Integrating Generosity into Our Lives
A heart issue.
The way we relate to money and possessions is a spiritual matter. It’s been said that budgets are moral statements. How we use our resources, particularly our money, speaks clearer than anything else about where we place our trust and which are our life priorities—the state of our heart.
Failing to integrate generosity into our lifestyle is wrong.
Being prideful, or feeling good/deserving about “checking the generosity box” is even worse.
What is Generosity?
Generosity is an essential part of living our faith, and we want to practice it well, regardless of whether we have lots of money or not. In order to do so, we have to be intentional about integrating generosity into our lifestyle.
In my previous article on generosity, I tried to answer the following question:
“How can we practise generosity in a way that prevents us from allowing wrong motivations to creep in and corrupt our giving?”
Essentially, the answer was: through a sound biblical understanding of sacrifice.
Eugene Peterson put it brilliantly in this memorable phrase:
“Sacrifice gets us into the action, but out of the way.”
The only way to give right is to offer every gift as a sacrifice to the Lord.
In our culture, when affluent people who are able to give significant amounts of money practice charity, they are esteemed as deserving members of the society and that makes them particularly vulnerable to pride and mixed motivations for giving. I’m not suggesting that being affluent is dangerous, I simply imply that, given the fact that money can be a source of justice or injustice, more affluent people have more leverage, so the potential for good or bad via financial means is greater. Christians are no less vulnerable, the temptation of feeling important, or deserving, is ever-present, although it can be more subtle. Even if we are intentional and disciplined about giving, if we don’t practice generosity with an appropriate attitude, we can easily get it wrong.
Research on the giving habits and motivations of U.S. adults, particularly churchgoers, reveals that emotions are the main driver for giving.
The main reason Christians give money for a cause are as follows:
- 62% believed they could make a difference
- 45% saw or heard a moving story
- 38% remembers being driven by a sense of purpose
- 34% had a relationship with someone already involved in the cause
The motivations in deciding which specific organisation to support are also made on an emotional, heart-centred level; the most important factor among the survey responders being “a special, personal interest”, followed by a desire to address an immediate need/emergency and thirdly, “hope of making a difference”.
As the above mentioned research reveals, generosity can become our way of trying to shape the world around us.
How do we get past this?
Often-times we approach giving with a voter/consumer mentality. “I vote with my money” so, I cast out my vote to deserving projects, and those in the business of doing good (charities, churches), should compete for my attention and support. Giving in a disciplined and discerning way is great, but it can breed an investment mentality, preoccupied with control and focused on impact, “return on investment” in terms of impact factors. This is not all-bad: as stewards of what is given to us, we should seek to use the resources we’ve been entrusted with wisely, but we go too far when we become controlling and always demand or expect an explanation for “the impact” our giving made.
Surveys aimed at identifying what Christians think motivates their giving are one way of trying to identify the motivations, but self-perception can be deceiving, as the same report shows: “millennials are most likely to say that generosity is important to them personally” and “perceive themselves as generous, yet give less”. (What Motivates Christians to Give?, November 27, 2018)
I’ll succinctly list a few dangers before we move to some simple practical advice on doing it. Let’s call them “DON'TS”:
- Give only “when we feel like” (impulse/emotional giving). Over-spiritualising the issue and making ourselves accountable “only to God”, which might look spiritual, but it can also be an expression of us not willing to ever discuss money and be accountable on this.
- Give only following a strict agenda; “voting” with our money.
- Giving with wrong motives: seeking status, influence, control, reward (emotional gratification included). Consumerist giving falls under this category, if we actually try to acquire a sense of merit, moral joy or good feeling (every time we chase the feeling giving brings).
Discerning and isolating our mixed motivations and what drives our behaviour when it comes to giving is problematic, as the human heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9).
As I said, there are many ways in which we can get it wrong, but that shouldn’t mean we should never do it, out of fear of not doing it right. The most basic thing towards doing it right is to start doing it, if we don’t already. There’s room for improvement once you start. Many legitimate spiritual disciplines can be done with a legalistic attitude, but that doesn’t delegitimise them.
STEWARDING OUR FINANCES
In Christian discourse, besides “stewardship” advice and motivating people to be wise in handling money and possessions, there’s also a lot of talk on “sacrificial giving", which usually means “give until it hurts”, “extravagant giving” (“make it costly”, giving out of what you need). All this points to an excessive focus on the giver or the gift: Who gave? How much? I covered this (the motivational part) more extensively in the previous article, so here I want to try to give some practical advice on actually doing it.
Christians have a missional calling to present the gospel, feed the hungry, speak for the oppressed, defend the vulnerable. Jesus taught that love of God and love of neighbour are the greatest commandments. Loving God and loving our neighbour should be the overarching principle guiding us in every aspect of our lives, including our finances. Generosity, for Christians, should never be a demeaning hand-out, nor an investment seeking return, but a vibrant expression of love.
Generosity is a manifestation of our trust in God, an act of obedience, but should not be reduced to an obligation or duty. Generosity is love in action, and authentic love is voluntary. Christians believe that God’s love and generosity towards humanity moves and inspires us to love and be generous in response. Everyone seems to agree on the theory, but not as many take this a step further — actually doing it in practical ways.
