Is it really better to give than to receive?


By Kathy Berken
The Catholic Messenger

The simple answer is “No.” I will explain why in a moment.

We just got through another season of giving. Gifts to friends and family as well as money to charitable organizations reduced our bank accounts. Many of us rushed to buy things for people on our list and somehow found time to wrap and deliver them. We sent money to places doing God’s work. I am guessing that most of us felt good about our giving this year.

Kathy Berken

We learned long ago that it’s better to give than to receive. Our parents and teachers emphasized the importance of being generous, of sharing, of loving others more than ourselves. I certainly did, and preachers and authors, retreat leaders and poets often repeat that anthem. There are dozens of Scripture verses extolling the virtues of giving. For example, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it” (Prov. 3:27). “And he would answer and say to them, ‘The person who has two tunics is to share with one who has none; and those who have food are to do likewise’” (Luke 3:11).


Yet I contend that giving is not better than receiving. Why? Before Christmas, I was talking with my neighbor Father Jim, a semi-retired Jesuit. (Yes, all of my priest friends seem to be Father Jims!) He said that Christmas is a good time to tell people that it’s not better to give than to receive. Well, I do appreciate the well-educated Jesuit mind, but this premise seemed to border on the heretical.

When you give, he explained, you are in control not only of who your recipients are, but also of what you give them. Yet when you receive, you are not in control, and for most people, that is very difficult because we don’t like feeling helpless. “Giving and receiving are simply not equivalent,” he added. Giving and receiving is a human dynamic and you obviously can’t have one without the other, he explained, but to say that one is better than the other is simply false. They are just different.

I agreed that they are not the same, but I argued, isn’t giving better than receiving? Consider Jesus’ comments after he preaches the Beatitudes: “Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30). Isn’t altruism a great virtue? Shouldn’t we avoid the sins of greed and selfishness? I was confused.

In his quiet voice and ready smile, Fr. Jim shared the wisdom he received from Father Larry Gillick, a fellow Jesuit who has been blind since childhood and travels the world leading retreats. “Learn to receive,” Fr. Gillick told him, and that has made all the difference in Fr. Jim’s life. It’s about control, he repeated. It’s an ego boost to give, it puts us in the driver’s seat, and we get to feel good. But Fr. Gillick’s advice is profound. We are not good at receiving and our responses can backfire. Think about the times you have heard “Oh, you don’t have to” when someone gives a gift that might not have been expected. From my viewpoint as the giver, it feels like rejection. So, now I usually respond with, “I know I don’t have to give this to you; I want to.”

It’s about attitude and relationship. Imagine what it would feel like if, when you give someone a gift that they do not expect or even feel they deserve, you heard this instead: “Oh, thank you so much for your kindness and generosity!”

Yes, it is still good to give in the spirit of love. And it is just as good to be a loving receiver. For the record, I’m still working on that.

(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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