A subject you may not have been expecting, that has long been on my heart, is the virtue of alms. When it comes to things the topics of sacrifices, atonement, and love, almsgiving is highly regarded; and when concerning vices, it so happens to be a path to bring correction in one’s life. There are some people who “over spiritualize” everything, so to speak, which can lead to a dangerous course of neglecting the actions that we are required to take. There is an integral aspect of doing spiritual work with actions. Hence the faithful saying “So also faith, if it does not have works (deeds and actions of obedience to back it up), by itself is destitute of power (inoperative, dead).” (James 2:17 Amplified Bible). Faith is believing in spiritual instruction and teaching, as the Apostle Paul stated that faith is “being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses].” (Hebrews 11:1 Amplified Bible). This begs the question, are there things about God that are not revealed to the natural senses? Jesus answers this inquiry by stating “Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:13) The secrets of the Kingdom cannot be perceived by the natural senses, hence they are the invisible things that are the evidence of faith. When it comes to understanding the secrets of the kingdom and truly receiving revelation, it brings a change to one’s character and conscience. When we truly give alms, it is done out of the character of Christ engrafted into us.
It may be a surprise to learn that almsgiving is a form of atonement. The wise Solomon wrote “love covers all sins.” (Proverbs 10:12) Or, it can be said, love atones for all sins. Christ gives this same antidote to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke, “Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness. Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But rather give alms of such things as you have; then indeed all things are clean to you.” (Luke 11:39-41) To cure the greed that was a disease in their souls, Jesus states it was almsgiving that would thus purify them. The Wisdom of Sirach speaks of the same sentiment concerning sin, “Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins.” (Sirach 3:29). Below, Early Church Father Clement speaks of the excellency of almsgiving and the relation it has to repentance.
“Wherefore, brethren, having received no small occasion for repentance, while we have the opportunity, let us turn unto God that called us, while we still have Him as One that receiveth us. For if we renounce these enjoyments and conquer our soul in not doing these its evil desires, we shall partake of the mercy of Jesus. But ye know that the day of judgment even now “cometh as a burning oven,” (Comp. Mal_4:1.) and some “of the heavens shall melt,” and all the earth shall be as lead melting on the fire, and then the hidden and open works of men shall appear. Almsgiving therefore is a good thing, as repentance from sin; fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving than both; “but love covereth a multitude of sins.” (1Pe_4:8. Comp. Pro_10:12; Jam_5:20.) But prayer out of a good conscience delivereth from death. Blessed is every one that is found full of these; for alms-giving lighteneth the burden of sin.” (1)
This is a rather jarring statement- that almsgiving is better than both prayer and fasting, especially when it comes to repenting from sin. This indicates that repentance from sin has more to do with changing one’s actions, and being more concerned about the wellbeing of others, rather than your own. In Isaiah 58 we read an account of the people crying out that they are “afflicting their souls” and God has not noticed. It had not pleased the Lord because the people were still striving, fulfilling their pleasures, and exploiting others. Notice the almsgiving the Lord instructs us to fulfill during our fast, “[Rather] is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every [enslaving] yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house–when you see the naked, that you cover him, and that you hide not yourself from [the needs of] your own flesh and blood?” (Isa 58:6-7). The point of a true fast is not to just die to our own carnal nature, but to really take on the nature of the Father, and caring more for others who are set in bondage. This is what results in our prayers being heard on high. Early Church Father Cyprian reinforces this understanding.
“Moreover, those who pray should not come to God with fruitless or naked prayers. Petition is ineffectual when it is a barren entreaty that beseeches God. For as every tree that bringeth not forth fruit is cut down and cast into the fire; assuredly also, words that do not bear fruit cannot deserve anything of God, because they are fruitful in no result. And thus Holy Scripture instructs us, saying, “Prayer is good with fasting and almsgiving.” (Tobit 12:8) For He who will give us in the day of judgment a reward for our labours and alms, is even in this life a merciful hearer of one who comes to Him in prayer associated with good works. Thus, for instance, Cornelius the centurion, when he prayed, had a claim to be heard. For he was in the habit of doing many alms-deeds towards the people, and of ever praying to God. To this man, when he prayed about the ninth hour, appeared an angel bearing testimony to his labours, and saying, “Cornelius, thy prayers and thine alms are gone up in remembrance before God.” (Act_10:2, Act_10:4) (2)
Although this may be a new consideration to understand, almsgiving is an eminent principle that coincides with fasting and prayer. We may fast and pray all the time, however without almsgiving we only have two out of three keys, because it is almsgiving that establishes a whole and complete prayer life, and ultimately to change our character to the character of Christ. I pray that this enlightened the body of Christ to no longer miss the mark, but to be zealous to do good, putting the wellbeing of others before ourselves, just as Christ did for us. To God be the glory Amen.
1. Clement-An Ancient Homily Ch. XVI
2. Cyprian-Treatise of Cyprian Tr. 4
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010, unless stated otherwise.