Michael Morrison has a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is Dean of Faculty and Instructor in New Testament for Grace Communion Seminary. He is the author of Sabbath, Circumcision and Tithing and Who Needs a New Covenant? The Rhetorical Function of the Covenant Motif in the Argument of Hebrews.
Articles by Michael Morrison:
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We live in financially uncertain times. The stock market is bouncing up and down, several banks have been consolidated, it’s getting harder to get a loan, and people are losing their jobs. Here at the church’s administrative center in Glendora we are cutting our budgets, because our donation income might go down.
Economic problems have complex causes, but one of the biggest causes is greed. Today, I’d like to talk about the opposite of greed: generosity. Our lives need to be characterized by generosity, not greed.
In these uncertain times, we need to be careful. A famous preacher from the 18th century had good advice for us today: Earn all you can, and save all you can. That was John Wesley. Earn all you can, and save all you can.
But he did not stop there. He also said, Give all you can.
I’d like to talk about that: Give all you can. My emphasis today will not be on the word “give,” but on the word “can.” If you can’t give anything, that’s OK, but if you can give, then give what you can.
If you don’t have any money, that’s OK, but you should still give all you can. If you don’t have any money, you can’t give money, but you can give something else, and you can still give all you can.
You see, generosity means a lot more than money. It’s possible for someone to give a lot of money and still not be very generous, and on the other hand, it’s possible for a person to be generous without having any money at all. God wants us to be generous, but we need to expand our understanding of what that means.
For example, let’s look at what Peter did in Acts 3, verse 6. Peter and John were going to the temple, and a crippled man asked them for some money. And Peter said, I don’t have any money, but what I have, I give to you. What did Peter have to give him? He gave him health – he healed the man so he could walk, and work, and earn his own money.
That’s just fine, you might think. I don’t have the gift of healing, so what’s this got to do with me? It’s what Peter said: What I have, I give to you. You may not have any money, and you may not have the gift of healing, but you do have something that you can give.
You may have the gift of compassion, of really caring about other people. If so, you can give it. You may have the gift of time. Maybe you are out of work, but you do have time, and you can give some time. Maybe you have joy that you can share with people who need it. Maybe you have patience that you can give to people when they need it most. Maybe you can give respect to somebody who needs it, or you can give mercy to somebody who needs that. Maybe you can give up the right to revenge.
Maybe you have a particular skill, or you’ve been trained in a specialized kind of work. You can give that, too. You can be a source of wisdom, or a source of words, or a source of work. You can be generous, even if you don’t have any money.
Sometimes we talk about time, talents, and treasure. We can be generous with those, but there are many additional ways to be generous. We can be generous in the judgments we make on other people, always giving them the benefit of the doubt. We can always think more highly of others than we do ourselves.
We can give up animosity, we can give the gift of friendship, we can be generous in the way we praise other people. We can give them extra prayers, we can give them extra hope, we can give them the good news of Jesus Christ — each person according to his or her ability.
I am not asking you to give something you don’t have – I am asking you to give something that you do have.
And I would like to point out that a few people may be giving too much. We have only so many hours in the day, and if we give ten of those hours for one person, we cannot give those same ten hours to anybody else. Every time we say yes to one person we are saying no to someone else.
So I am not trying to make you feel guilty, or to give more time than you really have to give. It’s like Wesley said, give all you can. Don’t give more than you can. You have to judge your own situation, to see how much you can give.
The emphasis is not on give, but on can. You are generous if you give what you can. You are the judge of how much that is, and you are the judge of what that is. You can’t fix every problem in this world, so you have to judge whether you have something that can help, or if you ought to pass. Everyone serves in a slightly different way.
If you are sticking on a bandage when the person really needs food, then you haven’t helped much, have you? We all need to pray for wisdom in the way that we help others, in the way that we give to others, in the way that we are generous with others.
Let’s look at another example of generosity, and that’s the perfect example: Jesus Christ. He did not solve the problems of this world by giving us all a lot more money. He had all the money in the world, if he wanted it, but he had the wisdom to know that we needed something else much more than that. Our problem was not poverty, but depravity. We were in the grip of sin, and we needed to be set free. So Jesus gave up his wealth and his high status, and became a regular human being.
In doing so, he gives us time. He gives us patience. He gives us mercy. He gives us the gift of his righteousness. He gives us a relationship with the Father. He gives us his life. What he has, he gives to us, and he does it generously. A life of generosity does not necessarily mean giving a lot of money.
But if we have money, and we have a generous heart, then it is likely that some of our generosity is going to be demonstrated in the money we give. If we have time, and a generous heart, then we are going to be giving some of our time to other people. If we have skills, we will be using those, and if we have any mercy and patience, then we will be giving those as well.
