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The Generosity Factor

Acts 20:35

 

“In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Some years ago, one of our elders, Jim Johnson, gave me a book titled The Generosity Factor, co-authored by Ken Blanchard of The One-Minute Manager and S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-Fil-A, Inc., now a billion-dollar-plus, quick-service chain with more than a thousand locations currently in 34 states and Washington, D.C. On the cover of this book, you’ll read these words: “Discover the Joy of Giving Your Time, Talent, and Treasure.”

Look up the word generosity in the dictionary, and you’ll find a definition similar to the one I found this week in Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “liberality in giving.” Look up the word generous, and you’ll find words such as these: “characterized by a noble or forbearing spirit; MAGNANIMOUS, KINDLY; liberal in giving: OPENHANDED; marked by abundance or ample proportions.”

What is the opposite of generosity?

Perhaps the best way to proceed is to first reflect on the opposite of the word generosity. What words come to your mind? Are they words such as greed, selfishness, stinginess?

We live in a day in which we observe the opposite with great frequency.

During an election season, we are amazed at the attacks and counterattacks that the Republicans and the Democrats make on each other. There’s very little “liberality in giving,” is there?

I’ve noticed that there is a whole cottage industry that has been established in talk radio and cable TV in which very intelligent and extremely articulate communicators have built large audiences by encouraging greed, selfishness, and hostility toward others different from themselves. There’s the stridency of both the political left and the political right.

Lurking just beneath the surface, we discover that there is a greed motivation on the part of some of these mass communicators that views success in terms of ratings, advertising revenues, and fees that make many of these persons rich. What a contrast to irenic public marketplace discussions between commentators and scholars, who are prepared to recognize the complexity of topics and are trying honestly to sort out issues fraught with ambiguity, whether they are discussing the war in Iraq, immigration, Washington sex scandals, economic theory, healthcare for those who are unable to afford it, the threat of nuclear proliferation, or the international HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In the Los Angeles Times, dated Oct. 21, 2006, was a feature on a local 55-year-old attorney talk show artist by the name of Bill Handel, who fills the morning drive time slot on KFI-AM. He boasts an audience of over one million per week, by far the most “successful” talk show personality on any local market. Let me read to you how he finds success for himself: “I know I’ve really done my job when someone punches out their windshield. . . . We’re always trying to find new people to offend. I’ve offended every race, every creed, every color, every religion, everybody. . . . Because you know what? They’re all crazy.”

The L.A. Times goes on to state:

“Even his apologies are a kind of pre-emptive insult to those he is allegedly trying to placate. Every show ends with an apology from the day’s topics. A recent example: ‘We would like to apologize to the following: President Bush, Pope Benedict XVI and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, radical Muslims, evangelical Christians and the Jews, painted elephants. . . Marine deserters, Iranians, Iraqis and Afghanis, kids who go to Jesus camp, anyone who wears a toupee, gay governors that release their erotic memoirs, Indian givers. . . and astronauts who release noxious gas in an enclosed environment.’”

The reality is you and I are becoming desensitized. There’s a decline of generosity in the public marketplace. We watch with fascination the reality shows, as people use nasty methods to compete against each other. Even “The Amazing Race” makes stereotypes out of human beings and takes glee in editing into what appears on TV hostile asides not only to their competitors, but to their partners.

And how many times do we have to observe Donald Trump entertain us with the words, “You’re fired!”? Or to hear him on “Larry King Live” express his selfish, greedy, self-promoting, bragging declarations of how much he makes, how much he gets paid to appear at seminars teaching business success principles, and spewing vitriol at people who have crossed him in the past? He sounds like a young Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali, shouting for all the world to hear, “I’m the greatest!”—declaring himself to have the greatest golf courses, buildings, casinos, television shows, children and even wives.

My point is not to be condemnatory of people, showing a non-generous spirit myself. It’s just important that we identify what is happening to our society. Let’s talk about what the opposite of generosity looks like within the community of faith.

That opposite is a begrudging, guilt-ridden oughtness to stewardship of our time, money and talent. In our society at large, about 2 percent of our Gross Domestic Product goes to charitable contributions, in spite of the fact that we live in an era of the “new economy” in which more and more of us are prospering. And the overall giving pattern of the cross section of Christians is approximately the same. At the same time, I must be quick to declare that there are many here and in other evangelical churches across the United States who go far beyond the tithe of 10 percent before taxes to the work of Jesus Christ and additional charitable giving.

But the sad thing is that, to many, the very concept of tithing connotes negativity. And most of us pastors are scared to even broach the topic.

So let’s have a little bit of fun right now. On the screen, I’m going to show you a video of one man’s struggle with the whole notion of tithing, placed in the context of a movie with which you’re most familiar re-dubbed and labeled It’s a Wonderful Tithe.

