We’ve made it to our final week of Lent! I tackle our last Deadly Virtue — Generosity — as the antidote to greed. This theme is especially fitting on this Wednesday of Passion Week. Today is known as Spy Wednesday to mark the day that Judas (the “spy”) agreed to betray our Lord. And why? Because, being consumed by greed, he asked the chief priests, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. Judas lacked the virtue of generosity.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”—Jesus, Matthew 6:19-21
“I’m convinced that the greatest deterrent to giving is this: the illusion that earth is our home.” —Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. . . . If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.” – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
The Deadly Virtue of Generosity
Oseola McCarty worked all her life washing and ironing other people’s clothes. She didn’t earn much, but she always saved her money. Her one regret was that she had little education, for she had quit school to help her family. In 1995, at age 87, she did an amazing thing: She gave $150,000 (a value of $257,500 today) to the University of Southern Mississippi, in her home town, so that other young people could afford to stay in school. An award-winning children’s book, The Riches of Osceola McCarty, illustrated by Daniel Minter, tells the story of McCarty, a woman who loved the Lord and loved to give.
In a church where I was on staff, there was a group of guys who called themselves the Desperados. This was an amazing group of young men. If they heard about a family that was in financial need, they’d buy groceries—and not just the regular stuff. They bought steaks, wine, candles, flowers and, of course, all the other stuff a family needs. They would set it on the porch late at night, ring the doorbell and run away into the darkness, watching for the family’s reaction from a safe hiding place.
They got the idea from some Desperados at another church. There, those Desperados found out about a woman who had no money and no gas in her car after she had just barely made it to the church service. They managed to get into the pew behind hers, reach under her seat, grab her purse, find the keys, slip her purse back, drive the car to get gas (while one of them stayed behind to hold the parking place), put the car back, and then return the keys along with slipping a $20 bill into her purse—all before the church service was finished. Can you imagine what she thought as she started her car and watched the gas gauge needle slowly sweeping toward the full mark?
The dictionary defines generosity as “readiness or liberality in giving,” and “openhandedness, marked by ample proportions.” Contrarily, the vice of greed is defined as, “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth,” and “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.” Here’s the deal: you can’t be greedy in the same instance that you’re being generous, for the virtue kills the vice (see Matthew 6:24). That’s why we call it The Deadly Virtue of Generosity. How does a person becomes generous as opposed to greedy? The answer might surprise you.
“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” —King David, speaking to God in 1Chronicles 29:14
We must remember that we are receivers before we can even think about being givers because God made us to be receivers first. He is the Giver and we are the receivers—over and over again. Everything we have comes from Him, and He has been very generous. Just look around: Where have you seen God give to you in over-the-top ways (or even in sneaky ways?) The Bible says that God loves a “cheerful giver.” That is because cheerful giving is what God does. It’s a blast to give away the stuff God has given to us, but we have to start with a theology of receiving that stuff first. Everything we think we own, we owe to God. We are trustees of all that we have received.
It is not, “How much do I give to God from what is mine? It is, “How much of God’s do I keep for myself?” Some Christians get stuck on the concept of the tithe; that is, the Old Testament concept of giving 10% of one’s crops, herds, and income. It is not about giving 10% of our money to God. God owns everything anyway. He doesn’t really need our measly 10%. Allow me to illustrate: I remember taking my young son to McDonald’s. He ordered a Happy Meal. We sat down, and after a while I asked him for one of his french fries. He didn’t want to give me one. I thought to myself, “I can go over to the counter and buy this kid enough french fries to bury him, but he won’t even share one of them!” We all know that it wasn’t about me needing a french fry—it was about him needing to learn how to share. Maybe that’s how God looks at us.
More than a billion people out of the Earth’s six-and-a half billion live in desperate poverty caused by famines, earthquakes, war, corrupt governments, lack of education, disease, unfair trade laws, and false philosophies. At least 200 million of these one billion desperately poor people are followers of Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:10). In North America, there is an increasing disparity between rich and poor, largely along racial lines. Meanwhile, middle and upper-class Americans, including Christians, now eat out an average 30% of their meals (except for now during the coronavirus pandemic). At the same time, the amount of money spent on sports, recreation, lawn care, video and computer games, home entertainment centers, pets, and dieting has skyrocketed. But Christians are giving less to charities than ever before, from an average of 4% of their total incomes in 1960 to an average of 2% recently.
People who watch Christian trends have made two staggering calculations. If every American Christian did give 10% of their incomes, the additional amount of money that would be raised above and beyond the current level would be enough to eradicate world poverty in our lifetime. Second, the average age of major donors for both church and parachurch organizations is now well over 65 years of age. Current Christian work is being funded largely by retired people, who themselves lived a more frugal lifestyle a generation ago. Thus, unless patterns of Christian generosity change dramatically, a majority of currently existing ministries will close their doors for lack of finances within one generation.
One of the weirdest things is that while all this is happening, some Christian leaders are promoting a health/wealth gospel that pretends it is God’s desire for the already affluent American Christian (by Third-World standards) to become even richer. Even if we don’t feel rich, we don’t have to be rich to be greedy—many have little but their life is consumed by getting more. It is our conviction that the first step away from this madness and into the virtue of generosity is to begin with a theology of receiving. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. We have received much—and to whom much is given, much is required. We are to be receivers first, givers second, and to be generous as God is generous.
Responding to the Deadly Virtue of Generosity
- Who (apart from Jesus) is the most generous person you’ve ever heard of? Who, on earth, has been the most generous to you? Why do you think those people gave so much?
- An eminent 20th-century innovator in the world of manufacturing and construction, R. G. LeTourneau tithed 90% of his personal and business income to the Lord’s work, establishing a foundation, a liberal arts and technical college, as well as making significant contributions to expanding the work of his church and its denomination. Do you think it is possible to be too generous? What percentage of your own income do you think would be too much for you to give? What percentage would be too little?
- If you decided to be a Desperado like the guys in the stories above, what is one way that you might pull something like that off? Or, if you were to begin being like Oseola McCarty, where might you direct your additional generosity—to what organization or persons?
- While being a helpful resource, money can never satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. It can’t provide purpose, fulfillment, or true joy; furthermore, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” according to 1Timothy 6:10. Think of someone who is greedy with money. How does that greed affect the rest of their life? Contrast that with generous people you know. How are their lives different, in all areas?
Two friends met in the street. One looked sad and on the verge of tears. The other man said, “Hey my friend, how come you look like the whole world has caved in?”
The sad fellow said, “Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, an uncle died and left me fifty thousand dollars.”
“Sorry about your uncle, but fifty grand’s not bad at all…”
“Hold on, I’m just getting started. Two weeks ago, a cousin I never knew kicked-the-bucket and left me ninety-five thousand tax-free dollars to boot.”
“Again, sorry about your cousin, but I’d like to inherit that kind of money.”
Then the dismal fellow added, ”Last week, my grandfather passed away and I inherited almost a million.”
“That’s too many deaths in a short time. I can understand why you’re so sad.”
“And what’s worse—this week—nothing!”
A Christian farmer is overjoyed to see that his cow is pregnant. Not being in need, he plans to raise the calf and sell it for profit. Time passes and the cow ultimately gives birth to two calves. The farmer is even happier, rejoicing and thanking the Lord.
He tells his wife, “God has been so gracious to us, when I sell these two calves at market, half the proceeds will be given unto Him.” The farmer’s wife commends his for his generosity.
One day, several weeks later, the farmer returns home from his work day on the farm, saddened and reserved. His wife asks him what happened.
“The Lord’s calf died,” he replies.