Start Doing It!
Once you’re on the right journey, there’s room for improvement along the way.
Truth is, many Christians fail to practice generosity because they fail to budget.
For many Christian graduates, often the challenge is to make ends meet, even if our revenue increased significantly after transitioning from university into working life. Many times (not saying it’s always the case), this is due to lack of planning, impulse spending, failure to save and be disciplined with our finances.
If budgets are moral statements, some people never make any such statement. Let’s not fool ourselves: unless one gives recklessly, extravagantly, no statement is worse than not getting it right, because our spending patterns exist, even if we fail to acknowledge or keep track of them. There are many ways to fall off the horse; the aim is to stay on the horse, but one has to get on the horse first.
The first step towards integrating financial generosity into our lifestyle is to plan to give. Plan to give. We’re not starting by being good at “improvising” along the way, so make the decision in a safe place — before the money gets to you. As simple as that: commit to give, then faithfully execute your commitment, as God faithfully provides your financial resources. Give first what you committed and then be prepared in your heart to out-give your plan. Some decisions will be a trade-off between your own goals and desires and being willing to be obedient and give when unexpected giving opportunities occur.
I do believe that there should be things we’d like to do, but choose not to, because our generosity excludes them. I also came to believe that even costly giving, giving a lot, even giving more than you can afford, can be done with a mindset and in a manner that doesn’t qualify as sacrifice in God’s sight.
Here are a few practical things anyone can put into practice. These are called "DOS":
- Give first. Regardless of how much you have, if you’re honest, you can get by with at least 10% less, and there are always people with much less money than yourself. Your little can make a significant difference in other people’s lives. Trust God and give first; in human terms, what Abel did was stupid, because it was complete: he gave the first born; what if there’s nothing more coming? God was pleased with Abel’s gift, because it was complete, wholehearted.
- Be intentional: plan to give, but don’t be too legalistic about this. Create space that will allow you to get involved in unplanned giving opportunities. Save in order to be able to splash the cash on others. Plan to give and out-give your plan.
- Find the right balance between saving and hoarding. It is wise to cultivate the habit of living below your means, without being stingy; finding where saving ends and hoarding starts is an equation you have to solve for yourself. One of the indicators of whether you’re saving wisely or hoarding is, again, checking your motivation: saving is a means of not presuming on God for things he did not promise to grant miraculously, while hoarding is often a means of replacing God, an egoistic commitment to independence.
- Always give as from and to God. Check your heart and stay humble.
Allow God to be God, but Participate in His Generosity.
The best antidote against a controlling mindset or any self-help or self-promotion spirituality is a proper understanding of sacrifice, as it is revealed in the Bible. If everything we do and bring, we do so before God, as a sacrifice, it cleanses our motivations. Generous living is sacrificial living. Sacrificial living is living for God, not for ourselves. Every time we place ourselves at the centre, even if we say that “we do it for God”, we are not bringing a proper sacrifice.
Jesus set the perfect example of sacrificial living. In life and death, he was the perfect sacrifice. Being in very nature God, Jesus was never prideful when he blessed others. Every time he fed the multitudes, one can see in the biblical passages reflecting those miracles, there was a similar progression: he took the gift, he blessed it, he broke it and then he distributed the gift. Remarkably, as Eugene Peterson notes, the same progression is used in many significant biblical passages, from the Feeding of the Multitude to the Last Supper, and then also in Paul’s references to the Eucharist (as in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
This progression gives shape to our sacrificial lives, including our practicing of generosity: taken | blessed | broken | distributed. In closing this paper, I’ll just repeat Eugene Peterson’s explanation of what he called “a eucharistically defined sacrifice”:
Jesus takes what we give him (our sins, our virtues, our bread and fish, everything we offer him), Jesus prays, receives it (he doesn’t criticise it, or reject or ridicule it), blesses it, brings it into the presence of the Father, Jesus breaks what we bring him (the breaking of the bread—what we bring is broken, the insides are exposed, the inadequacy is exposed, opened to the Holy Spirit), so what we bring is not self-enclosed, is not intact, or if it is, it’s broken, exposed (the body is broken, the blood is poured out), then Jesus gives back what we have brought to him. But it’s no longer what we brought. It’s changed into what God gives. This is the Eucharist shape of the gospel, of the Christian life. It prevents us from making sacrifice a self-punishing thing or a self-advertising kind of thing. This is a eucharistically defined kind of sacrifice. Sacrifice is in contrast with all spirituality of self-promotion (trying to help Jesus out). In sacrifice, God uses me to get his way. He doesn’t ignore me, he doesn’t get me out of the way completely, he uses me, but he uses me in his way, and his way is the way of salvation. Sacrifice gets us into the action, but out of the way. (Eugene Peterson, audio lecture no. 8 “Salvation: Sacrifice, Hospitality, Eucharist.”, in “Biblical Spirituality” course @Regent College, 1997)
Every time Jesus takes something, he gives it back, after he transforms it in the power of the Holy Spirit, so it can meet needs, bring salvation and glorify the Father. In everything we do, we should also give back to other people, and ultimately to God. We are actually participating in God’s generosity, allowing him to give through us: to bless others and please our Father in heaven through our lives.