[At this point, we played a five-minute video of Jimmy Stewart in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, re-dubbed by the humorist Robert G. Lee of the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, to make it sound like he is struggling with the fact that his pastor and church are always talking about tithing; and he can’t stand the theme, until at the end he’s finally converted to a life of generosity and tithing through a dream which he’s had. A copy of the video can be obtained by contacting Robert G. Lee, Drama Director, Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, at 818.340.9825 or LeeRobertG@aol.com.]

What does generosity look like?

There’s a very different approach to living—it’s called generosity. This approach is built on the biblical teaching of Jesus, which Paul recalled. Luke, in Acts 20:35, quotes these words of Paul to the elders from Ephesus: “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

All through the Scriptures, we find this theme stated either in specific words of description, instruction, or in the stories of those who lived lives of generosity and gave joyfully. The reality is that this kind of generosity is part of our privileged worship.

We see the difference between the spirit in which Cain and Abel brought their offerings to the Lord. Cain did it in his own begrudging way on his terms. Abel did it with a generosity of spirit on God’s terms. All the way from Genesis to Revelation, we not only read of the instructions to bring our tithes and offerings but to do it with a generosity of spirit, as Paul wrote so clearly to the believers at Corinth: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

And you remember how Jesus chided the scribes and Pharisees who, with technical proficiency, tithed everything they had but forgot what was more important, when He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).

Paul warned Timothy that the selfish, greedy use of money could create real problems. He wrote, “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

He went on to say, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Those of us who tithe have discovered that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and some of us have been able to go at times far beyond the tithe and have done it joyfully.

I know some who say they can’t do it, especially young people today. I’ll be the first to acknowledge how hard it is to get a toehold into the real estate of Orange County. When we moved here from Pittsburgh, it was sticker shock. What we had to pay in 1978 for a house—that was a third smaller than our Pittsburgh home—would have bought a small estate in the most luxurious suburb of Pittsburgh. And the cost of that house here in Newport Beach in 1978 would today not even buy one of the most modest homes in the Harbor Area. It’s tough to get started today.

One of the couples I most admire through the years at St. Andrew’s came to me about four years ago and said that they were moving. I was heartbroken. These were two of the most active people in our church, the children enthusiastically involved in every aspect of our children’s ministry. They said that stewardship was very important to them. When they got married, they had determined to tithe; and they had done it. Now, as their children were growing up, they needed a larger home. They couldn’t afford to live in this community and still tithe. They wanted to live within their means.

So they moved down to the desert, which for them was more affordable. Anne and I see them when we attend the Palm Desert Community Presbyterian Church. You couldn’t meet a more joyful, positive family. They bit the bullet, determined to make the economics of their life work in a way that could put Jesus Christ first with a generous approach to tithing.

Ken Blanchard and S. Truett Cathy, in The Generosity Factor, most creatively comment on this chart that their fictional character, The Executive, has written on a blank transparency and projected on the wall with an overhead projector. He shares these profound words with a young man named The Broker, for whom such Christ-centered generosity is completely foreign.

Success vs. Significance
Wealth -- Generosity
Achievement -- Service
Status -- Relationships

“The success-motivated person tends to measure his or her life in terms of money, power, status, achievement, and recognition. The significant person places emphasis on a more spiritual view of life—generosity, empowerment of others, service, building up others, and helping them develop solid relationships.

“Let’s take a closer look at the words I’ve written here. On the left side, you see the traits of a successful person—or at least what our society has told us are the measurements of success. On the right side you see the traits of the significant person.

“The successful person has learned how to make money, but the significant person has learned how to give it away—how to be generous, to share the blessings of money with those who are in need or those who help meet a variety of social and humanitarian needs.

“The successful person has achieved great things—sadly sometimes at the expense of others. He or she is proud of what has already been accomplished. The significant person understands that the greatest thing anyone can accomplish is to serve others and to help them achieve their goals.

“Finally, successful people have attained a measure of status. Others look up to them and maybe even see them as role models. We often discover later that those who have become our role models let us down. They turn out to be something less than we had hoped. In direct contrast, the significant person is one who values relationships. They become trusted friends and invaluable mentors, and they invest their time in others rather than in striving to build status.

“If you look at them more closely, these components of significance all have something to do with generosity. Giving of resources is one form of generosity, serving others is another, and fostering meaningful relationships is yet another. It all comes down to Time, Talent, Treasure, and Touch.”

What a privilege it is to make this leap from the superficiality of success to significance. The danger of seeing such a chart is that one might think you have to have these other kinds of success before you can move to significance. No, that’s not at all necessary.

