Today I had my last test in my Old Testament Class here at BYU-J. At the beginning of the class, I’ll admit: I was really worried—though I had read the entire Old Testament before, it still seemed so… distant, archaic, and downright not applicable to me. I thought it was boring. The New Testament and Restoration scripture are the places to go to really feel the love of God and be inspired… But I really wanted to get the most out of this class, so I tried to keep an open mind while going through everything again. Now, I have to say that I’m really surprised: reading in the Old Testament has been not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. Most of it I have thoroughly enjoyed. Being where a lot of it took place has really made it come alive (the field trips were amazing in this regard!). And now that I, for the first time, have paid some real time to know the context better, I think there is actually only a few things that are completely inapplicable. Especially after being reminded of the lessons that one author gleans from the Old Testament in The Peacegiver, I am convinced that we can find life-changing insights in this glorious and inspired book of scripture. And I want to share one that I feel is extremely applicable today.

So, here it goes: Deuteronomy 15. Moses is teaching about the “year of release,” a Jewish tradition that basically means that all debts that people owe us are to be forgiven in full:

“At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbour shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother; because it is called the Lord’s release” (Deut. 15:1-2). When I read it, the first thing I thought was “but wait, just that easy? A clean slate for all debts? How is that fair? Won’t people take advantage of that?” And then I read on:

“If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:

But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth” (Deut. 15:7-8, emphasis added).

Ok…, I guess that’s fine… I’m for giving to the poor… but what is this word “wide”–and what exactly is God referring to when He commands me not to harden my heart? But then comes the kicker:

“Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee.

Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto” (Deut. 15:9-10).

Doh! Why does God always do that? I can give… but why does he have to say that I can’t have any suspicious thoughts in my heart? What if he is actually asking because he knows the “year of release” is coming up soon? Aren’t I justified in turning down such evil intent? [(really: that is not a rhetorical question: any thoughts?)] But the verse that just stands out at me is verse 10 where it says “and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest.” I’ve thought a lot about the application of that phrase… and I keep coming back to one thing: lending money. On my mission, I was notorious for keeping track of every last peso someone owed me. In my mind, that was the only “fair” thing to do—I was perfectly justified. It was my money, after all. In fact, I thought, it was all their fault (really: what kind of a jerk would come up to you, ask for money with that pleading voice and, those it-would-mean-everything-to-me eyes, promise to pay you back… and then act later as if it it didn’t mean enough to warrant a second thought?!). A simple board of post-it notes was merely a tactful way of saying that I expected people to keep their word. I mean, a true disciple of God would never have to be reminded that he owed someone money—they should think to pay it back the first change they get.

But a few things made me consider that this was perhaps one of the things that I needed to ask myself the apostle’s question. The first thing was one of my companions. He was really… mmm, let’s go with “chill” (my opinion of him at the time was that he should not have been given the position of leadership that he had). But he had something that I did not have: people liked him—not just fellow missionaries, but the members, people we met, and all of our investigators. And… I resented it. Why couldn’t anyone else see through his facade and notice his glaring flaws? But my policy of getting along with my companions at the time was to keep things cordial and not bring up… unpleasant details. But as our companionship matured, I not only decided that comparing his weaknesses to my strengths was not only unfair but stupid. I had a golden opportunity to observe and learn from one of his greatest strengths—and my most frustrating weakness. My entire life I longed to be someone that everyone liked. I was tired of only being able to feel comfortable with a select few groups that were just like me. That companion taught me a lot of things, and one thing is directly relevant to what I believe Deuteronomy 15 is trying to put into each of our hearts. One day as we were on our way to our weekly leadership meeting (which at the time was early enough in the day to be far away from lunch, but late enough to be noticeably hungry), he said we were stopping by a pastry shop. Not wanting to be difficult by bringing up the applicability of certain lesser rules, I just went along with it. I busied myself choosing a few new baked goods I had never tried, and I assumed my companion got what he always got, and we left. When we got to the meeting, though, he pulled out a bag that was much bigger than his usual. And… he shared it with everyone. One companionship in particular was extremely grateful as they had skipped breakfast. When one of our appointments fell through later in the day, I asked him about it. Truth be told, I began in an accusatory manner: I thought he used leadership money to buy it. But he hadn’t. He used his personal money—and he wasn’t one of the rich missionaries, either. Perceiving that I was still a little flustered, he took pity on me and decided—instead of rubbing my mistake into my face—to teach me a lesson I have never forgotten, and always tried to apply.

