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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Power of Giving

Written by: on February 15, 2018

William T. Cavanaugh’s book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, offers a theological perspective on economics and challenges Christians to participate in the economy in ways that are congruent with their belief system. Boldly marrying the disciplines of economics and theology, the author makes a compelling case for Christian responsibility in the marketplace. In this way, Being Consumed is both a textbook and an edict, an intellectual analysis with an inherent call to action.

He begins with an exploration of economist Milton Friedman’s definition of a free-market, which “hinges on the insistence that exchanges be voluntary and informed.”[1] The problem with this approach, according to Cavanaugh, is that it is lacking telos, or “common end to which desire is directed.”[2] Freedom, from a Christian perspective, is “being liberated from [one’s] false desires and being moved to desire rightly.”[3] After examining subjects such as the coercive power of advertising, the imbalance of power that is created by mergers and acquisitions, and the quest for cheap labor, the author comes to a conclusion that seems to echo Polanyi, that a “free” market cannot be identified by “the absence of restraint on naked power,” for such absence of restraint leads to slavery and abuse.[4] Instead, freedom is found through acknowledging and working towards God’s telos, which is necessarily devoid of exploitation.

According to critic Lake Lambert, “The absence of a shared telos also explains consumerism. If a clear vision of human ends is unavailable, then we are constantly restless, and human restlessness leads to detachment.”[5] This detachment is related to a lack of proper theology around work, a lack of knowledge around supply chains, and a general lack of contentment. Rather than wisely and intentionally engaging in economic exchanges, the consumer derives pleasure “not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit.”[6] To combat this type of consumerism, Cavanaugh calls upon the Christian value of community and a call to offer all possessions in service of the “common good.”[7]

Throughout the book, Cavanaugh illustrates his points with concrete examples of people and businesses. In this way, deep theological points are brought to life in ways that help the reader to understand the practical implications of the author’s theories. For example, in explaining how the Eucharist can stand as a positive example of consumption, he tells a story about a poor woman who gave him a gift, and the inner conflict that arose as a result. Since the woman was poor, he wanted to pay her for the gift; however, if he paid her, he would have turned the gift into an economic exchange, therefore depriving the woman of the joy of giving. He concludes by explaining that “the gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours.”[8]

Cavanaugh’s story reminded me of an incident that happened to me a few years ago. I was visiting family in the States, and had spent an afternoon out shopping with my older sister. After having picked up a few necessities (Levi jeans cost 100€ in France, so we always stock up on jeans when in the States!), we were hungry for some lunch and so we headed to the food court. After we both ordered, I said, “Let me buy!” She looked at me, incredulous, since I am a missionary and she is a college professor. She said to me, “I should buy. I have more money.” To which I replied, “So does that I mean I don’t have the right to be generous?” When we deprive people, regardless of their means, the joy of sharing what they have, we rob them of part of their humanity.

As missionaries, my husband and I choose to support other missionaries. We sponsor children through Compassion International. We tithe. This seems counter-intuitive for some, I suppose, given the fact that we live on the generosity of others. But being generous is good for my soul. Like the woman in Cavanaugh’s story, I find generosity to be no only an antidote to consumerism, but also to self-pity and discontent. The ability to give is one of the few great equalizers—for everyone has the right to be generous.

I remember reading a story about a little girl in a Nazi concentration camp who found a single raspberry, and saved it in her pocket all day long, so that in the evening she could share it with her sister. Imagine a girl who had absolutely nothing choosing to SHARE a raspberry. It is empowering and humanizing to be generous.

Having a healthy relationship with money and consumption are critical aspects of missionary sustainability. Missionaries must find and live into the tension of being on the receiving end of financial gifts while continuing to give generously as well. Generosity is an act of faith and a statement of who God is. Some missionaries can fall into the trap of thinking “I give my whole life in the service of God, and I’m also poor compared to my supporters, so therefore I don’t need to be generous with my money.” Some missionaries are the most miserly people I know.

But there is another side as well. Historically, missionaries have been expected to live in total poverty, as if choosing to serve God meant that one was no longer allowed to take vacations, buy the latest technology, or wear good shoes. Missionaries were sent hand-me-down clothes and used toys and broken cameras. And church goers felt like they had been “generous” because they had put their unwanted items into a “missionary barrel” at church. Missionaries could never retire because they didn’t have any savings and never take a real vacation because “furlough” was considered “time off.” This mentality has also been changing in recent years, and for this, I am deeply grateful.

[1] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008). 3.

[2] Cavanaugh. 5.

[3] Cavanaugh. 9.