Generosity is a matter of the heart, and we cannot measure it by hours on the clock, or dollars in the offering basket, or by how often we share words of comfort with somebody else. Those might be indicators of generosity, but they cannot prove it. You are the one who has to judge yourself: Is this something you can give?
In general, generous people want to give, and they have to restrain themselves so they don’t overextend themselves. Most people restrain themselves because they really don’t want to give, and they use “wisdom” as an excuse for not giving. That’s just a generalization – you have to judge yourself on that one.
Perhaps by now you are thinking to yourself, OK, I guess I am not a generous person, because I am not very willing to share what I have. I don’t really want to give, and I don’t give much at all, and perhaps I should give more than I have been. But just saying that doesn’t change my heart; it doesn’t make me want to give. Is there a way to change what I want, when deep down, I’m not really sure I want to change?
I wish I had a formula that would fix that problem, because I need a little dose of that myself. We always have a gap between what we know, and what we do. The apostle Paul described that as the spirit struggling against the flesh. So what do we do? Quit struggling and let the flesh win? No, says Paul. We are supposed to fight back, and do what we know is right, even if the resident selfishness fights back.
I remind myself that God is inviting me into his life, into the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and his life is a life of generosity. God wants me to enjoy that life with him forever and ever, and he knows that I will enjoy the results of being generous only if I am generous.
But I’m not going to experience those results if I’m selfish, if I’m tight with my time and stingy with my forgiveness. The reason that life with God is good is precisely because he is generous – because the divine life is one of generosity – and I want to share in that.
So I ask God to change my heart, and help me become more like the person I want to be for all eternity. I thank him, because I know that I can trust him to do it, because Jesus Christ has already qualified me to be in his kingdom. He has been generous to me, and I can learn from that.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 8 Paul writes about a collection that he was taking up in the Gentile churches in order to help the Jewish churches in Jerusalem and Judea. This offering was most likely money, simply because that was the most portable way for people in Greece to send help to Judea.
But as we see what this chapter says about a life of generosity, let’s keep in mind that generosity involves time, and mercy, and patience, and every other aspect of life. Whatever it is that we have, anything that we value, anything that might help somebody else, is an area in which we might have the opportunity to be generous – each according to our ability, according to what we have. Nobody is asking us to give something we don’t have. We give only what we can.
Let’s read 2 Corinthians 8, beginning with verse 1: “And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.”
Paul is telling the rich church in Corinth about the poor church in Macedonia. Those Macedonians didn’t have much, and perhaps because they didn’t have much, they knew how important it was for people to help each other through difficult times. So they were quite generous in the help they were sending to the churches in Judea.
“For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.”
They gave a lot, and they were eager to help somebody else. That was simply part of their history. The book of Acts tells us that when Paul first went to Macedonia, he was met by someone who offered him a place to stay. And there was the prison guard who not only let Paul out of jail, he also washed his wounds, and he brought them into his house [Acts 17:34] and gave him a meal. He gave what he could, and he did it generously.
The Macedonian churches began with people who had a generous attitude. These were the people who helped Paul plant a church in Corinth, and they supported him there until that Corinthian church got started. They were glad to help somebody else, and they were even more generous than what Paul had expected: “And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.”
They were not doing this to please Paul. They weren’t doing it to get something in return. That’s because they saw God at work in their lives. Their first thought was the Lord, and what God’s will was for them in the circumstances. They supported Paul, and the collection he was taking up for Jerusalem, because they were convinced that this is what God wanted them to do.
“So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part.” Paul sent Titus to Corinth once before to get the collection started. Now he is sending him again to finish the work.
Notice what Paul calls the collection here: an “act of grace.” God has given us grace, and he invites us to become more like he is, and so we respond with grace. Sometimes it’s the same kind of grace that God has shown us – the grace of forgiving sins – and sometimes it’s grace in other ways – in this case sharing material goods.
God’s grace toward us, and our faith that he will take care of us, leads us to care more about other people, and to help them as our ability intersects with their need – whether it’s a physical need, an emotional need, or a spiritual need.
“But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” The Corinthian church was kind of a competitive church. They wanted to be the best, and to have the best. They boasted about how much faith they had, about how much knowledge they had, about their speaking abilities. Paul knows well that they had some real deficiencies in each of these areas, but he appeals to their desire to be the best.
They were bragging about their spiritual gifts, and in his first letter, Paul told them about “the most excellent way” – the way of love [1 Corinthians 12:31]. He does something similar here. He is saying, If you want to be the best, if you want to be great, then make sure you are good at being generous. If you want to be competitive, then try to be the best at helping other people.
