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Is Charity Really a Spiritual Discipline?

My wife and I ate dinner the other night at the Olive Garden. We split an entree, but we filled up on bread sticks and salad (doing otherwise is just plain foolish, if you ask me). We spent about two hours there, baring our souls with another couple we had known from afar for while. We talked about marriage, in-laws, difficult relationships, and the grace of God evidenced in different stages of our lives.

As we were finding our vehicles in the parking lot, a meek-looking woman approached us and muttered a few words to our male friend. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but when he replied, got the gist: “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash. If I did, I’d give it to you.”

Now, that sounds like a typical, “nice guy” thing to say, but he really meant it. I know that he did, because the next thing that happened astonished me.

His wife ran after the woman who had already begun walking away, looking slightly dejected. The poor woman was climbing back into her minivan with her kids, who must have been hungry and a little scared. My friend apologized for not having any money to give the family (which was the truth), but offered to go back into the restaurant and order some food for her. The woman said she’d like some lasagna. Good choice, if you ask me.

The husband—our other friend—looked at us and said matter-of-factly, “So, we’ll meet you at Starbucks in a few minutes?” We nodded as we climbed into our car and headed in that direction. As we drove other there, we considered the life of these two people: they had welcomed all kinds of people into their home over the past few years, including an addict who’s currently living with them. They didn’t think anything was special about this; it was just what they were supposed to be doing.

A few minutes later, we saw them pull into Starbucks, where we drank tea and picked up the conversation right where it had been paused. What amazed me more than anything was that our friends didn’t once mention how they bought that woman some lasagna that fed her and her family that night. They didn’t turn the experience into a mini-sermon, as we Christians so often do.

I was fascinated by how casually the whole thing went down. They didn’t struggle with “doing the right thing,” nor did they make a big deal about it one way or the other. They just did it and didn’t feel the need to bring it up again. I love that.

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As the conversation moved into talking more about social justice issues, that kind of got me thinking. I mean, if it were me, I would’ve been extrapolating some amazing spiritual principle from the evening’s brush with the poor and try to wow my friends with my generosity. But they didn’t utter a word, and they didn’t need to. That provoked something in me, something that is still bubbling inside of me.

I thought for a moment: “What if …?”

What if that was how we treated social justice in general? What if charity wasn’t a spiritual discipline but just how Christians lived their lives? What if kindness and compassion was just who we were—as casual as catching up for Starbucks after dinner? What if being generous looked less like a program and more like something that was imprinted in our DNA?

Maybe we’ve been thinking about this the wrong way. What do you think? Is charity a discipline to you, or something that comes naturally?

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