PETALUMA, CA, Jan. 17, 2015 – There was a time during the late Middle Ages when anyone with enough cash on hand could appeal to the local church “pardoner” for the remission of their sins, in effect buying their way to heaven. The bigger the pardon (for instance, salvation from eternal damnation), the larger the donation, ensuring, if not a rosy afterlife, a well-funded Crusade and a first-rate cathedral.
Times have changed. Or have they?
According to a study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, tax subsidies for charitable contributions not only increase how much we give, they can also have a positive influence on our mental and physical well-being, impacting everything from stiff joints to lung problems to emotional disorders.
While not nearly as disingenuous as the old-school method of bribing your way to a better life, the underlying message is the same: When it comes to improving your prospects, don’t underestimate the value of a liberal largess and the willingness to share it with others.
But what about those whose largess isn’t all that liberal? Does this mean they should resort to a more mundane approach, one that that includes, say, regular exercise or an improved diet? That would be missing the point since the effectiveness, if you will, of one’s gift has a lot less to do with its size or shape than the thought behind it – a key variable apparently left unexamined in the aforementioned study.
The Bible drives this point home in its account of Jesus watching people toss coins into a church collection box.
“Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins,” the story goes. “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.’”
The narrative makes no mention of the woman’s health, either before or after this incident, or any incentives that may have been involved. Instead, the focus appears to be on the sincerity of her gesture and depth of her gratitude, that singular quality of thought shared by rich and poor alike that health researchers continue to affirm stimulates the mind and revitalizes the body.
Too often, though, mustering such qualities of thought can seem a lot harder than simply cutting a check, regardless of how empty we might feel afterwards. But this assumes that gratitude functions like any other currency; that there are limits to its supply or, worse, conditions for its use. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Gratitude requires little more than an honest heart in order to unleash its benefits, physical and otherwise; a heart humble enough to see that it’s not about how much we think we have but how much God, the divine source of all good, has to give, and willing enough to inject into our shared economy “the love wherewith He [God] loves us,” as Mary Baker Eddy puts it.
Such honesty comes naturally to us all, and when lived to its fullest, has the effect of counteracting the inescapable mental and physical discomfort that comes with insincerity and greed. Even better, it shows us that what truly defines us has nothing to do with a matter-based body and everything to do with the moral and spiritual qualities we choose to express.
It may be awhile before we figure out what it takes to be spared eternal damnation, but gaining even a glimpse of this fact is a step in the right direction.
Eric Nelson writes each week on the link between consciousness and health from his perspective as a practitioner of Christian Science. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Read similar columns on his web site and follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.