Two Important Lessons from a “Broke” Billionaire


You may not know the name Charles Feeney, but if you’ve traveled much or spent time in international airport terminals, you’ve likely walked in or past his store, Duty Free Shoppers (DFS). After co-founding this airport retailer with Robert Miller in 1960, Feeney would go on to live in relative frugality while DFS would earn him billions of dollars over the next five decades.

The James Bond of Philanthropy
But Charles Feeney isn’t best known for his innovation in airport retail. Among his financial peers, he’s known as the “James Bond of Philanthropy” due to his remarkable skill in evading any recognition for his altruism. “While many wealthy philanthropists enlist an army of publicists to trumpet their donations,” Steven Bertoni at Forbes comments, “Feeney went to great lengths to keep his gifts secret.” It’s estimated that over the last thirty years he’s given away $8 billion of his fortune, saving only $2 million for retirement. As Bertoni notes, that means Feeny has given away 375,000% of his current net worth.

Feeney currently resides in a simple apartment in San Francisco, adorned with ink-jet pictures of family members set in wooden frames, and a plaque that sits on a nearby table that reads, “Congratulations to Chuck Feeney for $8 billion of philanthropic giving.” Feeney’s stated goal early in his career was to give lavishly and die broke. He seems to have checked this box.

An Example to His Peers
In recent years, especially as his philanthropic efforts became more public—he founded The Atlantic Philanthropies in 1982 through which he directed his billions toward specific national and international humanitarian needs—Feeney has become an icon among some of the world’s richest people, serving as an example of how one should use his wealth for the good of others. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Laurene Powell Jobs, and other wealthy philanthropists have publicly voiced their respect for Feeney and how he has inspired them to do more good with their money.

At 89 years-old and nearing the end of his life, Feeney sounds content. Having lived a life of relative austerity while distributing his massive fortune for the benefit of others, Bertoni reports that the former billionaire “couldn’t be happier.” In an interview with the Irish Times in 2003, Feeney encourages reluctant givers not to wait until they’re dead to disperse their money. Giving while you’re alive is “a lot more fun,” says Feeney. “Giving gave me a lot more pleasure.” I don’t doubt it. Jesus himself said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

Can Philanthropy Save You? Two Lessons
But what about Jesus? Feeney grew up Catholic and considers the Church’s “ground rules” to be “pretty good,” but he doesn’t fashion himself a regular church-goer. Overall, while his giving may have been influenced by a theistic and even broadly Christian worldview, it doesn’t appear that Feeney’s philanthropy was driven by explicitly Christian motivations. What, then, can Christians learn from Feeney’s life of lavish generosity? I see two primary lessons we should glean from this man.

First, regardless of Feeney’s religious commitments, we should be edified by the good things he did and moved to greater generosity in our own lives. A person doesn’t have to be a Christian to be used by God to indirectly encourage God’s people to greater obedience. When we observe people who do not appear to have hope in a heavenly future give away massive sums of their wealth, those of us who are anticipating an eternal inheritance should be moved to reconsider the use of our own wealth.

Second, while in this life it is better to be generous than stingy, if a person doesn’t have Christ, they can give away all of their possessions and yet stand guilty of sin before their Creator and therefore liable to eternal judgment. While generosity will follow in the wake of genuine salvation (Eph 4:28; 1 Tim 6:17-19), even the most extreme acts of charity are powerless to change our status as condemned sinners before a holy God (Rom 3:19-20). No amount of philanthropy can atone for our sins against the Creator. That’s not to dissuade you from being generous, but only to remind you that your works—no matter how extravagant—can never make you righteous before God; only faith alone in Christ can justify you (Rom 4:5; cf. Eph 2:8-9).

These arguments, however, should not serve as an excuse to hoard one’s money. By pointing out the worthlessness of our works to cover our sin, Scripture doesn’t therefore suggest that generosity for the Christian is optional. The Bible is replete with commands for God’s people to care for the poor and a general expectation that they will (Lev 19:10; Deut 15:7; Prov 19:17; Matt 6:2-4). Christians are called to be generous (Prov 14:21), to provide for those in need (Eph 4:28), and to be rich in good works (1 Tim 6:17). Those who have tasted of God’s lavish grace will find their hands opened in legitimate charity to others. But those who cling to their philanthropy as a source of their right standing with God will never experience the twin gifts of the new birth and eternal life.

While salvation truly changes a person so that they tend to become, over time, more generous with their wealth, it is not the case that the most outwardly generous people in the world will inherit eternal life. Only those who know the Son of God will inherit final salvation, while those who reject Christ—despite their serious commitment to philanthropy in this life—will learn at the judgment seat their efforts to change the world only offended God because their labors did not flow from faith in Christ and obedience to God’s Word.

Ever since Adam and Eve took from the forbidden tree, humankind has been attempting to cover their sin and soothe their consciences by the works of their own hands. For Adam and Eve, it was a set of matching fig leaves to cover their nakedness. For the ultra-wealthy, it’s charitable foundations and high-level altruism.

But these efforts can do nothing to cleanse the guilty heart and remove the stain of sin from our record. Transgression against God is permanent unless it is taken to the cross of Jesus Christ and only to the cross of Jesus Christ. For the super-rich whose hope for salvation is in the next check they write, may they soon recognize that their guilt is so massive, that even going broke for the sake of charity can’t prepare them to meet God. Only Christ can do that.

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