“If your eye is sound, your body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)
Many of the greatest surprises of my twenty years in pastoral ministry happened when I saw generosity. I’m thinking particularly of Jim, who drove a truck to deliver bread in the hills and sparsely populated areas around Chico, California where I live. Delivering loaves of bread doesn’t create a person of extraordinary means, and Jim was the “breadwinner” (so to speak) for his family. When it came time to pledge for the coming year, he and his wife, Jennifer, decided that they had truly experienced the grace of God. Given their income level, they were grateful and generous beyond expectation. Steve, the church head of staff, and I were struck by their extraordinary generosity. But why? Steve commented quite simply, “Greg, God is doing something in their lives. They’ve felt God’s goodness, and they’re giving back.”
At the center of Thanksgiving—both the holiday and the practice—is generosity. When we’re thankful for what we have, we become content, and we tend to open our eyes and our hands. We give to others. Scripture and science are both clear about this.
Here’s what I mean by generosity: “readiness or liberality in giving, freedom from meanness or smallness of mind or character.” Generosity is “prosocial,” expressing itself in empathy, volunteering, and friendship. It creates “magnanimity,” which at its roots means the “great soul.” Generosity is giving money, yes, but even more it is giving—to use a well-worn phrase—our “time, talent, and treasure.”
Back to the generosity of Jim and Jennifer… One of the most fascinating realities of giving is that people who have less give more. To quote from a Stanford Graduate School of Business article, “Lower-class participants proved more generous than their upper-class counterparts. This result affirms findings from national survey research showing that lower-income individuals donate proportionately more of their income to charity than do upper-income individuals.”
Psychology Today explains why: “Part of the reason lies in the fact that they are more compassionate and more sensitive to the needs of others. Psychologists refer to their way of thinking as a ‘contextualist tendency’ marked by an external focus on what is going on in their environment and with other people. On the other hand, those who have more tend to be self-centered with ‘solipsistic tendencies’ that are concentrated on their own internal states, goals, motivations, and emotions.”
- We’ve linked this summary of generosity before, but it’s so good it’s worth reposting.
- Greater Good Magazine also has a bevy of related articles.
- Frank Flynn summarizes so much with this title: “Those with Less Give More.”
- Reports on giving during the pandemic are mixed: one report suggests it remains stable, but there is evidence of decline elsewhere.
- Neither of these are Christian ministry articles per se, but in my view, “they’ll preach”: Generosity, especially volunteering, correlates with a range of health benefits, and this Vox article demonstrates the downsides of being “ungenerous.”
Generous Eyes and Hands
Here are three reflections on opening ourselves to broader generosity.
First a problem: Contingencies
I’m the kind of person who’s a “contingency planner” and that characteristic can get in the way of generosity. I need to plan for what might happen, and, yes, my worst thought is, “Why don’t I have this for the emergency I’m facing?” “Why didn’t I know I was going to snow? I didn’t bring the tire chains!” And so I—and maybe you too—need to keep listening to this proverb, “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (Proverbs 11:24-25).
Contingency planning is fine, but it can’t get in the way of opening my hands to others.
Anyone can learn the value of generosity—and that it’s self-reinforcing.
Lest it sound like only the poor give, my wife, Laura, who runs a homeless shelter in Chico, the Jesus Center, reminded me of two friends with financial means who started giving years ago. They loved the experience, and now they want to keep making money so that they can give more. They’ve realized long ago that, yes, they could have many more toys, but true life isn’t found there. This remains as healthy, sacred wisdom: “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:18-19).
Simply put, generosity is healthy.
“If your eye is sound, your body will be full of light.” In this passage, Jesus uses this profound word “sound” or “healthy,” which has overtones of “generous” in Greek. Generous eyes and hands open us to God’s bounty and grace. Eugene Peterson’s The Message underlines this by way of the antithesis: when you live “in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!”
The Chicago Tribune summarizes it, “The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk of dementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk, and overall greater happiness.”
This isn’t a prosperity gospel or about just being “happy”—it’s about finding a meaningful life. Do I hear echoes of Jesus’s words in Luke 6:38? “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Sounds like Jesus knew was he was talking about. And it sounds like science is meeting Scripture here—at the beautiful nexus of generosity.
May it be so for us in this season of Thanksgiving.