Resource Library

What's in a Name?

Resource from Ecumenical Stewardship Center Archives
Resource Library

What's in a Name?

Meredith McNabbBy Meredith McNabb

This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 22, No. 4 in 2020. You can access the full issue here

“Money doesn’t equal love.” We say and understand that principle relatively easily in the context of personal relationship–with children receiving gifts, or in romantic relationships, or around presents among friends and family, it’s a straightforward proposition. Advertisers might want to hint against it and cajole us into thinking we need to spend more money to demonstrate more love, but it’s just a point of emotional maturity to recognize that money isn’t actually love.

In charitable giving, however, particularly the giving that happens through institutions like churches and religious nonprofits, a monetary gift might absolutely be a faithful and genuine expression of love—a way for a donor to demonstrate care and agape, neighbor-love, for people and places the giver might not otherwise be able to touch.

Even the word charity, so often abandoned today for its association with unloving power dynamics in giving, comes to us from the Latin caritas, love for all. Thinking of giving as an act of faith-filled love is an approach that churches and many nonprofits are in fact striving to communicate ever more clearly as they move away from simply inviting donors to give to fund an institutional budget.

But expressing neighbor-love isn’t the only spiritual motivation for faith-oriented giving, and it could be fruitful to consider other faith-values that donors might be expressing in their gifts to causes and institutions that are doing good in the world. Our invitations to give— and our conversations with givers—might be deepened and nuanced with thought around what other values might be important in givers’ spiritual lives.

One framework that’s helpful for exploring those faith values is to consider the ways that generosity is regarded in different traditions. While an individual giver would presumably be deeply formed in perhaps only one religious or cultural tradition, the linguistic underpinnings around generosity reflect faith virtues and values that cross traditions. (And in an age of such dramatically increasing religious disaffiliation, church leaders’ fluency in all these motivations will be a boon in speaking to those whose formation in generosity is rooted in a lot of places—or nowhere in particular).

Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for giving often translated as “charity”, but its linguistic and practical roots are in justice, not love. For those more accustomed to thinking of justice as a word that applies primarily to the courts, this can be an unfamiliar concept, but the Jewish faith-value of generosity is about using one’s resources to right wrongs, to change one’s community and the world to be better-aligned with God’s priorities. Tzedakahjustice—is surely a motivation of many faith-filled and generous givers, including many who might not immediately identify themselves with those who follow rabbinical teachings!

Taken from another side, the faith-practice of zakat, one of the five pillars of faith in which faithful Muslims give away 2.5% of their wealth annually (not just income, but the value of all property), is linguistically rooted in the faith-value of purity of heart: one gives zakat in large part to purify one’s heart and one’s wealth, to be cleansed from the stain of potential greed. This is a value that Christian congregations may emphasize less often, yet “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21) has a resonance with zakat and with many givers seeking to be faithful with their money.

From yet another perspective, in Buddhist tradition, giving is dana, with a meaning rooted in selflessness: those who give dana are seeking to share freely with those in need in order to hold their possessions lightly, to be freed of undue attachment to one’s belongings. Again, church leaders may not often emphasize this value, but the early church’s monastic spirituality (and even the modern movement toward minimalism) share deep echoes of the faithful impulse toward selflessness with respect to one’s resources.

Tzedakah, zakat, and dana are words that might never find their way into church stewardship materials, and the faith practices that they reflect in their own traditions warrant deeper study than can be touched on here. But they open up some space: love isn’t the only faith-filled motivation for generous giving.

Justice, purity-of-heart, and selflessness join with love in making up the fabric of people’s faith-filled values around generosity. Money is a many-layered subject for most people, and the right use of one’s resources through giving is part of faith-development and spiritual exploration. As leaders, the recognition of both an institution’s assumptions about generosity and a donor’s tapestry of motivations for giving might benefit from an expansion of vocabulary as we seek to connect with people and help them grow in both faithfulness and generosity.

Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at

DATE: October 31, 2020
TOPIC: Theological Reflection
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Ecumenical Stewardship Center Archives
KEYWORDS: Charity, Tzedakah, Zakat
AUTHOR: Meredith McNabb