When I quit my job to stay home with my kids, I could tell people hesitated when they asked me “What’s your… plan?” I knew what they were asking. How are you going to live on one income? How can you afford life on a pastor’s salary?
I’m no great math whiz so I generally just shrugged and said “I don’t have one.”
The truth is, I had a plan but it was a very foolish one: I was planning to depend on a series of daily miracles. I was planning on manna falling from the sky. My husband had been preaching on the Israelites wandering through the desert and he kept reminding us of God’s incredible record of faithfulness and their persistent inability to trust that the gifts of the past would still be there to sustain the future. I took the lesson to heart and decided to plan on being dependent on gifts.
This is *not* recommended by any financial experts that I know of. It’s a foolish way to live but “has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Cor. 1:20). We’re told to save (and we do save) but the mindset of saving and purchasing insurance against all sorts of eventualities is really a false sense of security that places too much trust in our own power to help ourselves.
I’m not really a go-with-the-flow type, so I didn’t start out relying on gifts. My first months at home I became a little hurricane of budgeting stress, whipping myself into a frenzy with the ongoing tension between my good intentions and all our unexpected expenses. I’d make up elaborate justifications for why the budget didn’t work this week and assure myself we’d live between the lines next week. I just never got the hang of it.
Instead, I’ve learned to ride the unpredictable waves of a gift economy, one where the math never quite adds up but we stay afloat nevertheless. We’re not lavish with our spending. We pay our bills on time. But we never expect any month’s expenses to look like last month’s.
There are some benefits to living on gifts, benefits I have only learned to appreciate after taking that initial risk. These benefits were really clearly articulated by a book I just finished, so I wanted to take the time to weave the wisdom from this book into my own experience as a wife managing a household that exists, more or less, on the gifts of other people.
Benefit #1: Bonding
“A gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection” (Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, 72).
Our church takes care of us in ways the IRS can’t tax us for. From babysitting to expert help, we’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of really generous gifts. We feel a certain indebtedness to our church family as a result. They know we can’t afford the market-value of their labor and they give it to us anyway as a gift of friendship. We, in turn, feel a sense of gratitude and indebtedness that can sometimes leave my husband and I feeling overwhelmed.
That’s because we are bound to these people. We owe them, in a very real sense, a debt we can’t hope to repay. This can feel burdensome. In some ways, it would be convenient to simply give them money that recognizes the value of their work and then end our relationship there, the way we do with our plumber.
But this is can be a healthy burden, the kind that reminds us how much we need one another. My husband labors each week to provide spiritual sustenance for our church. He visits the sick, gives to the poor, prays for the needy, and feeds them with the living Word of God. Many people express an appreciation for the spiritual gifts he provides, gifts which do not have market value, but nonetheless have inestimable worth. I hope they feel as we do, that we are bound together by our indebtedness to one another, exchanging the gifts we can give as a way of expressing our love for one another.
It is a joy to be in community with generous people. I agree with Hyde when he says these bonds formed by generosity are “attachments to be desired” because “when gift exchange achieves a convivial communion of spirits, there is no call for liberty” (91). As we give and receive, we find that our gifts are doing much more than simply “supplying the needs of the saints” because our resulting thankfulness “is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:12). When we experience generosity we can’t repay, we are deeply moved to thank God for giving us such friendships. We enjoy the great communion of spirits that give freely to one another.
Benefit #2: Affluence of Satisfaction
“Gifts that remain gifts can support an affluence of satisfaction, even without numerical abundance” (29).
I didn’t realize how much I’d been trained to measure value in dollar signs until I began living outside of the traditional economy. In a traditional economy, all the good things I have are evidence of my hard work and prudent spending. In a gift economy, many of the good things I have are evidence that I am loved and cared for by other people. I can look around my house and see tangible examples of friendship, from all the hand-me-down clothes to our remodeled kitchen. We literally could not make ends meet with out the generosity of our church. We have what we could not get through the marketplace.
Wendell Berry, a farmer and writer who does his best to resist the pull of the modern industrial economy, accuses the modern economy of assuming that “the only help worth giving is not given at all, but sold.” His writings frequently instruct us to receive everything as a gift, even the ability to work and make money. To recognize the stuff of my life–the people, the stuff, the opportunities, the talents–as a gift helps me to respond to my life with a gratitude that goes beyond mere contentment. I truly have an “affluence of satisfaction” when I realize I’ve been given all I need. Christians have a word for this feeling of recognition that we have been given all we need and more than we deserve: that word is grace.
I like to imagine our household as a channel through which grace flows. In my imagination, grace is always a liquid and so we are conduits for it, receiving and passing it on, constantly ready to receive more. Grace comes to us in the form of hand-me-downs or dinner invitations. We accept these gifts as provision. “God will make all grace abound to you” in order that we will always have “sufficiency in all things at all times” (2 Cor. 9:8). We give freely because there is always more where that came from. When we trust the source, then we do not need to build a dam and hoard what’s ours.
Of course, this is easier said than done. If we suddenly were sitting on thousands of dollars of medical debt or carrying the burden of a lost job, it would challenge everything I’m saying right now. I’m talking about a general posture of giftedness, which helps us to see everything as a gift and give freely out of the resulting “affluence of satisfaction.”
Benefit #3: Generosity begets generosity
“True gifts constrain us only if we do not pass them along–only… if we fail to respond with an act or an expression of gratitude” (91).
Grace pours through us, abundantly, so that we always have sufficiency and then out of our abundance, we can “abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). We can not hoard gifts. We don’t necessarily have to give away the good things we’ve been given, but we do consider ways in which the gracious abundance we have can be poured out to supply the needs of others.
Within a bonded group, it is preferred that we give gifts and NOT charge one another for these gifts. As Hyde says, we find it almost insulting within a family or a bonded group to “assign comparative values to things to which we are emotionally connected” (80). As an example, imagine offering to give a kidney to your brother and then sending him a bill. The exchange of goods and services for money actually creates boundaries because we say to one another ‘I don’t want to owe you anything. I want our relationship to begin and end with this exchange.’
On the other hand, when we give without assigning cost, we confirm our bondedness and assure a certain limitlessness to what we can ask of one another. I’m not saying its not exhausting to be this available to one another. I’m also not saying that if you give everything away you won’t eventually run out of resources. I am saying that in the spirit of generosity and gift-exchange we feel compelled to respond by giving as freely as we have received. As Hyde says, people who offer gifts exchanged with love discover that the most important resources “are neither exhausting nor exhaustible and [their] assures their plenty” (29).
These are ideals. And real life only rarely and briefly lives up to our ideals. I write these words on the internet today and tomorrow or the next day I will struggle with my pride which keeps me from receiving gifts and my greed which keeps me from giving them. I will struggle with doubt and worry. I will be called upon to live up to these ideals in ways far more challenging than I can now imagine. That’s always the risk of thinking you’ve learned something profound–at any moment you may be called upon to act on your ideas.
I do not fault those who live on well-documented budgets, keeping their income and expenses neatly within the boxes of a spreadsheet. For us, though, the lines have blurred as grace has poured into our lives and back out again. We live on the banks of a creek that never fails to deliver what we need and we daily resist the urge to build dams and store up for a drought. We try to take all we need and allow all that we can live without to flow through us in the hopes that what we share will not only supply the needs of the saints, but overflow in many thanksgivings to God (2 Cor. 9:12).
I cannot tell what tomorrow may bring. I can only bear witness that the last three years we have not only stayed afloat, we’ve learned how abundant a life that depends on others can be.