The theory goes that when people have what they need, they are more inclined to act in generous ways. I have come to question this premise. A whole raft of anecdotal experiences in my life have taught me that people who have little are often people who, percentage-wise, give much more than those of us who are comparatively wealthy. What comes to mind are the small envelopes that occasionally land on my desk containing a dollar or two, offered with a note of thanks from a guest at the free community meal we serve weekly at Christ Church Cathedral. I’m reminded of women in a small Kenyan village who fixed our parish group a roasted goat, resulting in families who ate potatoes and beans for a month. These people have far less than what they need even to survive, yet for some reason they can give sacrificially and without fear.
Fear is often an obstacle to generosity. We fear we won’t have enough or we fear the unpredictable future, striving for a hedge against the unknown. Sometimes we imagine a better opportunity might unexpectedly arise, so we give nothing and await a prospect that never appears. I know that feeling all too well. Then I recall the small sacrificial offerings I witness every day and wonder why those with less can let go of their fear and be ruled by a deep sense of abundance. It is liberating to watch and learn from those who have the least.
Generosity, at its best, should feel simple and easy. Reluctant giving can breed a kind of desperate need for measurements and outcomes. Yet, the most profound and enjoyable experiences in my own life have been times that involve a sense of spontaneity, of being encouraged by a force beyond myself. These are the times I set an extra place without counting the food supply, times when everyone who came was fed, and the lines between the giver and the receiver began to blur. The free movement of gifts is not an exchange or a payback, quid pro quo. This free exchange is the essence of Christianity.
We all experience impediments to our generosity, some of which are readily apparent and some of which are not. Though it goes against every instinct we have been socialized to respect, we need to discuss money, fear, giving, and generosity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. If generosity is fundamentally relational, then the giving/receiving relationship is prey to all the challenges inherent in any human relationship: jealousy, power struggles, dependency, and deception. Any or all of these familiar human foibles can impede our progress to emulate God’s own generosity. And ultimately, this is the goal to which we aspire: to live our lives emulating the God who has withheld nothing from us, who is gracious and generous without measuring our deservedness, the God who calls upon us to blur the lines between giver and receiver until one day, by God’s most gracious favor, all will flourish in our relationships. The ultimate goal is the Exodus, leading us from scarcity to abundance, from oppression to liberty, and from fear into deeper love.