Almost December. Time to receive all sorts of Year-End fundraising letters. In most cases, however, Carole King is right. It’s too late baby.
Carole King wrote the sorrowful music for “It’s Too Late,” which won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1972. It’s included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. King chose a minor key to match Toni Stern’s sorrowful lyrics about breaking up with James Taylor.
Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time. / There’s somethin’ wrong here, there can be no denyin.’ / One of us is changing,’ or maybe we’ve just stopped tryin’ / And it’s too late, baby…
There’s somethin’ wrong with Year-End fundraising letters. There can be no denyin’—in most cases, they’re a lot of work for little yield. Why? The poet Iris Murdoch knew.
“At crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.” Murdoch would say that, by the time a Year-End fundraising letter arrives, the business of choosing whether to give is already over. In the case of most Americans, the appeal is too late for two reasons—our pleasures and our penchant for privacy.
Pleasure is a translation of various Hebrew words, chiefly of chephets, “inclination.” It’s inherently good. It’s what we are inclined to delight in (Job 21:21). God cares for whatever he takes pleasure in (Job 22:3). God loves us so he takes pleasure in us. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32). As we joyfully receive it, we experience his love, taking pleasure in him and giving back. This is good news.
There’s bad news, however. With the fall, every created thing is inclined to corruption. Our pleasures can be pointed in the wrong direction. For instance, when our lives are filled with anxiety over finances, James says our “whole aim is wrong.” We’re seeking first what gives us pleasure (James 4:1-3). These pleasures are often insatiable, so we spend to the max (or beyond), leaving little to be generous with. Game over.
If conscience pricks, we invariably rationalize. I’ll be generous when I’m making more money. Once we have enough tucked away, we’ll become better stewards. We forget pleasure becomes treasure. “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart” (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus warned us not to store up treasures on earth but in heaven.
That’s a warning we seem to be ignoring. On average, American Christians give 2.6 percent of income. God calls this robbery (Malachi 3:8). Under the Old Covenant, the tithe was 10 percent, perhaps as high as 30. The New Covenant exceeds the Old, so our baseline ought to be at least 11 percent, perhaps 31 percent. That far exceeds 2.6 percent. Why do we assume we can get away with robbery? Simple. No one sees.
Most robberies occur under the cover of darkness. That’s a second reason why “there’s somethin’ wrong here”—privacy. President Reagan made generous giving one of the cornerstones of his efforts to reduce the size of the Federal budget. He told everyone that he and Nancy were generous. Then, in 1982, his tax returns were made public. The Reagans gave less than two percent of their income to charity. The President acknowledged that public scrutiny would change his giving in coming years.
Most Christians don’t submit their tax returns to public scrutiny. They view giving as a private matter. To be sure, Jesus warned against showy giving. But Jeremiah warned against self-reporting. He cautioned how the conscience is deceitful—who can understand it?—causing us to rationalize and be overconfident in ourselves (Jer.17:7-9).
Social scientists have long known that we tend to be overconfident when we evaluate ourselves. For example, 94 percent of college professors rate themselves as doing above-average work. Over 70 percent of High school seniors report that they have “above average” leadership skills, compared with 2 percent “below average.”
Pleasures and privacy largely explain why Americans live beyond their means. They give little and assume they’re getting away with it. It’s hard to publicly admit to living beyond your means. Neil Gabler, a successful writer, recently did in the Atlantic. His findings are shocking. Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. As a result, at the end of the year, when the Year-End fundraising letters arrive, most of the business of giving is over. If you’ve spent 97.4 percent of your income on your pleasures, you have 2.6 percent left to give—and that’s likely long gone.
So what’s the solution?
I recently met a man who runs a large foundation. I asked him if all the ink spilled over generosity and stewardship has moved the needle. “Not much.” Our frame for generosity is wrong. It’s perfectly designed to yield the results we are getting. We cannot solve this problem inside the frame that created it. If we’re not living within our means, is there a better frame that radically redefines life and means?
There is. Radical means “from the root.” The prophet Malachi warned that when we fail to give our whole tithe, we’re cheating God. James said when we first seek our pleasures we are adulteresses (James 4:4). Add these two (cheating + adultery) and you discover a radical frame for redefining life. We’ll frame it up next week.