A Christian Definition of Generosity
Dr. John Alex
“Give until it hurts” are the famous words of Mother Teresa from her address to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C on 3 February 1994. She repeats the same statement eight times in the sermon but at the last time she says “give until it hurts – with a smile.”Generosity is an inward attitude which reflects in our outward life style. The Christian approach of generosity calls for a lifestyle of the self denial and the well being of others. The article tries to elucidate the meaning of generosity from a Christian point of view.
Meaning of Generosity
Etymologically the term generosity means a 'noble birth'. Generally, generosity is understood as the virtue of being detached from all worldly possession and having the quality of sharing what they possess. It is also to be noted that the word “miser” is etymologically related to the word miserable. Generosity brings well-being and possession brings misfortunes.
Almost all world religion has the concept of almsgiving. The generosity is quite often considered as the measuring rod for evaluating the spiritual maturity. Almsgiving is one of the five pillars of Islam. Gautama Buddha said “generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous. We experience joy in the actual act of giving something. And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.”
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of the good life. He explains five important virtues for human happiness. They are bravery, temperance, generosity, munificence and magnanimity. According to him, generosity is a mean between wastefulness and stinginess. A generous person will take care of his possessions. It is not the quantity that determines generosity but it is the habit of giving that determines generosity. Descartes in his book Passions of the Soul, (Part III) explains generosity as the key of all the virtues and a supreme remedy for all the disorders of passions.
Sociological studies relate generosity with the well-being. In a recent book, The Paradox of Generosity: Giving we Receive, Grasping we Lose by sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, highlights the importance of generosity in enhancing the well being of the individual. After studying the American society on a data based analyses, they write: “The more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health and purpose in life they enjoy.” The book bring the s conclusion that the reluctance to give not only deprives those in need, but also diminishes the happiness of those who could, but don’t help them. Generosity is the key for happiness.
Old Testament (OT) and Generosity:
The essential matrix of thought of the Old Testament understanding of generosity is the retributive justice. Generally, in the Old Testament material possession (Land, wealth, descendants) is considered as a reward of God. The promise to Abraham was “I will bless you and you will be a blessing.”(Gen. 12:1-3). Torah makes clear that this privilege of blessing carries the responsibility to be generous. God commanded the people of Israel: “Open your hand to the poor and the needy neighbor in your land.” (Deut. 15:11).
Equilibrium between have and have-not is the thread that brings justice in the wisdom literature. “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD (Prov. 19:17).” It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112:5). The above passages highlight on the belief that there is a special relationship between poor and God such that the former serves as proxies for the latter. Almsgiving is thus considered as the deposit into this treasury and God can be trusted to repay in the form of future benefits. In other words generosity brings greater blessings which include longer life.In short, the fundamental principle of Old Testament is:“we give since God gives us”
New Testament (NT) and Generosity:
Though almsgiving was part of Judaism of Jesus’ time, he was critical of the hypocritical attitude of the practice of almsgiving. Tithing was considered as the act of generosity of Jesus time. The approach of Jesus towards generosity was more than money (cf. Matt. 5: 38-42). The interior motives were considered to be more important for Jesus. Jesus challenged the approach to generosity as an act for the recognition or to show the status quo. New Testament has not taught how much to give but why and how we give. “God loves the cheerful giver(II Cor. 9:7).”
Jesus the model of generosity: Jesus has set the model of generosity by self-emptying. The very act of incarnation shows generosity as the character of God. Jesus took the very nature of the servant (Phil 2:7)."For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; cf. John 13:12-15).” The generous act of Jesus is well narrated by Paul. “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Affirming the Lordship of Jesus as the basis of Christian generosity:The Christian generosity is not an act of one’s own righteousness. The underlying principle is that God is the owner and we are the stewards of our entire possessions. Everything we possess belongs to God. While explaining the generous act of the Macedonian church Paul says that “they give themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God to us. (2 Cor. 8:4).”In other words Paul says that the act of generosity should originate from giving ourselves to God.
Acting on the need of others is the outward expression of Christian generosity: Bible makes it clear that God has a special concern for the poor and needy. The transformation which the gospel affirms is not just merely deliver our “the soul from sin” but open our hands towards the needy. Gospel of Luke narrates the difference between “the rich ruler (18: 18-25)” not ready to open the hands and the conversion of Zacchaeus,who was ready to open his hands at his conversion.
The heart of true religion according to New Testament is caring for the poor and needy. The generous giving is the visible expression of our love for God (Luke 10:27, 36,37). The epistle of James also explains:"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (James 1:27). Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality." (Romans 12:13). Jesus taught his disciples: "When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matt. 6:3-4). Generosity implies that it is an expression of our love and not with an intention of any kind of repayment.
Christian generosity comes not merely out of the abundance but a thoughtful and sacrificial act (2 Cor. 8:2; 9: 5-7). Jesus had all praises for the widows’ two copper coins since “she out of her poverty has put all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:4). It is also be noted that the act of generosity is not a one time or an irregular act but a continuous regular and systematic act (2 Cor. 16:2).
Any definitions of generosity include the well being of others. Caring for the widows, orphans and poor is the common element of Old Testament and New Testament understanding of generosity. Christian act of generosity is more than money. It is of more a thoughtful sacrificial act of cheerful giving. Jesus showed himself as the model of generosity. He wants the community which affirm his Lordship also “to go and the likewise” (Luke 10:37).