What is Generosity?
When you hear the word “generosity” what comes to mind? Is it a wealthy person who contributes vast sums of money to a charity? Is it the spontaneous, warm feeling of sympathy for the less fortunate?
In their book The Paradox of Generosity, Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson define generosity today as “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly For centuries, it applied only to the wealthy and their practices of giving and character traits associated with charity, but by the nineteenth century it came to be seen as a character trait that anyone could acquire. They call it a “virtue” because it is a character quality that is formed through an intentional habitual practice.
This understanding of generosity is very different from the stereotypes based on wealth and spontaneity. It is something that everyone can do but it takes practice. Generosity, therefore, is the practice of giving good things to others. It is not the same as ‘altruism,’ which is a completely selfless concern for the well-being of others. A person can be generous and be motivated by the benefits they receive as byproducts of their generosity. On the other hand, generosity excludes any attempt to manipulate or control through the giving of gifts. The end goal of generosity is the well-being of others.
Because generosity is the virtue of giving good things, it is much more than donating money. To be sure, it includes financial gifts but there are many other things that enhance the well-being of others. There is the generosity of our presence and relational support (emotional generosity); there is the sharing of our time and talents to help a neighbor (timely generosity); and there are the collective efforts of being generous that we do through the church and other organizations.
Smith and Davidson show the benefits of generosity for the giver. People who practice a lifestyle of emotional, timely and financial generosity are happier and healthier, have a greater sense of purpose and more fulfilling relationships. Indeed, it is a win-win outcome for the giver and the receiver because acts of generosity and well-being are mutually reinforcing. Thus, they describe the practice of generosity as a paradox: “The reality of generosity is instead actually paradoxical. Generosity does not usually work in simple, zero-sum, win-lose ways. The results of generosity are often instead unexpected, counterintuitive, win-win.”
If you want a better quality of life, you have to do what Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:35-36)”
This Lenten Study Guide is based on The Paradox of Generosity (Oxford University Press, 2014). I encourage you to get a copy and read it along with this study, especially if you are leading a discussion group. For readers of the book, you will notice that I have made some changes to the categories Smith and Davidson use to make them more useful for our reflections, but the basic concepts are the same.
Whether you are doing this with a small group or on your own, this study guide is designed to help you develop the spiritual practice of generosity. Each week’s scripture readings will be featured in Sundays’ services and sermons to help you get more out of the worship experience. Each session features a generosity “audit” to aid your personal introspection and a generosity “experiment” to put into practice the ideas for that session. A generosity “journal” is included at the end of each session for you to record your reflections and experiences.
Generosity is never an easy topic. We may feel uncomfortable because we assume that it only involves money. We may shy away from it because we feel inadequate to call ourselves “generous.” Or we may not want to examine the deeper issues that it brings up about our relationships and priorities.
Taking on the issue of generosity is not for the faint-hearted, but it is worth it. Learning to be more generous will enhance our relationships, deepen our faith, and improve our health. It is worth the investment.
Before you being this study, ask yourself: What reservations do I have about examining my generosity?