Positive or Negative?
The story is told of a church meeting at which a wealthy man rose to tell the congregation about his faith. "I'm a millionaire," he said. "And I attribute my wealth to the blessings of God in my life." He went on to recall the turning point of his faith. As a young man, he had just earned his first dollar and was eagerly thinking of all the possibilities when he happened upon a church meeting. He found himself consumed by the message he heard that night, and when he saw the offering plate he knew that he would either have to give it all to God or nothing at all. At that moment, he decided to give everything he had to God. Looking back he knew that God had blessed this decision and made him a successful man.
When he finished his story an awed silence filled the room. As he returned to his seat an elderly woman leaned over to him and said: "I dare you to do it again."
The story amusingly strikes visions of the weight of sacrifice upon the scales of monetary value. Surely it would be far more difficult for the millionaire to now give up his millions than it was for the child to give up his dollar. Jesus encountered a similar sentiment when he told the rich young ruler to go and sell everything he owned. The young man went away sad, because he had great wealth. As it stands, the story boldly illustrates the genuine hold our financial securities have on us; the thought of applying the same principal and passion—giving all or nothing—at this place in the man's life fills even the most generous with alarm.
But this story also betrays a common undercurrent in the torrent of thoughts often associated with munificence. The virtue of charity, whether fueled by faith or simply goodwill, is one we have come to think of in negative terms. Even many Christians find the virtue extolled by Christ to "go and sell all your possessions and give to the poor" a sacrifice reserved for the zealous. It is far more costly in our minds for the millionaire to give up his millions than the child to give up his dollar because a million is far more "costly" than a dollar. But here, we are considering the sacrifice strictly in sacrificial terms. The virtue of generosity is seen not as virtue in the true sense of the word, but as sacrifice, self-denial, as a giving up of something good and desirable.
C.S. Lewis once took note of a subtle shift in the language of his day, which he felt was the first detour in a road leading far away from something good. Writes Lewis, "If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philosophical importance."(1) He goes on to explain the ideologies that grow out of the subtle shifts of language. The positive answer requires a perspective that looks outward at others—those who are the recipients of the virtue or else the one from whom this virtue arises in the first place—whereas the negative virtue shows that our concern is primarily with ourselves—our own self-denial—and hence the appearance of good virtue. To this Lewis adds, "The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself."
Jesus exposed the tendency to measure sacrifice and virtue upon the manmade scales of monetary value in his admiration of the widow at the temple. "I tell you the truth," he said of the woman who gave two copper coins, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others" (Luke 21:3). What we often miss in his love for this widow who gave out of her poverty is his love for a woman who gave upward instead of giving up. Giving positively instead of negatively, she was able to see herself as giving to God instead of taking away from herself.
It is a dynamic to consider. How do you give? Positively—of resources, time, possessions? Or negatively, feeling obligated or even impressed with your sacrifice?
In the kingdom Jesus invites us within, virtue is not the absence of vice; it is not a negative pursuit. It is not a regimen or a stoical simplicity of life. It is not self-denial merely in the sense of self-control. It is as positive as a passion, a promise as worth seeking as gold.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 25.