Photo by Simon Wong. simon.wong@intuitivesystems.com.auIt has been noted by some commentators in the aftermath of the terrible destruction caused by last month's Indian Ocean tsunami that 2004 ended with the worst of natural calamities but that 2005 began with the best of humanity's virtues. The outpouring of giving and care internationally in the disaster's wake has indeed been commendable, with private and official donations, aid and relief efforts topping US$6 billion so far. Here in Singapore, where I am currently living, I was impressed at how swiftly and generously people were reaching into their wallets to contribute to charities and relief agencies in a bid to help neighboring countries any way they could. Volunteers, doctors, nurses and military personnel giving their time followed closely behind. I even did my small bit by giving a few dollars to the Singapore Red Cross.

It is, of course, our responsibility as human beings to help others in their time of need when and where we can. Few principles are as clearly demonstrated and consistently stated in the Bible. After all, how can we freely accept the love of God through the sacrifice of his only begotten Son and not show that love to others by caring for them in the same way Christ would have and did?

Personally, I felt good about what little I had given and even happier that it was a part of so much more that had come from so many more all around the world. I even gave myself a pat on the back. "Well done Kamal!" I thought to myself. "You cared enough to give something to help others out and so did a lot of other people. Those in need and the good Lord would have wanted nothing less!"

However, my perspective changed significantly one evening a few days ago when I was standing at attention with my platoon mates in the barracks where I am currently serving my Singapore military service commitment. One of our officers was explaining to us the Singapore Armed Forces' contribution to relief efforts in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka and the need for volunteers to come forth from our company to join in the efforts. This was no small thing that was being asked of us: four to six weeks away from family doing back-breaking work in less than ideal living conditions where the threat of disease was real and with no additional monetary reward of any kind. I couldn't help but have the utmost respect for those few who did step forward to make such a significant sacrifice for the sake of others.

I say this without the intention of maligning those - including myself - who didn't volunteer their time. We all had reasons that by any standard would be considered valid and legitimate. I can give you mine: I'm going to be finishing my military service in a little over a month after which I'll be starting a job with employers in the United States who are expecting to see me on a specific date. I couldn't risk jeopardizing that for an overseas assignment of indefinite length. Besides, I want to spend what little time I have left in Singapore with family who I won't be seeing again for a long time once I start working overseas. As reasonable as those explanations sound, however, I realized straight away that the issue wasn't that I could not give more but that I would not give more. It dawned on me that in this situation and in just about every other one wherein we have the opportunity to give, in most cases no matter how much we give we can always give more. And that gives pause for reflection.

A Humbling Catastrophe

At the risk of understatement and sounding blatantly obvious, I can say that, for myself, the disaster that has struck the coastlines of the Indian Ocean has been a truly humbling experience. However, I don't mean this merely in the sense that most immediately comes to mind. Yes, it was humbling because it demonstrated the awesome power of nature and the swiftness with which human life can be taken away.  But it was also humbling because it demonstrated to me the gap that often exists between what we do give and what we can give of ourselves to others in their time of need. In fact, when I thought about it more, there is even a gap between what we do give and what we can easily give in many instances.

Ultimately, the core reason for this is selfishness, albeit usually selfishness of an acceptable degree. I realize that the word "selfish" here may seem unduly harsh, but I use it in the strictest sense of the term, that is a care predominantly for oneself above all else. That's why we will often give to others up to a point. That point is usually reached when giving more would come at the expense of career, family or the livelihoods to which we are generally accustomed. Basically, if we feel the pinch of giving too acutely, we will probably stop short of sacrificing that much, especially when we know everyone else is chipping in in some way as well.

And why not? As I said before, by most standards no one would blame you or expect you to give up your whole life for someone else. My purpose is not to belittle or berate anybody's habit of giving. But one can't help but contrast our giving to the poor widow Jesus commends for giving two small copper coins as an offering in the temple, she who Jesus says "out of her poverty put in all she had to live on" (Luke 21:1-4). Indeed, how does what we give compare to what God himself gave to the world in his crucified Son?

My point, then, is not that we should feel bad about ourselves for what we do give. Indeed, no one should criticize or condemn a generous heart, no matter how it manifests itself. However, there is little reason to boast or feel pride about what we give, because we know we can always give more. In that way, the tsunami has taught me a new humility with regard to how I perceived my own generosity. When we give to the needy there is indeed, as Jesus said, no reason to "announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men" (Matthew 6:2).

The Plank in Our Eye

There is another equally important lesson to be drawn here that follows from the previous one: While there are always disparities in the quantity, quality and proportions of people's giving we should never pass judgment on other's generosity based on what they have or haven't given. Some of the more unseemly events of the past few weeks of what has otherwise been an unprecedented display of global care and effort in alleviating the suffering of the tsunami victims had to do with the sniping in editorial pages around the world about certain nations not giving enough aid or not dispensing it fast enough. Did not Christ say:

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged...Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye." (Luke 7:1, 3-4)

Do we really have the moral authority to tell anyone that they are not giving enough when we know that we ourselves have not put everything aside to give what we are able to? It should be enough that there are many giving, no matter how small or large their gifts. There should be no room for tearing other's efforts down when what really matters is the plight of those in need. Surely anything, no matter how small, that can go towards satisfying that need is cause enough to be thankful.

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," Christ said to his disciples at the Last Supper (John 15:13). As long as I have never laid down my life for someone else, I can never say I have given all that I can, nor will I tell someone else that he hasn't given enough.