He put his arm around me and said (to the best of my memory), “Elder Christensen, let me tell you a story about something my trainer taught me: My first month in the country, my trainer had been promising me that we would go to the best ice cream place in the zone and introduce me to what he claimed to be the best flavors in the country. The transfer was almost over, and we still hadn’t gone. One day, though, our schedule was such that we were close enough to the shop that we stopped and got two entire kilos (over 4 pounds). The only problem—that is, besides using the last of my expendable money—was that we had another appointment to get to, and it was lunch. We decided to stop by our apartment which was close to the lunch appointment and put in our freezer for later that day. The rest of the day didn’t give the opportunity to go back, however, until that night. I was dying. I was only looking forward to one thing: that ice cream. The moment we got home, though, we got a call from another missionary apartment and my companion had to go to their apartment. Without telling me, he packed the ice cream in his bag, and the first thing he did when we got to the other apartment was give it to the other missionaries! Of course we all shared it, but I really resented having to share it among six instead of relishing my own. My companion, however, saw things completely differently. He tried to talk me out of my resentment by pointing out how happy it made the other elders, how one of the missionaries in particular never bought treats like ice cream, and how we had made four good friends because of it.”

There is a little more to that story, but I’ve never forgotten what I learned from his relating that story. I think it gets at what President Kimball was teaching in his admonition to ‘love people, not things.’ What if we lived life such that we only cared about things like money in terms of its use in helping other people? Of course we should always keep in mind our primary financial responsibilities (which, I think, include only the basics such as food, housing, and clothing—not luxuries that we only think are needs), but really, I think we can “afford” to use money to go out of our way to help people a lot more than we tend to. Again, perhaps this is being too idealistic—of course if we get to be known to being overly giving, we will be taken advantage of and come to financial problems of our own, right? Well, though this makes perfect logical sense, I happen to know a multimillionaire who lives with precisely this philosophy and believes it to be one of the secrets to his success. I talked with my stake president the month before leaving for Jerusalem to talk to him about what I should do with my life. We talked for over an hour (he thinks I should get an MBA and go into business… mmm, not convinced), and in between the lines he deeply impressed me with how he approaches life and money. Even before he made it big, he decided that he would not let money control his mind, heart, and happiness. During the times in his life that he was basically in poverty, he would always give generously to good causes and other people. And he is convinced it is the only way to live. He tries to judge wisely each person and situation, but he has come to view money as merely another tool to be used to help people. If he gets it back, great. But most of the money he gives out with the explicit promise that they are only borrowing it, he doesn’t expect back. To this day, he has given out large sums to friends (to friends, he does not charge interest)—including one who was serving in the stake with him—who promised to give it back … and haven’t. We are dealing with millions of dollars, and it has no effect on him. It is a non-issue for him. In contrast to the natural tendency (speaking from personal experience) to have the owed money festering in the back of my mind as a screaming-to-be-resolved issue, he is genuinely self-forgetful about it.

