The Double Goodness of Generosity

“Generosity is paradoxical. Those who give their resources away, receive back in turn. In offering our time, money, and energy in service to others’ well-being, we enhance our own well-being as well. In letting go of some of what we own for the good of others, we better secure our own lives, too. This paradox of generosity is a sociological fact, confirmed by evidence drawn from quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews. We have good reason to accept this conclusion, and no good reason to ignore it. We can also state the paradox negatively. By clinging to what we have, we lose out on the higher goods that we might gain. By holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. In protecting only ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we become more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerabilities to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care well for others, we actually do not properly take care of ourselves.”

So conclude sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson in their book, The Paradox of Generosity. Generosity - the “virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly” - matters because it brings benefit not just to others but also to ourselves. This should be welcome news to Christians because it squares with some of the truths of our religious tradition.

Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely; who conduct their affairs with justice.
— Psalm 112:5
Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.
— Luke 17:33
One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but ends up impoverished.
— Proverbs 11:24
Remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
— Acts 20:25
Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.
— Ecclesiastes 11:1
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
— 2 Corinthians 9:6

Smith and Davidson find that generous people are happier, suffer fewer illnesses and injuries, live with a greater sense of purpose, and experience less depression. Yet, it seems that there are several conditions that must be met for generosity to have such benefits to self. First, generosity must be sought for itself, and not for the benefit it might bring to us. That is, it must not be self-serving. It is the good of other people that we must want. In church language, we must act in love and charity toward our neighbor, with that as the end in itself in order to obtain the personal benefits of generosity. Second, we cannot obtain the benefits of generosity by engaging in seemingly generous acts. The truth of our intentions matter and we cannot fake our way into receiving the benefits of generous giving. Third, generosity must be a regular practice, part of our regular disciple of free and abundant giving, and not “random acts of kindness.” For generosity to be true, it must lived out, repeated, and incorporated into the normal rhythm and way of being of ones life. When it becomes a foundational belief and practice, then generosity is beneficial to the giver as well as the receiver.

So, what does that mean for others who are still working on their selfless love of others or who do not have a regular practice of selfless giving? It means that if someone wants to become generous, they start by beginning to act like a generous person. Attitudes often follow from our practices, so that thinking like a generous person follows from and reinforces generous actions. Engage in regular acts of generosity and then reflect upon the feelings generated by those acts of selfless love for another person. The cumulative effect of pondering and recalling those thoughts and feelings will change our thinking and then our behaving. Generosity is a good thing for all of us when it is a regular disciple and we can all do that, even starting now.

Grace and peace,

Fr Bill+

One for the road:
A preacher in a very traditional church, where proper decorum was regularly observed, was halfway through his Sunday morning sermon when someone yelled out, “Amen!” The preacher nearly fainted. Once he regained his composure, he cleared his throat and continued. For a second time the man yelled, “Amen!” This time the preacher glared at him. By now the entire congregation was awake, wondering what would happen next. The preacher paused, then plowed on into his sermon once more. When the man yelled, “Amen!” even louder than the first two times, the preacher said to him from the pulpit, “We don’t do that in our church.” “But I’ve got religion!” said the man with enthusiasm. “Well,” replied the preacher, “you obviously didn’t get it here!”