What if I'm cheated?
One of the most common questions I get about giving is: "How do I know if someone is really in need? What if people are taking advantage of my kindness?"
I've seen this question spark heated arguments and divide friendships.
Nobody likes to be taken for a ride.
Making the call on giving
Consciously or unconsciously, whenever we give, we exercise judgement. Judgement then decides how much we give and the depth of sacrifice we are willing to make, based on our assessment of the person's character, level of need, and urgency of situation.
Having done so, we then take action and naturally expect some sort of thanks or feel-good end.
Timothy Keller, the best-selling author of Generous Justice, puts it this way: "We all want to help kind-hearted, upright people, whose poverty came upon them through no foolishness or contribution of their own, and who will respond to our aid with gratitude and joy."
He adds, however, that "almost no one like that exists".
So when this poised balance of the laws of justice governing our internal universe gets unceremoniously overturned by a lie, or even just a misalignment of expectations, we can take this very personally. Anger results, or swearing off giving to such-and-such people again.
Feeling cheated and dealing with it
Once, I remember, I was horrified to see a throng of people nonchalantly pass by an elderly woman as she was wailing on a busy street.
She said she had some fee or debt to pay. As she spoke, she became more agitated by the minute and her hoarse voice, tears and anxiety made her explanation a garbled, sobbing mess. She was asking for $200.
I didn't know what to do.
"Promise me you are not lying to me," I said, seeking some assurance that giving her the money was the right thing to do.
Looking back, it was a foolish and futile thing to say.
Almost a month later, I saw her sitting by the roadside counting several $50 bills. She was laughing to herself, as if no one was watching.
My face burned. A flush of embarrassment erupted into a volcanic gush of anger.
Suddenly it made sense. Was she a "regular" in town? Was that why people walked right past her?
I felt cheated because I had expected honesty. I had expected her to be in dire emotional and financial distress. And when those expectations were not met, I felt taken advantage of.
Giving without expectations
So back to the question: How do you know if someone is really in need? Or does it matter?
Oprah Winfrey once did a show on giving with the tagline: "When you give, go pee on it."
What she was saying was when we decide in our hearts to give, give wholeheartedly, compassionately, unjudgementally, whatever the person does with our money.
Because it's hard to really know — the truth is often complex. And we can't force someone to use what we give in the way we want them to.
Many of us have been horrified or scarred by syndicate stories from rural India or Cambodia, about gang chiefs employing professional child beggars or intentionally maiming men and women so they can elicit sympathy and donations.
My story of the old lady may hardly have surprised you.
But in the end, while we may never know for sure if we are cheated when we give, we can refuse to let the bitterness of unmet expectations cheat us of the tenderness of a compassionate heart.
Jackie Pullinger, a British missionary to drug addicts in Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City since the 1960s, offers a selfish reason to give.
"Do not ever refuse someone who asks of you, because every time you do so, a part of your heart hardens. You may not give them entirely what they ask for, but give. Choose to give."