And you know what? It works. Since being with my companion, I have adopted that as one of my mantras: view money in terms of its value to help others. And it has changed my life. I go out of my way to do things like making treats to share with people, buying things for no other reason than to distribute it later to other people at opportune moments, picking up the tab during outings saying “I’ll take this one, you can pay for the next one,” and keeping candy bars and such close at hand to give away during moments when such things aren’t accessible and meals are uncomfortably too far away; to a smaller degree, too, I don’t resent it when people ask to “borrow” a little money—it usually isn’t that much, and I try to remember that that person is infinitely more important than the amount of money I could “lose” on them (how many governmental and other causes devote huge resources to help people, with little results—when our personalized kindnesses are worth so much more?). I don’t mention these things to boast or pat myself on the back, only to testify that it has brought me an immeasurable amount of pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness. The cynic may argue that I’m not making any real friends by these actions. There is probably a lot of truth to that. But there are enough people who are genuinely grateful, whose days are unexpectedly lifted, who are inspired to do likewise, that is more than worth it to me. Even if there weren’t those people, I don’t think that would be my problem at all, that is completely their choice. Besides, the scriptures make it clear, and Deuteronomy 15: 7 not coincidentally repeats, that everything I own is that “which the Lord thy God giveth.” Nothing is really mine. It all belongs to God, I am merely a steward. What’s more, if the Gospel is true, God will repay us manifold what we give away for His glory. How much will He likely give if He knows we can be counted on to use money for that purpose! This, too, may be completely counter-intuitive, but there is actually a lot of research that backs it up!

According to research done by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute,
“If you have two families that are exactly identical—in other words, same religion, same race, same number of kids, same town, same level of education, and everything’s the same—except that one family gives a hundred dollars more to charity than the second family, then the giving family will earn on average $375 more in income than the nongiving family—and that’s statistically attributable to the gift…Statistically what we find is that if we were to increase our private charitable donations by just 1 percent, which is about $2 billion a year—$2 billion a year from people like you and me writing checks for our favorite causes: our churches and our favorite charities—if we just did that, that would translate into a gross domestic product of about 39 billion new dollars. That’s a great multiplier.” And it gets better: “People who give to charity are 43 percent more likely than people who don’t give to say they’re very happy people.” His conclusion is the same as mine, and what I believe we all knew from the beginning, we just try to talk ourselves out of it: “When people give more money away, they tend to prosper.”   

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Israeli currency
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Argentina’s currency, where I served my mission

4 Responses

  1. Yay philanthropy! Kendel, you should check out the 8 levels of tzedakah (or something like that) aka 8 levels of giving by Maimonides. I think you would enjoy reading it and could make some important scriptural parallels.

  2. Kendel, I love that you referred to this post on Facebook as “the most controversial.” I would offer one qualification, though: while I agree wholeheartedly that we should give most of our money away to the benefit of other people, I don’t think it’s bad to use money for more than just food, clothing, and shelter. For example, if you fully adhered to that, you would not be in Jerusalem right now nor would you have gotten an education. :)I think I would add education to that list and travel can be comprehended under that umbrella. It’s good to get into the habit of giving as soon as possible, but I also think it’s important to realize that raising a family will include educating children and seeing to their emotional/social needs in addition to physical and spiritual; these needs will require you to use money a lot of the time. I fully believe that travel and appreciation of the arts are also things that should be incorporated into a well-rounded life–not that you have to spend a lot of money on either of them. And both of those things can inspire people to give more.

  3. @ Eric: I certainly will do that!@ Donna: I didn’t mean to imply that it is bad to use money for more than the basics of life (which I think education is one of those things… which is why I said ‘such as’), only that–at least when I justify not giving in my mind–I say to myself that if I always did that then I would be imperiling my own financial situation… which is, in reality, just an excuse not to give period–not that it would *seriously* impede my ability to pay for something *like* my education.

  4. That makes sense. I thought you were being all sorts of extreme and saying that nothing is necessary but food, shelter, and clothing. It’s important to incorporate giving, but there’s no need to deny ourselves of the many beauties and wonders that are out there for our betterment and edification. There is a definite balance and we have to be careful not to let the pendulum swing too heavily on either side. At any rate, I think the amazing thing (which Arthur Brooks points out) is that giving willingly of our time, talents, and everything we’ve been blessed with–somehow makes the ends meet better than they otherwise would. I’m a believer!! 🙂

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