3 Bad Reasons to Give to Charity

Is your charity motivated by love or by something else? Read on to learn 3 reasons people give to charity that may be more damaging than helpful.

First Corinthians 13 is one of the most beloved and quoted passages of the entire Bible. Even many who rarely step inside a church have heard it, read as it is in so many marriage ceremonies. It’s one of the most magnificent passages, revealing the nature of love:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:1-7)

There’s one phrase in this stirring homage to love that I have never paid that much attention to, but has always nagged me at the back of my mind:

“If I give all I possess to the poor…but do not have love.”

This has always caused me to wonder, almost subconsciously, isn’t giving to people living in poverty always accompanied and motivated by love?

Not so, according to this passage. Here are three reasons people give to charity that aren’t prompted by love — and why that matters.

If I Give All I Have to the Poor, But Have Not Love… Love in the Bible

1. We give out of a desire for self-aggrandizement.

It’s right there in the verse: “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast.”

From the time of the first century until now, humans have always had a desire to be perceived as magnanimous. Ironically, we can turn helping others into a subtle — or not so subtle — way of helping ourselves. This is why Jesus warned not to let “your left hand know what your right hand is doing” when we give to others. If we give with a desire to gain honor for ourselves, we have already received our reward in full, Jesus says (Matthew 6:1-4).

Love, as Paul writes, is not self-seeking. When our reason to give to charity is a hidden desire to boost ourselves and our image, it’s not love at all.

If I Give All I Have to the Poor, But Have Not Love… Love in the Bible

2. We give out of knee-jerk guilt and a compulsion to assuage our feelings.

Growing up, many were the times I saw the commercials of distended bellies and hollow eyes, with a voiceover from a celebrity, asking for help. Seeing the suffering of others does indeed ignite our love and compassion — some of the best, most divine instincts within us.

But sometimes, what is awoken is not true love or compassion, but guilt. Shown the glaring contrast of our experiences, we are overwhelmed and ashamed. We are compelled to throw money at the problem, close our eyes, and turn to happier matters, knowing that our feelings of guilt have been temporarily assuaged.

While the first spark of this generosity might be love, we must ask ourselves if it quickly transforms into something more self-serving — a desire to check off the charity box and move on, washing our hands of the matter.

This is not love. It is self-preservation amid an alarming world. Love perseveres. It does not turn away once our obligation has been met.

If I Give All I Have to the Poor, But Have Not Love… Love in the Bible

3. We give out of pity, or a posture of condescension.

What is pity — and is it different from compassion?

While the denotation of pity is to have compassion or sympathy for another, over time the connotation of pity has become a person — a “have” — looking down on another — a “have not.” This posture is one that separates us from others, rather than uniting us. It focuses on our difference rather than our similarity.

Compare this posture of condescension to the posture of compassion. The Latin root of compassion literally means to suffer with. Rather than emphasizing a disparate positionality between us and another, it prompts us to stand next to, not above, with our arm around another. While pity may have a root in love, our fallen human nature can distort it into something that separates us rather than unites us — and that is not love.

Does it matter?

But does it matter if we give out of less than pure intentions if people in need are still being helped? It does.

The very question belies a faulty supposition that we are fine and others are the ones who need help and change. And while people are certainly helped in tangible ways even when motivations might be off, these negative patterns can’t help but impact the direction and tone of our response in a way that can negatively impact the very ones we are trying to help in the long term.

If I Give All I Have to the Poor, But Have Not Love… Love in the Bible

When we give out of motivations less than love, we can end up…

  • Treating people like projects, rather than precious fellow humans and image bearers of God
  • Perpetuating “us and them” thinking that has a subtle posture of superiority
  • Damaging the dignity of those we are trying to help by our top-down approach
  • Employing less than effective methods of development based on our faulty perspective
  • Ignoring our own brokenness and God’s desire to reshape us

When we give out of pity or guilt, we can contribute to binary thinking — us vs. them — that separates us rather than unites us. It ignores our mutuality as humans.

“Mutuality acknowledges that we both have assets and we both have needs; we both have something to offer the other and we both have something to receive,” says Allison Alley, President and CEO of Compassion Canada.

Mutuality means we come to God with a desire to not only genuinely love others, but also with the understanding that we need to be transformed ourselves. It means we open our hands up to God as we ask Him to change our world in its brokenness and to change us in our brokenness that we might more fully reflect His beauty in this world.

None of us are perfect in our motivations. We may have some bad reasons we give to charity mixed in with the good. But we come to God with our imperfect ability to show compassion to others, and ask that He would continually perfect our faith so we can be more like Him.

Which Bible verse speaks most to you about God’s heart regarding generosity and love? Let’s encourage each other in the comments below!

A version of this post was originally published June 28, 2018.

8 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Our Father’s House Soup Kitchen March 23, 2020

    This is a reflection on us as individuals because we were being molded from birth, but rather on how our minds are molded by society and the environment in which we exist and how we perceive value. I grew up without my parents, my parents died when I was a kid and I learn to work hard because god give my hand to use it.

  2. Lori March 13, 2020

    This is a wonderful article. Thanks so much for these thought provoking words.

  3. Tom March 12, 2020

    Thank you for such a well written and thought provoking article. It causes me to pause and do some self examination. Why does it seem that when I read the Gospels I always see myself as the wheat and not the tares, a sheep and not a goat…? I pray that God can change my heart so that my giving is an acceptable and pleasing act of worship & obedience.

  4. Amber Van Schooneveld March 11, 2020

    Thank you, Melissa and John, for your comments. John, I tend to agree with Melissa that it’s OK to ask those questions. Perhaps you could also bring up ideas that don’t include post-secondary education that might use the same subject matter. That could help them think of multiple paths that might use the same skills, in the case that university education might not be feasible for them.

  5. Melissa March 11, 2020

    I’m not Amber. However, my personal opinion is it’s okay to ask those questions. Satan would have our sponsored children believe they have no future. Asking these questions encourages them to think about their future and to understand God gave them abilities and interests which they can use when they are adults. I don’t think mentioning college is pushing your Western values on them. Many of the Compassion teens I’ve met desire to attend university. They understand education is the ticket out of poverty and to a better future, both for them and for their family.

  6. Missy Degleffetti August 18, 2019

    Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. Isaiah 1:17.

    And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. Matthew 25:40

    Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep onself unstained from the world. James 1:27

    Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered. Proverbs 21:13

    She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. Proverbs 31:20

  7. John Yeohann July 1, 2018

    Amber this is an exceptional article. When my sponsored children write to me and tell me the subjects in which they excel I write back and tell them the possibilities that may exist if they follow that subject to the college level. I sometimes am concerned if I might be projecting my “western” values on them, rather then allowing them to just be kids and enjoying the here and now. But I already see greatness in them. May I ask your thoughts? Thank you for this great article.

  8. Emile June 28, 2018

    This is an excellent article, Amber, and a great reminder of how important is is to periodically examine our motives.

Add a Comment

Read the ground rules for comments.