“I am not commanding you, [he says in verse 8] but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.” Paul may not be commanding them, but he is putting some pressure on them. They might ignore his command, but since they did like to compare themselves with others, Paul is appealing to their selfish interest to help them be a little less selfish. He is challenging them by pointing out people who are doing better than they are in this particular area of Christian life.
And he points out the example that Jesus set: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
Before Jesus came to earth, he was rich. Now as far as I know, Jesus didn’t have any money in heaven. There’s not much use for it up there. Paul is using the word “rich” metaphorically, saying that Jesus had status, and honor, and privilege. But he gave according to what he had. He gave it up, for a time, so that we might eventually have more. He was willing to share, and that is a model of generosity.
He had the highest possible status, but as it says in Philippians 2, he wasn’t concerned about hanging on to that for his own self-importance. He was willing to set it aside to help others, to give to us the salvation that we need. We didn’t have to work for it or do anything for it – it is his gift to us. We are the beneficiaries, and this is the model of the divine life that God wants us to participate in.
“And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.” Paul is praising them here. Look at what you did in the past, he says. Was that just a temporary burst of zeal, or was it a real reflection of who you are? Were you just showing off, or was it real?
We can also look at what we’ve done in the past. Are we more generous now than we were ten years ago? Are we more gracious toward other people? Are we more willing to give our time to help others? Are we the sort of people we wanted to be? Are we following through on what we said we would do?
And verse 12 is the theme verse: “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.” If our generosity is done just for show, or if it’s done in response to a threat, then we might try to give more than we really have. But if it’s real, we give according to what we have, and not by some unrealistic, artificial standard. It’s like John Wesley said, “Give all you can.”
The important thing, Paul says, is whether we are willing. That’s what counts in the end, because that’s the sort of person we are, the sort of person that we have let Christ form in us. We don’t get any Brownie points for being compelled to give, or for feeling obligated to give.
What counts is whether we are generous in the heart, and we give according to what we have. For some people, it’s money. For others, it’s time. For almost everyone, it’s mercy, patience and a willingness to forgive. A life of generosity means giving according to what you have, not according to what you don’t have.
Paul explains his rationale further in verse 13: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.” Paul is not asking the people in Corinth to live in poverty so the Jews in Jerusalem can be wealthy. He is not asking for a reversal of status, like Jesus did for us. No; he is just asking for basic fairness.
“At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.” Right now, you have more than you need, and they have less than they need. The day may come when it will be the other way around. You can give to them according to what you have now, and they can give to you according to what they have then. It won’t necessarily be money – it might be time, or comfort, or kindness, or some sort of emotional support when you need it.
But this is not the sort of thing that can be predicted, or calculated. We do not need an attitude that says, “I will help you today only because I think you can help me next year, and then I have a right to be paid back.” No, the kingdom of God does not consist of selfish calculations about how this is going to help me in the long run. The point is, that people who have ability help those who have need, each according to what they have. That is the way that the divine life works, the way that love works, and that’s why an eternity with people who think in this way will be good.
I don’t know how it’s going to work in eternity, because in heaven, there won’t be anybody who has needs. There will just be a lot of people who want to help, and nobody who really needs help. I imagine it will be like a man building something, maybe a decorative stone wall. He is perfectly capable of building that wall by himself, but his neighbors come along and help him anyway, and they all get the job done faster, and with a lot more fun, than he could have ever done it on his own. When they are done, they have a great celebration and say, That was fun. Let’s go help somebody else.
An eternity like that will be a lot more enjoyable than a life of selfishness. An attitude of generosity is a lot better way of life than an attitude of stinginess. It’s not a matter of calculating whether I am ever going to get any benefits out of it. It’s just giving, for the sheer joy of helping somebody else.
Jesus said [Luke 14:12-14], If you’re going to give a banquet, don’t invite the friends who can pay you back – invite the poor, the lame, and the blind, the people who can’t pay you back. A life of generosity, a life that is reflective of God himself, gives according to need, not according to what we will get out of it in return. Today, we are able to help. Tomorrow, maybe we will have needs and somebody else will help us. And if we don’t have needs, then we can be thankful about that, too.
Paul’s point here is that we give according to our ability. If we have more than enough, and somebody else doesn’t have enough, then we can share what we have. Then there will be equality. That’s what God wants, and that’s what we should want, too.
But it does not come from a mandate, or an escalating income tax that requires rich people to pay a bigger percentage than poor people do. That might be what happens in the end, if we all seek to be fair about it, but Paul does not specify any percentages. He just says that everyone should give according to their ability.
In all of life, not just in finances, we need to care about other people. We need an attitude of generosity – because God has been generous to us, and he wants to share his life with us. We want to be generous in the way we use our time, our words, our thoughts, and whatever other resources we might have. We can each ask ourselves, Am I generous with what I have? Do I give all I can?