If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3 (NRSV)
In the early 20th century, clergyman and author Henry Van Dyke, wrote his classic Christmas short story, “The Mansion.” It’s the tale of a wealthy, philanthropic businessman who has a dream about going to Heaven. While there, he meets various people such as a country doctor, a nun who cared for the poor all her life, and a father who worked hard to provide for his disabled daughter.
One by one, he sees each one presented with a beautiful mansion, as reward for their earthly kindness. The businessman awaits his Heavenly abode with eagerness, as he thinks of how his good works in life surpassed those of his companions. Surely, his mansion will be the finest of them all! But when his turn comes, he finds his house is only a tiny hut, carefully constructed from scrap materials in a bare yard with a few sprigs of grass, but no flowers. Appalled, the man asks his angel guide how, after years of public service and good deeds, he has such a small house, when others have great mansions.
The angel calmly replies, “That is all the material you sent us.”
The good deeds the man did on earth served to establish his reputation, solidify his business interests, and accomplish many other earthly purposes, just as he’d intended, at the time. But only the generous acts that brought him no earthly benefit counted toward building his house in Heaven.
This story has haunted me ever since I read it many years ago, because I have seen myself in it.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” If such a monumental sacrifice could gain nothing, what hope is there for my good actions?
I’ve learned that, for every generous act I do, I can have countless motivations. I could be trying to gain recognition and to make a name for myself. I could be hoping for some reward in the near future. I could be thinking that, if I don’t give or serve, I’ll feel guilty or inadequate when I compare myself to others and the great things they do. No matter how many different motivations drive my good actions, like Paul, I must realize that the only one that really counts is love.
But how do I keep love at the center of my giving and good resolutions?
My suspicion is that it will require the one thing I so often withhold: myself. And it will also require the thing I always seem to think is scarce: my time. It might involve calling a friend just to say, “How’s life?” and then truly listen to the response. It could mean reaching out into the loneliness and solitude that surround many souls during this time of year, and offer fellowship and warmth. It might also involve doing something with joy that I would normally do begrudgingly.
After all, 2 Corinthians 9:7 warns not to give “reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Attitude affects the true impact of giving for both recipient and giver. If giving is done under compulsion, it becomes work, but love has the power to transform a duty into a gift.
But once again, these are only intentions, and I’m prone to fail at even the simplest of them without the assistance of Grace. When I remember the many blessings I’ve received, my own giving is clarified, sanctified, and energized. This is especially true, when I think on the best and most precious blessing of all: the redeeming presence of the One who gave Himself unreservedly.
When the wealthy man in “The Mansion” asks the angel how he has made it to Heaven at all, when his earthly actions count for so little there, the angel replies, “Through the mercy of the King.” But what the angel doesn’t mention is that the man’s ability to do future good will also be dependent on this mercy. It is Christ’s grace that empowers us to be servants and givers, even when our nature rebels and our intentions fail.
All the love we’ll ever need to fulfill our destiny as generous people was poured out long ago, and it is all around us now. We only have to recognize it.