A Theological Foundation for Generous Giving
By William Enright
This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 19 in 2017. You can access the full issue here.
Do you remember the questions you asked as a child or the questions you were asked by your children? Questions like, But why should I share? Why should I care? Why should I be nice? Why can’t I keep what I have for myself? Ironically, these are more than children’s questions; they are life questions. Ignore them, and life degenerates into a narcissistic funk. Dare to live with such questions, and generosity becomes pivotal to the well-lived life. So Matthew concludes Jesus’s opening salvo in what tradition calls the Sermon on the Mount with this aphorism: “Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”1
Recent research gifts us with insights into the meaning of generosity. Generosity is a practice, not a “haphazard behavior but a basic orientation to life.”2 Generosity is also a learned character trait. Children watch and learn from their parents and grandparents.3 Children learn to give by being encouraged to give. Adolescent children whose parents share with them their theology or philosophy of giving grow up to be more generous in their own giving.4 The neglected question congregations and religious leaders need to address as they plan their stewardship programs is this: What are we doing to enable children to give? What resources are we providing for families to teach their children so that together as parents and children they can experience the joy of giving?
In the New Testament, two different words are used to capture the idea of generosity. In Galatians and Ephesians, Paul talks about generosity as a virtue, a habit of the heart, and a character trait.5 In Corinthians II when Paul is raising money to meet the needs of the persecuted members of the Mother Church in Jerusalem, he uses another word to capture the essence of generosity as a practice of giving.6 Generosity as both virtue and practice marries attitude to action.
There is more to generosity than money. As a virtue and a practice, generosity has to do with the way we use our skills and the manner in which share ideas, practice hospitality, offer encouragement, make connections, and use our time to address the needs of others. Generosity is reflected in the quality of our relationships and the way we engage with people via acts of caring and compassion. As a lifestyle, generosity is measured by our giving and volunteering as well as the manner in which we nurture relationships and live out our neighborliness. Research now substantiates what the Bible teaches concerning generosity: “Generosity is a sociological fact; in giving questions we receive and flourish, in grasping we lose!”8 To put it somewhat crudely, it is in our own self-interest to learn and practice generosity.
Theologically, generosity begins by asking two questions: Who is God? and Who am I? God is good. God is gracious and generous in love. God is the supreme giver. We humans have been created in God’s image—imago Dei—to live life in conversation with God as we serve as God’s stand-ins and the caretakers of God’s creation.
My Jewish friends use the word tikkun olam—to mend or repair the world—to capture this co creative aspect of creation. It reflects the conviction that while God created a good world, good things go awry; things rust and break, leaving the world in constant need of repair. In our giving we partner with God in the healing and redemption of a frayed and broken world and the flourishing of humanity. What are we to do with the possessions with which we have been blessed? We use them to repair a broken and hurting world.
The two questions—who is God? and who am I?— frame the way I have come to see my role in God’s world. I did not create myself; neither can I say that I have earned and deserve all that I possess. Everything I have is the gift of a generous God that comes to me as lavish grace birthing within me a sense of gratitude. How, in turn, do I express my gratitude? By living generously, by offering hospitality to all, by setting injustices right and by caring for the hurting of the world.
In giving generously we become part of something bigger than ourselves. Matthew 25 has been described as “the most important text for the early church.”8 In this parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells us that it is in our giving and caring for the hungry, hurting, and homeless that God shows up and we meet Christ. The parable suggests that indeed there is something sacramental about giving and being generous. In our giving we receive grace, and via our giving God’s grace changes lives, wrongs are set right, and hope is born. It was this notion that there is something sacramental or eucharistic about giving that transformed the understanding of charity and philanthropy in the later Greco-Roman period from its focus on public buildings, parks, and statues to loving care for the poor, called alms. Historian Peter Brown writes: “By bringing God Himself into human society in the form of a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation added dramatic power to the notion [that in giving generously] we find ourselves standing in the Presence of God.”9
1 Matt 5:49 (The Message).
2 Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, The Paradox of Generosity.
3 Next Gen Donors: Shaping the Future of Philanthropy 2013.
4 Steinberg and Wilhelm, “Giving: The Next Generation—Parental Effects on Donation,” 2003.
5 Gal 5:22; Eph 4:32.
6 2 Cor 8-9.
7 Smith and Davidson, p. 224.
8 Gary Anderson, Charity, p. 6.
9 Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, p. 92. Also see Through the Eye of a Needle.
Dr. William Enright is the Founding Karen Lake Buttrey Director Emeritus of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. He is a former Senior Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana. Dr. Enright is a director of Lilly Endowment Inc. as well as a trustee of Hanover College.
Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events