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Radical Generosity by Rich Gower

July 3, 2015
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My wife Sophie and I found ourselves discussing ‘the fruit juice question’ again recently. It’s a question we’ve discussed periodically since driving round Africa with some friends a few years ago. At the time we were collectively reading a book called,The Irresistible Revolution, by Shane Claiborne (which typically involved someone reading out loud at the top of their voice to overcome the rattle of the Land Rover’s engine!). After each chapter we would discuss the contents.

The fruit juice question is this: Given all the poverty and need in the world, what standard of living is it appropriate for me to have?

It’s called the fruit juice question because I think it’s important to boil this sort of issue down to bare practicalities, and at the time, I wanted to know if it was okay for me to buy posh fruit juice, or whether I should buy cheap juice and give the spare cash away!

You might not be so attached to fruit juice, but you probably have a similar dilemma in other areas: is it okay to have an expensive phone for example? Or what about going on an expensive holiday?

Jesus had some pretty radical stuff to say about money and possessions, and I’ve been wrestling with it ever since reading Shane’s book. Jesus commends the widow in Mark 12:41–44 not because of how much she gives in absolute terms, but because what she gives is such a high proportion of her income. He even suggests others give all their money to the poor, and throughout the gospels, he insists that ‘life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’ (Luke 12:15).

It’s easy to discuss these sort of things in the abstract, but I want to know what it means for my life at a very practical level (hence the fruit juice question).

Theologically, I don’t think God wants us to beat ourselves up and live in a hovel. He loves to bless us. But he also loves it when we make sacrifices on behalf of others – just as he did for us.

Living intentionally

John Wesley – one of the leaders of the Methodist Revival in the 1700s, answered the question by living as follows: ‘When he had thirty pounds a year, he lived on twenty-eight and gave away two. The next year, receiving sixty pounds, he still lived on twenty-eight, and gave away thirty-two. The third year, he received ninety pounds, and gave away sixty-two…’ (The Life of Rev. John Wesley by Richard Watson). No matter how much he earned, he didn’t let his standard of living expand to match his income.

This is the approach Sophie and I try to take. Our aim is to prayerfully decide what an appropriate standard of living is, and then – whatever we earn – to save or give away the excess.

At points this has meant giving a lot of cash away (which felt hard!). But at others, it has meant receiving a lot of money from others – supporting us in ministry work overseas.

It doesn’t always mean we buy the cheapest thing – we buy Fairtrade, go for nice meals out, and invest in hobbies like sailing and painting. On the other hand, we don’t buy much ‘stuff’, eat less meat than we used to and are intentional about sticking to our budget. We also try not to conform to the norms of our culture regarding spending. Although it’s awkward parking our ancient Vauxhall Corsa next to an acquaintance’s £80 grand Range Rover, this is a good awkward.

When we have had little, we have gone to God, budgeted carefully but grace-fully, and normally still felt called to give – largely as a declaration that money was our (God-given) servant and not our master.

Those of us living at home or at uni may feel that we can’t live like this – as it means giving away ‘someone else’s money’. My feeling is that however God provides our cash, we should feel free to work out how to use it with him (and ask for advice from trusted family or friends).

Challenging your normal

When we lived in Zimbabwe, we realised just how much of our attitude to possessions and lifestyle came from our culture and upbringing. In short, our ‘normal’, was not normal to many of our Zim friends. At one point we both had sore necks from bad roads, uncomfortable beds and bad office chairs. Purchasing an expensive pillow seemed to us like a normal response that might make life easier, but to some of our Zim mates it looked like a serious extravagance.

Simply put, their idea of what constituted an appropriate standard of living was very different from our own. This is why it’s important to try and work this stuff out with God (and with friends) rather than on our own – it helps us to identify our own blind spots. Of course even then, if we sit down with God and work out what an appropriate standard of living is for us, we will probably all come up with different budgets. That’s okay – we’re all different, and God loves our individuality. He also meets us where we are.

But the important thing is that we go to him and wrestle with the fruit juice question regularly. It will probably be a different question for you. That’s what I try to do, and my challenge to you, is to set aside a couple of hours to do so too.

This article first appeared on Tearfund’s Rhythms platform. The content is in connection with a campaign Tearfund have launched called ‘Ordinary Heroes’. There is more content in the Ordinary Hero Bronze and Silver rhythms? In them there are loads of actions to help you start to think about living differently, radically and creating a lighter global footprint.

Rich Gower is a Christian economist who works with a number of NGOs and has recently co-written The Restorative Economy report for Tearfund. He lives in Bradford where he tries to make as much time as possible for investing in the local community, windsurfing and generally enjoying the great outdoors. He and his wife Sophie are expecting their first baby in August.

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