[4] Cavanaugh. 32.

[5] Lake Lambert, “Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 49, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 169–71, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6385.2010.00521.x.

[6] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed. 47.

[7] Cavanaugh. 52.

[8] Cavanaugh. 92.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

12 responses to “The Power of Giving”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Jennifer,
    Nice concise summation of the book and quick analysis that it is both a textbook and a how-to guide that leads readers to the conclusion that they must have a relationship with God in order to live in a global economy. I like Cavanaugh’s call for Christian values and service to others as part of his solution to globalism.
    It is good to hear when missionaries give to other missionaries. We are dealing with an uncomfortable scenario with a missionary couple in my home church that has exposed their dependence upon their financial support over their dependence upon their ministry and listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
    You briefly engaged the Eucharist side of Cavanaugh’s ideas on consuming the body and blood of Christ. I used to think, that is just a Catholic thing and liturgical practice similar to the evangelical’s communion. The Holy Spirit really got a hold of me this week and showed me some deeper insights into consuming Christ (Eucharist) and wearing Christ (Armor of God).
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Thanks, Mike. I’m not sure I understand the problem you are having with the missionary couple. Can you say more about that? What, excatly, are they doing that is cause for concern?

      I’d also love to hear more about how the the Holy Spirit has been leading you with regards to the Eucharist.

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    Loved your talk on generosity! Fits in well with my dissertation. I am so proud of you for tithing and giving an offering unto God through your missionary offerings. I believe it is an act of Worship…don’t you?

    I am so sick and tired of the JUNK FOR JESUS mentality of so many. We couldn’t sell it in our garage sale, so let’s give it to the church or a missionary. I am so sick and tired of getting 200 pound television sets dropped off at the church when even the rescue mission won’t take them.

    There is much to be said for “Firstfruits” giving, as giving leftovers is so unsatisfying, and extremely shallow.

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Thanks, Jay. What are some positive examples of “first fruit” giving that you have witnessed? How do you feel Financial Peace encourages “first fruit” giving?

  3. Yes, Jenn, I also loved your personal stories of generosity. Thank you for modelling that.

    You commented, “Having a healthy relationship with money and consumption are critical aspects of missionary sustainability.” I agree. I wonder how much this reality impacts the long term sustainability of missionaries? In your dissertation will you include a focus on this aspect?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      I hope it didn’t seem like I was tooting my own horn! Having come onto the mission field at mid-life we were just surprised to discover that many missionaries only saw themselves as “recipients” and not as “givers.”

      I do wonder how much this aspect of Christian life affects missionary sustainability. I’m not sure I’mm be able to get into it very deeply, except to say that I think that people who are generous towards other people alos have a generosity towards God that allows for greater perseverance in the face of trials of all kinds. I need to figure out if this is something I can explore.

  4. Greg says:

    I was having a conversation with my son (he is 18 and a graduating senior). We were talking about some money we had given a ministry to borrow and they were giving back. We decided to have them only return part (good for that group to be responsible to return some) and he began to ask about the reason we didn’t have them give it all. It gave me a good opportunity to talk about the blessings we receive and those we are able to give away. I have little patience with the “whoa is me” christian worker. I see it as pharisee like…looking for pity and rewards here on earth. Thank you for your testimony.

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Totally agree. Missionaries with a “poverty mentality” struggle to accurately communicate the abundance and goodness of God. And I really do like who I am a lot better when I am living generously. It reminds me of how generous God is to me.

  5. Another great post Jenn! I loved your heart sharing about your desire to be generous even if you have less than others. We have always taught our kids to give even when they have very little so that when you have much it will be a normal part of how you handle your money. I agree with you, that the best antidote to consumerism is generosity.

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Thanks, Jake. That’s good training for your kids. I think it is sometimes easier for those who have less to give. It seems counter-intuitive, but when you are used to living on little, living on less is easier.

  6. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, I appreciate your perspective on generosity. Have you found it challenging to take a vacation or do things for yourself that may seem as luxuries because they are beyond the basics? Do you think that people who have been on the mission field their whole life find it more challenging to not be miserly than others who have had other careers first?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      You know, we do take vacations, but we discovered that we were unusual in this. We have a regular salary (even though that comes from our supporters) and so we make choices like everyone as to how we will spend our money. We rarely eat out, we have only one car (which we almost never use), and we live in a small apartment. We do those things so that we can save money for occasional vacations. We know we are better at our jobs and less likely to burn out if we take breaks from time to time, so to us this seems like a wise use of our time and money. Fortunately, our totally awesome supporters agree.

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