Stop and think of the most significant people you know. They aren’t necessarily that successful in the world’s terms, are they? The people who have impacted my life the most through the years have been teachers, coaches, pastors, Sunday school teachers, family, and friends. The majority of them have had very modest economic resources, but their lives have been wealthy in terms of what they’ve shared with me.

I think of a high school basketball coach I had who helped shape my future in the spirit of generosity. In addition to teaching school and being in educational administration, Jack Swanson helped in the founding of Care Philippines. As a result of his friendship with Rose and Melo Biron, who were fellow members of his and Dick Todd’s River Forest Presbyterian Church in the Chicago area, in their retirement, he and his wife actually went to the mission field. He also helped John R.W. Stott in his ministry to educate young, third-world intellectuals to serve Jesus Christ as theologians and biblical scholars. Ironically, today, 50 years after he was my coach, he happens to be retired in Windsor Manor in Carol Stream, Ill., where my mother lives. His spirit of generosity continues on, making him a most significant person, as he provides loving care for people like my mother, well into their 90s, doing things for them that they can’t do for themselves.

I think of Marily and Gary Demarest. For years, the Demarests pastored in the Buffalo area and then at the La Canada Presbyterian Church. Gary is known as one of the founders of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and has served on many mission boards. Marily invested a significant part of her life in youth ministry and then with World Vision, as well as the two of them raising their three daughters. Many have seen the generosity of their spirit. But few know that, even with their own three daughters to educate, they saw the needs of a niece whose divorced parents really couldn’t raise her. They took her in as their own and, with great sacrifice in addition to educating their own children, paid her way through college. That’s generosity.

And I think of our own Elaine and Fritz, who left this weekend for two months of medical mission in Kenya at Tenwek Hospital. They, along with others in our congregation, in a generosity of spirit, have used their professional expertise in generous servant ministry here and throughout the world.

And the list goes on.

The evidence is in: generosity works.

And the positive results of generosity are verified by secular studies.

I read an article in The Economist dated Oct. 14, 2006. It is titled “Altruism—The joy of giving.” This secular international magazine devotes a whole article to the impact the spirit of generosity makes upon the human brain. The lead paragraph reads:

Providing for relatives comes more naturally than reaching out to strangers. Nevertheless, it may be worth being kind to people outside the family as the favour might be reciprocated in future. But when it comes to anonymous benevolence, directed to causes that, unlike people, can give nothing in return, what could motivate a donor? The answer, according to neuroscience, is that it feels good.

Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, wanted to find the neural basis for unselfish generous acts. They actually studied the brains of 19 volunteers who were choosing whether to give money to charity or to keep it for themselves. They used a standard technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, which can map the activity of the various parts of the brain. The results were reported earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The conclusion was that the persons who elected to hold on to the money they were given and use it for themselves did not experience the joy that was present in the lives of those who, with generosity, clearly gave what they had in a “costly” way to charitable causes of their choice. Researchers were able to examine what went on inside each person’s brain as they made decisions based on moral beliefs. They found that the part of the brain that was active when a person donated happened to be the brain’s reward center, the “mesolimbic pathway” that is responsible for doling out the dopamine-mediated euphoria associated with sex, money, food and drugs. Thus the warm glow that accompanies charitable giving has a physiological basis.

The study showed that there is even more to altruism. Donating also engaged the part of the brain that plays a role in the bonding behavior between a mother and child and in romantic love. This involves oxytocin, a hormone that increases trust and cooperation. When the subjects opposed giving to various causes, the part of the brain right next to it was active. This area is thought to be responsible for decisions involving punishment. And a third part of the brain, an area called the anterior prefrontal cortex, was involved in the complex, costly decisions when self-interest and moral beliefs were in conflict.

All this medical research only underlines what Jesus said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Let me ask you, what has been your experience? Have you discovered the generosity factor? Are you a generous person?

Back in England in the New Market Church where Charles Spurgeon first served as pastor, there was an old gentleman known as Father Sewell. One day, a meeting on behalf of world missions was being held. He was delayed and only came in at the end of the meeting. Charles Spurgeon said, “Our brother who has just come in will, I am sure, close the meeting by offering prayer for God’s blessing on the proceedings of the evening.” Sewell stood up, but instead of praying began to feel in his pockets.

“I am afraid that my brother did not understand me,” Mr. Spurgeon said. “Friend Sewell, I did not ask you to give, but to pray.”

To which the bluff old saint replied, “Aye! Aye! but I could not pray till I had given. It would be hypocrisy to ask a blessing on that which I did not think worth giving to.”

I hope, in the weeks ahead, you’ll think deeply about the generosity factor. And my prayer is that more and more of us may discover that, yes, it is more blessed to give than to receive. A spirit of generosity will transform your life.

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John A. Huffman, Jr., is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Contributing Editor of Preaching.

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All Scriptures in this article are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.

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