Generosity.

Generosity is a form of kindness. It’s about helping the needy, being an aid and comfort to them, being gracious regardless of whether they deserve our help, and fighting our fleshly urges to hoard and covet.

Those fleshly urges definitely do get in the way of generosity. Sometimes we’ll only give because it’ll profit us. We’ll feel proud of ourselves for being wealthy enough to fund good deeds. Or we’ll feel this paid off our karmic debts—we may have done some evil before, but this totally makes up for it, and this means we’re good people. Or we’ll expect to be compensated: “I’m doing this for you now, but someday later I expect you to pay me back, or pay it forward to society.” Or we have an ulterior motive; we want to look like benevolent people while we’re hypocritically hiding our sins.

This is why there are a lot of “generous” people out there, but they’re doing it for self-interest, not goodness. This is why a number of Christians will tell me, “Generosity is found in Paul’s list in Galatians, so it’s not really a fruit of the Spirit; besides, look at all the ‘generous people’ in this world who are actually evil.” Yeah, I hear you. It’s why we gotta make the distinction between true generosity and just throwing money around.

And it’s also why we gotta bring up the fact we Christians aren’t always so generous, and use worldly “generosity” as our cop-out. Too many Christians get mighty stingy, and justify this behavior by calling it “good stewardship.” I challenge you to look at all the instances of stewardship in the bible and show me where “good stewardship” means we never take risks, never give to the needy, and lay up reserves “just in case.” Reserves are always stockpiled with a goal in mind, like building a temple… or providing a large sum for the needy. When there’s no purpose for our savings accounts other than to feel comfortable about our financial cushion, we’re not depending on God anymore for our comfort. We’re depending on Mammon.

Wealthy Christians are nowhere near as kind as we oughta be, and this includes generosity: We’re nowhere near as generous as we oughta be. We begrudge every nickel taken from us, begged of us, or taxed from us and given to welfare programs. When we give to fund our churches, our checks are calculated to be precisely 10 percent of our paychecks, down to the cent—’cause it’s our obligation, not our donation.

And when it’s time to tip the waiter, we likewise calculate the gratuity down to the cent. When we’re asked to give to charity, we limit ourselves to a small obligatory amount, like a dollar, which we’ll contribute, but no more. When we find it’s time to tighten the budget, the first thing to go are the charities—not the cable TV, even though it’s a far bigger bill and the least necessary of all of them.

As C.S. Lewis put it,

If our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them. […] For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear—fear of insecurity. This must often be recognised as a temptation.

Mere Christianity, “Social Morality.”

Or as St. Paul put it,

Ephesians 5.5 KJV
For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Greed destroys. Generosity is a fruit of the Spirit.

Reciprocity and generosity.

Most people’s standard—the way we determine how generous we oughta be—is of course based on other people. This is hardly a good standard, ’cause most of the people we know are just as stingy. The usual standard is reciprocity: We should get back what we put in. And if we’re lucky, maybe a little more.

Reciprocity is a fairly common, entirely human social custom. So whenever someone does us a favor, gives a gift, invites us to a pleasant social function, or otherwise benefits us, we feel obligated to return the favor: Give them a gift, of equal value. Invite them to something, of equal importance. Do them a favor, of equal weight. And we gotta do it, or our karma will forever be out of whack. Or at the very least it’s poor etiquette; a serious social faux pas.

No doubt you know of people who gave too much. Try giving someone a gift they can’t possibly repay. For Christmas, your neighbor gives you a box of Almond Roca, and you give ’em a car, and watch them squirm: “No no no. I can’t take that. You can’t give me that. It’s too much.” You’ve made it impossible, or at least extremely hard, to return the favor—and they can’t handle being in your social debt.

This is why many people can’t accept charity. They feel way too obligated to pay it back, and can’t. Years ago a friend received some really expensive jewelry from her boyfriend, and her mother immediately told her, “You can’t take that. It’s too much. It’s not appropriate for him to give that to you.” Why was it too much? ’Cause her mom worried what her daughter would feel obligated to do in return. (Yeah, sex. What her mom didn’t know is it was already too late, but that’s a whole other story.) To be fair, it’s entirely possible this was the boyfriend’s motive in being extravagant: Many people are generous only because they’re counting on people recognizing their “gifts” have strings attached. They’re buying favor.

This is nothing at all like the generosity Jesus expects from his followers. In fact, Jesus tells us to deliberately violate every rule of reciprocity.

Luke 14.12-14 KJV
12 Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. 13 But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: 14 and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.

Human tendency is to cultivate advantageous relationships; people who might do us some good, or give us some payoff. We deliberately make friends with people in the same social status, because we wanna be sure we’ll get reciprocity. My wealthy acquaintances have no interest in becoming close friends with me because I can’t afford their lifestyle, and they don’t care to pay my way. My poor acquaintances have no interest in becoming friends because they can’t afford my lifestyle, and would feel obligated if I paid their way. These barriers are ridiculous, and get in the way of God’s kingdom! But it’s what happens when reciprocity, not generosity, is our mindset.

Reciprocity isn’t fake kindness, ’cause everybody recognizes it’s neither kindness nor generosity. It does pass for love sometimes. It may pretend to be unconditional, but it’s totally conditional.

Charity doesn’t begin at church.

Most of the Christians I know say something along the lines of, “I give to my church,” or “I give through my church”—the church gives to one charity or another, and they give to their church, so that’s their secondhand generosity. It saves them the bother of giving to everyone who asks of them, Lk 6.30 so now they needn’t give to charity, and certainly not to beggars. They give to their churches. Whether they give a penny more than the 10 percent they should give their churches, is another thing.

I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t give to our churches, or through them. Of course we should. But when Jesus spoke about giving, he wasn’t speaking of the church. Or church ministries. Or Christian charities. He spoke of giving to people—and in nearly every case, he meant the poor. The rich don’t need your money. The “middle class” doesn’t either—half the time, they’re wealthy people who think you need a billion dollars before you can be called rich. If a ministry or charity doesn’t help the poor, or at the very least preach the gospel to them, Mt 11.4-5 don’t give them a dime. I don’t care how much their TV programs or radio shows beg you. They should sell commercials like everyone else, and stop stealing resources from the needy. You shouldn’t give K-LOVE, or any Christian radio station, one red cent to sell you your favorite music, or to play for you one of the thousands of sermons you can download free from iTunes. Part Robertson has several roofs over his head. John Hagee clearly isn’t going hungry. And Kenneth Copeland claims God will make him prosperous no matter what, so it’s definitely all right if you stop contributing.

Time to quote Jesus again.

Luke 6.38 KJV
Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

When Jesus said this, he wasn’t talking about church. Plenty of churches will quote Jesus, specifically this verse—among others—before they collect their offerings, because they want you to remember we can’t out-give God. But Jesus wasn’t talking about offerings. He wasn’t talking about tithes. He was talking about the poor. He meant needy, deprived people. He meant the beggars. He meant all the people we dodge with our excuse, “I give to my church.”

People give tons of money to their churches and to Christian charities. And they don’t see a ton of prosperity coming right back. They see their needs met—God’s pretty good at covering our basic needs when we cover our churches’ basic needs—but the reason we don’t see the well-measured, squeezed, shaken, overflowing prosperity which Jesus described, is because giving to church is all the giving we do. God sees no reason to be overly generous to us, because we’ve demonstrated with our inaction that we have no intention of paying it forward.

So if you want to break the stranglehold of stinginess, start giving.