I’ve been sharing in these posts about the five essential practices of the Christian life. We’ve looked at worship/prayer, study, and serving. Today we turn to the practice of generosity and giving …
When we are generous, we find joy. And just as we were made to practice generosity together, in community, God also means for it to be a part of the daily rhythm of our lives. It was Winston Churchill who famously said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Jesus taught the same thing but said it this way: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38 NRSV).
What did Jesus mean by that? He wasn’t suggesting that, if you put money into the offering plate, you will get $2 or $3 back for every dollar you give (although that is what some TV preachers will try to tell you). Rather, Jesus meant that there is something about giving that blesses the giver. It brings you joy and gives you a sense of fulfillment and meaning.
A multitude of scientific studies have reached this same conclusion: giving actually blesses the giver. Through their ability to study how different centers in the brain respond to various stimuli, scientists can actually see how this dynamic occurs. They have observed from brain scans that, when people give, it lights up the brain’s “reward center” that makes us feel happy. At the same time, giving diminishes the amount of activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that produces feelings of worry and anxiety. Giving reduces stress and increases the sense of well-being, thereby increasing health and longevity (see this article from Forbes magazine). It even lowers our blood pressure.
Jesus was right when he spoke of the blessings of giving. The blessings span the gamut from health to meaning to fulfillment to joy. Just think about which brings you more joy: to open a gift, or to watch someone open a gift that you picked out especially for them?
We were created in the image of God, and God is generous — a generosity seen most clearly on the cross, where the sel essness and love of God were poured out for all humankind. Because we were created in the image of a generous God, we were created for generosity to be the regular rhythm of our lives. When we are generous, we walk closely with God, our generosity touches the heart of God and we become what God made us to be.
But we have to practice these things (that’s why we call them practices). We have to work at generosity every day so that it becomes second nature to us.
What’s the rhythm of your life when it comes to generosity? Are you stingy with your tips? Do you try to get people down to the absolute rock bottom when negotiating a purchase, or do you find a fair price for both the seller and for you? Do you give generously when there is someone in need? Do you resent being asked for money, either by your church or by others? Or do you look forward to being asked and having the opportunity to give?
Here’s a way to help you get into a generous rhythm as you walk with God. Take a look at your hands. Use the five fingers on one hand to remember the spiritual practices of praying five times a day, reading five verses from the Bible each day, and showing kindness five times a week. Now, to these simple practices add five acts of special generosity a month. Don’t think of five acts as a quota or a ceiling. Think of them as practice so you can do even more as generosity becomes part of your daily rhythm. The generous act might be a tip you give to a server that is bigger than normal. It might be an anonymous gift to someone in need. It might be a donation to a cause that matters to you. Whatever it is, cultivate generosity. And as with our other practices, there is a corporate component to our giving; we give to the church and its ministries. Your giving is like a selfie that provides a portrait of the true you. And when you cultivate generosity, in the process you will come to see yourself differently over time, because the habit of giving changes us.
I saw a video recently that touched me. Just before Christmas a few years ago, filmmaker Rob Bliss conducted an experiment with a group of elementary school-aged children. They were all about eight or nine years old, and they all came from lower income families. As part of the experiment, the children were asked about what they’d like for Christmas. One girl wanted a computer. “A big giant Barbie house,” said another. One boy wanted a trophy case, and another wanted an Xbox 360, and yet another asked for Minecraft Legos. Then each of the children was asked what they thought their parents would want for Christmas.
“My mom would probably want a ring,” said one of the boys. “She’s never really had a ring.” A new car, said another of the children. Watches and jewelry, others said.
Then, the camera caught the wide-eyed astonishment of one of the boys as he watched the organizers of the experiment present him with the Xbox he had mentioned. All of the other children had similar reactions when they received the gift they had been hoping for.
Then things took an unexpected twist. Each child also received the gift they had indicated their mother or dad would want. There was a catch. They could only keep one gift—either the one they wanted or the one for their parent.
The video showed what happened next. With little hesitation, each child chose to forgo a gift for themselves in favor of a gift for their parent.
The interviewer asked the boy who had asked for Legos why he made the choice to forgo the Legos and, instead, to accept the gift he thought his mother would want. He said, “Because Legos don’t matter,” the boy replied. “Your family matters. Not the Legos, not toys. Your family.”
“I get gifts every year from my family,” said one of the girls, who chose a coffeemaker for her mom over a new doll for herself. “And my Mom [doesn’t] get anything.” Another chose her mom’s gift and said, “She helps me when I’m sick. She helps me with my homework.”
“She gave me a house to live in,” said one of the boys of his mother.
Said another: “[My parents] look out for me and do stuff for me, so I need to give back to them.”
These young children had already learned something that we may forget as adults: that it really is, as Jesus said, “More blessed to give than to receive.” They inherently knew that we were made for generosity and that we find the greatest joy in life when we are selfless.