Vain Generosity

I wrote a few months ago A Case for Generosity in which I made the claim: “Being generous is so close to being loved that for the average Kwakum, they are indistinguishable.” My conclusion to this blog post was that, as Christians, when considering all of the variables for giving, we should make generosity a priority. I used in this argument a case study of a little boy named Patrick who was born with hydrocephalus. His family asked me to help get him a surgery and we decided to give. We found that our giving in this case conveyed great love to our neighbors, and especially to this family.

Over the course of the last six months we have been able to see Patrick and his family. His mother, Natalie is always beaming. Patrick’s skull never went back into a normal shape. I saw them both at the meeting on March 30th and thought we should look into getting him a helmet. He was a bit delayed, not holding his head up yet. But our doctor friend told us that such a delay was normal, expected. I have overall been very excited, feeling like this was one of the ways that the Lord was making headway into the culture. I felt like people could see that their own cultural expectations were limited. And Patrick has always seemed happy.

Then, last Tuesday, someone came to the house and told us that Patrick had died. I didn’t really believe it at first. I ran down to Patrick’s uncle’s house, where people were gathered. Natalie was weeping loudly as another woman was cleaning and dressing Patrick’s body. His father was crying, and people were gathering to begin their funeral rituals. Watching his little lifeless body I just felt so desperately sad. I was so sad for Natalie, who tenderly cared for him in his short life. And I was just so sad to see yet another evidence of the power that sin and death wield in this life.

My conversations with people in the village have made this even more difficult. There is not really a good word for ‘sad’ in Kwakum. The phrase that I used on the day of Patrick’s death was Ni’i nɛ soŋ. ‘I have sadness/anger.’ As you can see, the word soŋ can mean sadness or anger, and it usually means anger. When I said this to Patrick’s uncle, he said, “Well of course, you gave all that money in vain.” He was not the only one to say so, in fact most of my conversations concerning Patrick have reflected this same thinking: you gave for nothing.

From what I can tell, they mean more than just that I gave and the baby still died. Many of them told me that they knew he was going to die anyway. Babies born with hydrocephalus always die, they tell me because they are cursed. Now, I don’t believe that he died because of the hydrocephalus. They said that he had a high fever, they gave him medicine (what kind?), and also took him to the medical clinic who also gave him medicine. One million people die every year from malaria, and I think he either died from that, or from too much medicine. But, I don’t really know. But it was clear, either way, my neighbors all think that my financing this surgery was vain, and maybe even foolish.

As I was reflecting on our loss I saw a tweet by Jackie Hill Perry that said:

In trying to practice generosity, I have to continually ask myself these two questions: 1: Is the money in your account yours or the Lords? 2: If the money is the Lords, can He not again provide whatever it is that you’ve given away?

While I think the heart behind this tweet is good, I see one problem: in applying generosity she is seeking practicality. In this case, reimbursement plays a role in her giving. She gives, but believing that God can (will?) give back. This, I think, is part of the message of my neighbors: the generosity was in vain unless the child is saved (we receive a practical benefit). I like question #1 above, but I think there is a better question #2: If the money is the Lord’s, would you still give if you did not receive in return? Or, would you give even if that gift does not accomplish what you want? Do you give even if the baby will die?

I have thought and prayed about this a lot since Patrick’s death and there is one thing I am sure of: I am not sad that I gave. If you read through my original post, you will see that we really wanted Patrick to live. However, that was only one of the reasons for our generosity. More than that, we wanted to show love. The truth is, giving to the poor is nearly always impractical. Try as you might, you cannot control others, you can’t make them use the money the way that you want them to. You can’t make the medicine work, or the surgery to take, and even when it does, you can’t make people stay alive.

But Proverbs 19:17 reminds us, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” And in this way Jackie Hill Perry is right. Though we might not see it in this life, God does reward us, and he tells us to be motivated by that reward. But in doing so, I am looking toward future grace. I give not expecting necessarily fruit here, but something even more valuable: fruit in Heaven.

I was able to see Patrick’s mother and father at the funeral. They looked pretty rough. In a way that I have not seen with other parents here, it was clear to me that they truly loved Patrick. I told them (in very bad Kwakum) that I did not consider our giving to be in vain. I was glad that they had six months more with him, that they probably would not have had if he did not have the surgery. I hope that they saw that we gave because of love, and perhaps one day it will lead them to the love of Christ. I told them I would do it again. And I would.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.