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Generosity is difficult. It doesn’t take much physical effort—just a few clicks on your smartphone or just a few notes from your wallet—but it feels unnatural to give away money and receive nothing in return. We find it easy to buy things for our family, to invest money, or even to give money to people who say they will pay us back, but for most of us it is a struggle to be generous. The reason for this is that we are self-centred beings. We are so aware of our needs and our desires that we channel our resources to fulfil these. At times we spend unwisely (to varying degrees for different people), and perhaps most of the time we have good reasons for spending our money the way that we do. And usually, by the time we spread out our wealth, there is nothing left to give away to those who are in need. Even when we want to be generous, we promise ourselves that we will open our hands when we have more. But when God gives us more, it seems like we always have more ways to spend.
Being generous is difficult at the best of times, and seems impossible when we are faced with problems in our lives. We become even more inward-looking and almost become blind to the needs around us. We saw this at the beginning of lockdown in our country in March 2020. When the nationwide lockdown was announced, we flocked to shops, and motivated by concern for ourselves and our families, we tried to buy as much groceries as possible, which would last us for several weeks and months. At the same time, we were blind to the reality that several of our poorer brothers and sisters were bracing themselves for the uncertain days that lay before them. In the months that followed, many lost their jobs and struggled to feed their families and pay rent.
In writing this article it is not my intention to make us all feel guilty, but to encourage us all to think about our lives and to grow in this often-neglected area. Here’s what our Lord taught us about how to relate to wealth: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). In the economy of the kingdom of God, the way to grow truly wealthy is not by collecting money and possessions, but by giving away. Our natural sinful instinct tells us that if we give away, especially in the midst of our own struggles, we will not have for ourselves. But it is interesting that it is in this same context that Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they eat or drink or wear because God will provide for them (6:25-34). In other words, our generosity is not really a threat to our survival.
Along with Jesus’ straightforward teaching, Scripture also gives us a challenging example of believers who put this teaching into practice. In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, here is what he writes about the churches of Macedonia:
“[In] a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” (2 Cor. 8:2-5)
Let us notice a few things about our brothers and sisters from the first century.
Their generosity overflowed in the context of “extreme poverty.” They did not wait for better days, or explain that they could not give because of their economic situation. Instead, their joy combined with their poverty to produce a “wealth of generosity.”
Their generosity was “of their own accord” and was “according to … and beyond their means.” The believers in Macedonia did not have to be emotionally manipulated into being generous. Paul does not tell us how much they gave, but he says it they gave more than would be expected of people of their economic situation. They thought about how much they could reasonably give, and then gave more than that.
Their generosity was for “the relief of the saints.” While there would have been nothing wrong with being generous to everyone suffering because of the famine, the resources of these poor Christians were directed specifically to fellow-Christians in need. They felt responsible, and actually begged for the privilege of contributing towards Christians in Jerusalem.
Their generosity flowed out of the fact that “they gave themselves first to the Lord.” Their lives had been transformed by the gospel. They were children of the God who generously gave his son for their salvation, and so they had given themselves to him. And part of the way that they demonstrated their devotion towards God was by giving away their material possessions.
To summarize the generosity of our Macedonian brothers and sisters from the first century, we could say it was sacrificial, willing, proportional (and more!), targeted, and God-motivated. What about you and me? Do these words describe our generosity? If you are like me, this is an area that we need to grow in.
I am sure you can think of ways of how you can grow in generosity, but here are a few starting steps:
If you have a monthly budget (which I highly recommend that you do), set aside an amount for generosity (within your means), and then discipline yourself to give away that amount each month, even with things are tight. You won’t find it difficult if you are looking for opportunities to help those around you, especially your fellow church members. When you see people in need around you, beware of hardening your heart and thinking of reasons not to give. And, be prepared to give more than you had planned to! We have all survived spending more than we had planned to on eating out or buying things for ourselves, and there’s no reason why we should not occasionally overshoot our plans for being generous.
May our generous God help us to grow in generosity.