During my graduate studies, one of my areas of concentration was the Holocaust. Among other things, this involved reading accounts of those who survived the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. While it was a soul-piercing experience to read these records of cruelty and suffering, I also found that many to be profoundly illuminating in spiritual terms, containing numerous examples of grace, redemption, and goodness.
I recently came across an observation by Julius Segal that struck me as completely accurate. He notes that in studying the accounts of Holocaust victims, he observed:
an attitude of determined giving was one of the things that distinguished the survivors from those who perished. If a prisoner was on the verge of starvation, but he had a crust of bread or a scrap of potato that he could share with his comrade in suffering, he was psychologically and spiritually capable of surviving. A survivor of Treblinka put it this way: “In our group we shared everything, and the moment one of the group ate something without sharing it, we knew it was the beginning of the end of for him.
It may come as a bit of a shock to learn that the practice of determined, purposeful giving could actually make the difference between living and dying. But we are finding other evidence of the same truth. For example, a University of Michigan study found that “people who reported providing no help to others were more than twice as likely to die as people who were generous, and gave help to others”. Another study by Harvard’s George Vaillant reached similar conclusions.
I doubt any of this would have come as a surprise to Jesus. After all, on several occasions He told His followers that there is a direct correlation between giving and living. As He once said, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.” According to Jesus, the paradox of the spiritual life is that if we try to cling to and keep life for ourselves, it will eventually slip through our fingers. The only way to hold on to life is by giving it away. Of course, Je-sus not only taught this principle, He demonstrated it. As a result of refusing to cling to His own life, but willingly laying it down for others, He was “highly exalted” and “given the name that is above every other name” (Philippians 2:5-11).
When Jesus taught this fundamental truth that we need to “give to live” (as an old Van Halen song put it!), he wasn’t primarily referring to prolonging our physical life. He was referring to genuine life: our spiritual life. Purposeful, determined giving is indispensable if we want to live and thrive spiritually. Hycel Taylor of Northwestern University put it this way:
Generosity not only contributes to physical longevity, but spiritual longevity as well. I think the Bible teaches us that when you are giving out that which God has given you, you also release life, so that life can go on and on. The way you get beyond material things is to give it away. "When people hold on to what they have, nothing more can come into them. There is nothing on the earth that has not always been here. There is no ownership. The Bible teaches us to be in the world and not of the world. The moment you do that, you die spiritually.
During this month of giving thanks, as we reflect on God’s amazing grace to us, perhaps we would do well to remember those who suffered and survived the evil and horrors of the Death Camps. Remember and celebrate anew the truth that as Jesus Himself demonstrated, the path to life is the path of giving our life away. The truth that in Christ, far from being the end,
giving is actually the beginning of the beginning!
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