Earlier today, while the Mrs. and I were enjoying a coffee at our favorite café downtown, a woman came in who we instantly knew was looking to ask for money. She was probably in her 60’s, African-American, skinny, and dressed modestly, but you could see that she had worn clothes on.
We were sitting next to the door and were her first target. She came right over to our table, opened her left palm where she was holding a few well placed coins and said, ‘Excuse me, can you spare…’. I looked at her and kindly interrupted her by saying, ‘No, thank you’. She looked in my eyes and knew I meant, ‘Not here’. Over the course of the next ten minutes, she went to multiple tables eventually getting a few donations and someone to buy her a few bags of chips and a drink before taking off to the next place.
As we walked home, I wrestled with my decision and how the choice brought about deep questions within myself about giving. Please don’t get me wrong, the reason I said no so quickly came from my past experience working with the homeless in San Francisco.
During a very difficult time in my life, I volunteered weekly at one of the largest homeless kitchens in the Mission District. I quickly learned from those there not to give the homeless money. They had free food, clothes, and even a bed to use if they chose to. Many would also get a check from the city every month just for saying they were homeless. Something they would quickly spend on partying and then they were back on the street where they could make hundreds of dollars a day by just sitting on the corner with a cup. Granted, not all homeless people have the mental ability to do that, but there are a lot more who do than one might think.
The question really is, ‘When do we give and when do we politely say no?’ For every ten people there are probably ten different opinions on the subject. Certainly, the Bible says that if anyone asks to borrow from us we are to give (Matthew 5:42), but does that mean those who would be ungrateful or who would take advantage of us?
The Mrs. and I talked about it all the way back to the house and the one thing that kept coming back to me was the word sincerity. Over the years I’ve trained myself to recognize sincerity in people. Meaning, if someone is asking me for help, are they sincerely in need and grateful, or are they simply using me to get what they want? The tell-tale sign for me this morning with the woman at the café was her shamelessness. She had no shame or fear to work the room in a sneaky way without getting caught. She seemed ungrateful and had her routine down pat.
So, the key to knowing whether to give is wisdom and discernment. Being willing to give is also crucial to helping us know the difference whether it’s just greed we’re feeling or sensing if a person is simply trying to use us. Had I sensed she truly needed my help and was desperate, I would have gladly given her money, my coat, a ride, whatever. But my gut and eyes said otherwise.
No matter who you are, if you do give and find out later you were taken advantage of, at least you tried to do the right thing. It’s never easy to know, but God can help us with those choices when they present themselves. His heart is to always love and share. But, He also wants to protect us from being taken advantage of and He may also want us to show tough love from time to time (as in the case of our kids); even when it seems like we’re being selfish.
I still haven’t resolved the question in my own mind, but I feel a little bit closer to it after today. How would you deal with that situation? Would you say, ‘No thank you’ or would you open your wallet to give them something? If so, how much? Is a token gift helping them or is it something to help us feel better? Perhaps. Whatever the answers are, God loves us all either way and only wants us to bless others who are truly in need. In that, we can always take rest…