I’ve been in a formal leadership role in a local church for almost 30 years now, and there’s one sin that I’ve never had anyone confess (until I mentioned this after a church service recently and somebody confessed it and broke my streak). I’ve heard a lot of sad, sick, and silly things confessed to me as sin, but nobody’s confessed the sin of greed. Nobody’s confessed being a greedy person.
Why is that?
I think most of us don’t think of ourselves as greedy people, at least not when we compare ourselves to Scrooge or the Grinch. But perhaps that’s not the question that gets at the heart of the matter. Perhaps the real question is, are we generous? And what does it mean to be generous? How do we know if we’re generous?
A Dimmer Switch
I think it’s super helpful to think about the practice of generosity along the lines of a light switch, but not a switch that’s just off or on. Rather, when it comes to spiritual practices, such as simplicity, sabbath, silence and solitude, prayer, Scripture, fasting, hospitality, community, and generosity, they are more like dimmer switches in which there are incremental increases we can make in them that bring about more light.
Based on the generations that came before us, some of us have inherited dimmer switches with generosity that slide more freely. Others of us have inherited dimmer switches that are more gummed up or jammed up. All of us, no matter how difficult it might seem, can practice this idea of generosity. The more we practice it, the more we’ll become like Jesus and the brighter we’ll see the world and our hearts become. So, what exactly is generosity?
Generosity in the Bible: “The more we practice it, the more we’ll become like Jesus and the brighter we’ll see the world and our hearts become.”
Generosity is the virtue of freely giving good things. Notice it’s not just giving things; it’s giving good things, both material and immaterial. When they hear the word “generosity,” some people will first think about giving money. Other people might be giving time, service, love, or forgiveness. These are all different and important ways we can express generosity, both materially and immaterially.
With all these good things, someone can be generous or miserly. Generosity means giving these things freely and even sacrificially—not grudgingly or forced. As 2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV) says, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Generosity is a practice that when you do it again and again, becomes a routine. This habit, in time, becomes an instinctive impulse that helps give shape to a virtuous, Jesus-like life.
Generosity in the Bible: “Generosity is the virtue of freely giving good things.”
Giving to God with a Grudge
I sometimes wonder if God sees begrudging generosity or the begrudging giving of time or money as dirty money. Does he even want it?
I have owned rental properties, and as such, I’ve sometimes had reason to suspect that the money I’m receiving from tenants is dirty. Once, the United States Secret Service contacted me and said they thought there was check fraud going on out of one of a tenant’s apartment. They needed me to fake like I was going in there to do a repair and see if there was a certain type of printer on the table. Sure enough, I went in, and there was the printer the tenant was using to print fake checks.
It was dirty money and, as a landlord, you don’t want to be paid with dirty money. Is it possible that some of our begrudging generosity in God’s eyes is dirty money? True generosity means cheerfully and freely giving—no arm-twisting, no guilt. Again, God loves a cheerful giver.
Generosity in the Bible: “True generosity means cheerfully and freely giving—no arm-twisting, no guilt.”
The Generosity of Jesus
I believe Jesus was the most generous person in history. What did Jesus give that was good for others? Well, for one thing, he gave his very life so that we could be saved. And before making that ultimate sacrifice, we read many powerful stories of Jesus giving freely and sacrificially. One example I love is when a woman, constantly bleeding and thus ceremonially impure in Jewish culture, reached out to Jesus as he walked by. When Jesus saw her, he said, “Your faith has sozoed you. Go in shalom.”
What’s so interesting about the Greek word “sozo” here? It can mean both healing and/or salvation. As Christians, we naturally tend to think eternal salvation when we see that word, but let’s note that, when Jesus was on the scene, he brought people both salvation in an eternal sense as well as immediate and tangible healing. Healing was what he was best known for, along with authoritative teaching and delivering people from demons. He told the woman that she was sozoed, and then he said, “Go in shalom.” Shalom, a word we normally translate as “peace,” is better translated as “wholeness.” When you had an encounter with Jesus, you encountered all the good things you could imagine: wholeness, healing, salvation, restoration, reconciliation.
Generosity in the Bible: “When you had an encounter with Jesus, you encountered all the good things you could imagine: wholeness, healing, salvation, restoration, reconciliation.”
As recipients of Jesus’ generosity, his disciples were to pass it on to others. As he told his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8b, NIV). Instead of stagnant ponds, we are meant to be streams in which what has flowed to us can flow on to others.
Jesus also said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35b, NIV). Pause and think about that statement. Do you really believe that? It’s not enough just to say, “Sure, I believe it.” Does your calendar, your schedule, your checkbook, your wallet, your bank account, your budget reflect that?
Motivations for Generosity
When it comes to growing in generosity, it is helpful to consider motivation. What will help motivate you to allow the generosity dimmer switch to rise in your heart? There are different kinds of motivation that work for different people. For example, when it comes to getting a mule to go forward, there’s the carrot and there’s a stick.
At times, we see strong, even blunt reasons in the Bible for us to get moving. For example, consider the language of “You wicked, lazy servant!” in his parable of the talents (Matthew 25:26). Other times, the motivation is more invitational. For example, in Philippians 4, Paul is writing to the church in Philippi about increasing their generosity to help other Christians through taking up a collection. In verse 17, he tells them, “Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.”
Think about that. Whose account increases when we are more generous with giving? According to this passage, our account goes up.
“Whose account increases when we are more generous with giving? According to this passage, our account goes up.”
Remember that the farmer who plants with only a few seeds will get a small crop. A person who invests a little bit of time, attention, forgiveness, love, and compassion will reap a harvest of only a little bit. But the one who plants generously will reap a generous crop. What are some good things you can be more generous with toward God and other people? How can you go from miserly to generous in these areas? How can you plant more seeds for a greater kingdom harvest?
When you’re working “muscles” to increase your generosity, it may sting a bit, but there’s going to be such a reward as you grow in Christlikeness. And remember that, when you stretch yourself with your generous time investment or financial giving or service to others, God will provide. He will provide what you need and then produce a harvest of generosity. Freely you have received; freely give. It will be one of the beautiful ways in which “Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19, NIV).