Seldom Suppress a Generous Impulse
Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.
Everything I know about giving, I learned from my father. He is a profligate giver, extravagant, but wise, and rich in ways that no earthly auditor could discern. Generosity, he taught me, is not a luxury or an afterthought of excess, but a cornerstone of joyful living.
From my earliest years, I remember watching him bent over a checkbook, adding zeroes to the register in his familiar physician’s script. A single father with a successful career, he enjoyed unusual freedom with his finances. The refrigerator was always papered with prayer cards from worthy causes: missionaries in Romania, Guatemalan schoolchildren, campus ministries, and local churches. The landline became the target of so many charitable call campaigns that we had to unplug the telephone to preserve a quiet dinner hour.
“Seldom suppress a generous impulse,” Dad always says with a smile in his eyes. “It probably didn’t start with you.” By this he means to suggest that generosity is not natural to humankind but the result of a divine spark. Giving in response to a generous impulse means participation in a different economy: the economy of God. In an earthly economy, investments are unsure — start-ups fold, 401ks wither, markets crash. Only an eternal economy is beyond the reach of moth, rust, and recession.
America is a generous nation. In the Charities Aid Foundation’s 2014 World Giving Index, the United States tied for first in giving (as measured by helping strangers, giving time, and giving money) and ninth for giving money in particular. A 2013 Barna Group poll found that more half of Americans said that they gave money or items to causes they cared about in the last year. Yet Barna Group president David Kinnaman points out an interesting caveat to our gross national generosity:
Most American donors still give when they feel content and ready to give. For most Americans, giving is a luxury or a nice thing to do, but not typically viewed as a necessity. While the economy and donor outlook continue to show signs of improvement, it would be a tragedy if donors did not reevaluate the overall basis of their giving—that it’s not just an extra thing to do or for the tax benefits, but rediscovering the truest meaning of generosity.
So Americans do give, but they tend to give if finances are comfortable. They give to receive a tax deduction. They give from their excess, not their first fruits.
I understand the pinch on giving. Living on Capitol Hill, it often feels like my dollars don’t go very far. As quickly as I receive the reward for my weekly labor, it debits out to meet a dozen needs: groceries, dental bills, train fares, plane tickets, wedding gifts, inevitable parking fines, and rent that would fetch me a handsome mini mansion in the Midwest. Even for the Spartan, who opts for brown bags over pricey power lunches, saving is difficult. One unforeseen car repair or medical bill dries up months of thrifty living. For many young, urban dwellers scraping by each month on the barest of margins, financial giving seems out of the question.
Of course, money is not the only good a person can give. Giving of one’s time and talents is equally important, especially in a city where professional pursuits claim the lion’s share of these resources. Opening one’s home for hospitality, tutoring for free, or serving as an officer for a church or non-profit are all forms of generosity. I know individuals whose charitable giving of time after their normal workday could easily count as a part time job.
Yet I think that we should give money consistently in addition to non-pecuniary resources. Not because money is more important, but because giving from our poverty, from the shallow coffers between paychecks, untethers us from the superficial securities of an earthly economy. It redirects our ultimate trust from our checking accounts to the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. God does not call us to give because he needs our money. Divinely inspire generosity is an invitation to join our Father’s work of providing daily bread for his children. In giving, we love our neighbors as ourselves and enter into the joyful abundance of an economy where returns are always “pressed down, shaken together, running over.”
What can we do to live generously, even in our poverty?
We can give small right now: Giving does not necessarily get easier when we have more money. Like every other discipline — fasting, prayer, solitude — it requires practice. Giving right now, even if the amount is very small, trains us to hold loosely to earthly things and builds muscle memory for future generosity.
We can give first: I find that if I wait to give until the end of the month, it is unlikely anything will be left over. Giving out of our first fruits is an act of trust that God will meet our needs, even as we meet the needs of others.
We can give what we have decided in our hearts to give: Pray, seek counsel, budget, and make peace with a certain amount. I do not believe God will call us to give an amount that will short-change other important financial commitments, although it might cut into our discretionary income.
When I was young, it struck me as strange that my father enjoyed giving so much, but years later, I am finally beginning to understand. He has become so accustomed to the thrill of working alongside his heavenly father to care for the needs of others that temporal goods have lost hold on his affections. As the earthly tent wears thin, he sees with ever increasing clarity the bountiful riches of God’s economy. One day, I hope that I will see it too.