My brother Joe Hein was the most selfless person I have ever known. As an aide to Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, his commitment to world peace led him to Bosnia three times between 1997 and 1998 to serve as an international elections supervisor. He served young schoolchildren through the Everybody Wins! reading program, both in Washington D.C. and on indigenous reservations in South Dakota. He volunteered regularly at homeless shelters, and served on the board of Habitat for Humanity in South Dakota.
His selflessness was not only evident in the big moments, but in his day-to-day life as well. Anyone who walked with Joe anywhere knew that it was likely he would empty his wallet for people in need he would meet on the streets of D.C. Joe lived well below his means – in a nearly unfurnished apartment on Capitol Hill – in order to give freely of his resources to those who were in need.
This lifestyle wasn’t without protest from his friends and family, however. Even as a young child I observed several conversations where friends would ask him, “Joe, aren’t you at all concerned what these homeless people are doing with your money? Don’t you think they’re just buying cigarettes and alcohol? Isn’t this a waste of your resources?”
Joe’s answer was always the same: “If I give my money to one hundred people in need, and only one uses my money toward proper ends while the other ninety-nine waste it, then it was all worth it to me.”
In recent years, I have often returned to Joe’s words to challenge my own selfishness and greed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of exercising prudence and stewarding the donation of our time and resources toward wise ends. Perhaps Joe could have, at times, been wiser in his approach. And yet, I can’t help but think that there was something profoundly Christlike in Joe’s attitude that would challenge many Christians approach toward generosity. His openhandedness was never calculated based on what might be done with his gifts; it simply welled up freely out of his heart.
I believe one of the greatest sins for many Western Christians, myself included, is our deep-rooted greed and selfishness. So flooded are we with wealth and prosperity that we cannot even fathom how entangled our hearts are with the things of this world rather than the kingdom of God. If the Scriptures are correct in this regard, then our greed is only robbing us of a life of joy and blessedness with our Heavenly Father (Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 1 John 2:15-17). Our greed dampens our own spiritual vitality as well as our ability participate in the kingdom of God.
Over the next several weeks, I will be publishing a series of reflections concerning generosity and the Christian life. These reflections will be rooted both in Scripture as well as various figures from Church history. My goal for this dual-focused approach is to not only provide us with a theological foundation for the importance of generosity, but also to challenge many of our own modern assumptions and practices concerning stewardship of our resources.
In this first post, we’ll consider the foundation of generosity in the Christian life.
The Uncalculated Generosity of God
Christian generosity is rooted in the uncalculated generosity of God. While always purposed and intentional, his generosity is never based on a computation of our worth or merits.
Luke’s gospel recalls the story of Jesus cleansing ten leapers of their disease (Luke 17:11-19). In the end, only one of the ten, a Samaritan, returned to give thanks to Jesus for what he had done. Surely Jesus knew the faith of these ten individuals and that only one would return. Was his generous healing wasted on the other nine? We can easily imagine some of his followers asking him, “Lord, if you knew only the one would return, why heal all ten? If this act wouldn’t lead to their salvation, why even waste your time?”
There is no doubt that Jesus’ purpose for this encounter was to demonstrate the faith and gratitude of the Samaritan as the appropriate response to the mercy of God. Even so, a similar point is made in a myriad of other ways throughout his ministry (ex., John 9), and the squandering of his gifts of mercy did not keep Jesus from showing it anyways.
Perhaps Jesus would agree with my brother’s attitude more than we would like to admit.
Time and again, Jesus demonstrated an uncalculated generosity toward those he encountered. He fed the crowds, knowing that many would only come to him for the gifts but not the giver himself (John 6:26, 41). As the parable of the laborers in the vineyard demonstrates, the mercy and grace of God is not given based on those who have most earned it (Matthew 20:1-16).
At no point in the gospels do we find Jesus first measuring whether we are worth his time and energy; Jesus was not one to give a cost analysis on the fruits of his labors measured against a bottom line. Jesus is not generous in love and mercy toward those who deserve it, for “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). He did not grumble over our failures, but “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). He does not extend grace to us based on what we will do with it, for then it would not be grace.
In all these ways, Jesus demonstrated the heart of his Father, whose generous love for this world was so great that he would give his one and only Son for our sakes (John 3:16).
How different is the heart of God from our own fickle hearts! Every good thing we have was generously given to us by God (James 1:17), but our hearts still readily judge whether others our worth our time and resources. We protest the possibility of generosity without ever really trying, thereby cutting ourselves off from the joy that Christlike generosity brings. The late pastor Eugene Peterson captured this well when he wrote,
Our life is for others. That is the way creation works. Some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves. We look so bedraggled and pathetic doing it, hanging on to the dead branch of a bank account for dear life, afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving. We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace (Run with the Horses, p. 45).
God has spoken: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). The measure of our own generosity is found in Christ’s willingness to lay down his life for us. Only the rich love of Jesus can pierce our hearts and open us up to a blessed, joy-filled life of uncalculated generosity.
Jesus, melt our hearts with your uncalculated, generous grace. Our hearts are hard, and we turn our backs on those in need with all kinds of excuses. We tell ourselves we don’t have the time, but the truth is we’ll only make time for ourselves. We say, ”They’ll waste our resources”, even when we squander your grace daily. We store up treasures for ourselves, chasing fleeting pleasures rather than being generous for the sake of your kingdom. Forgive us, and show us what it means to be joyful through generosity. Amen.
Questions for Reflection:
- What is the Christian motivation for generosity?
- What resources – including time, talents, or finances – has God given you to generously steward in the service of others?
- How have you grown in generosity over the last year?
- What does it look like for you to become more uncalculated in your generosity in the next six months?