There is probably no virtue so universally acknowledged as the virtue of generosity. People the world over instinctively admire generous people and loathe the greedy.
While some of the universal virtues — like marital fidelity, honesty and temperance — have recently fallen on hard times, generosity still remains uncontested as a virtue. I know of no one trying to marginalize it as a merely “Christian” virtue. Nobody is being shamed for advocating it or practicing it.
In earlier times, generosity was called “almsgiving.” It is a gift of mercy. It means giving material help to a person who is neither family nor friend nor one who has any other moral claim on your generosity. Generosity does not ask if a person is deserving in any way, it only asks if a gift would be helpful.
I am especially mindful of almsgiving as I write today. Millions of people around the world heard about it last week as the first word in Lent. The lesson for Ash Wednesday lists almsgiving even before prayer and fasting.
Whether you do anything intentional to cultivate it, or whether you simply remind yourself to be generous year-round, now is as good a time as any to think about what makes generosity such a universally admired virtue.
Before we even begin to talk about giving, we must first have something to give. If we don’t possess anything, we obviously cannot give it. So, the first thing to notice is that we humans have things. That fact alone sets us apart from most creatures in the universe.
Aside from ants and squirrels and a few hoarding species, almost every animal in the world owns nothing but the fur on its back. It has nothing in hand or hoof. Food goes straight from the plant to its lips, and that is that.
In contrast, human beings have things. We have food in the cupboard, money in the bank, furniture in the house, toys on the floor and in the garage! We have piles of things in storage that we don’t need to survive. And that is the second remarkable fact.
Not only do you have things, you have surplus things. Think about that! Every single person that you have ever met has not only enough, but more than enough. Especially here, in America, we have more than enough.
Of course, our own greediness can easily obscure this fact. There is always someone who has more, and we fantasize that we will have enough only when we have as much as they do. But such greed blinds us to those who have less and are hungrily looking at what we have.
Complain, as we might, about the “one percent,” chances are you are one of them. I recently came across an article in Investopedia.com that ran the numbers. Here’s the fact: If you have an income of $622 per week — wages, tips, welfare, free rent and utilities, food stamps, or gifts — you are in the top one percent world-wide. Ninety-nine out of every one-hundred people have less than you do.
If you only receive $39 per week, you are still getting more than half of the world’s population. All this means that, in comparison with the world’s population, the chances are high that you have a surplus from which to give. What I find remarkable as I travel the world is that even those living on less than $39 per week still find that they have something left over to give.
I have visited Sierra Leone, a country where 72 percent of the people live on less than one dollar per day. I have watched these people freely and cheerfully give some of that to others. You can also read about the Soviet gulags where people were given less than a pound of bread per day. Even here, some prisoners would set aside a portion of their ration to give to those in need.
All of this makes the point that no matter who you are, or where you live, you have been given more than you actually need for survival. And that surplus is the stuff of generosity. We all have it. Nobody is left out. Nobody is so poor that he can’t afford to give of his abundance to a total stranger.
The question is: why would you want to? The answer is: freedom and a happy heart.
The surplus stuff that we have can easily become a prison. When our surplus is a security blanket, it quickly becomes a ball and chain. Your heart is filled with anxiety about keeping it and getting more. But the more you get, the less secure you truly are. Fear sets in that if we let some of it go, we will be letting go some of our happiness.
But the opposite is true! What we find in the real world is that when we give something away, we don’t lose security. We gain it. Time and time again we see that what we give away is soon replaced by the sheer grace and providence of God.
These repeated lessons translate into freedom. Freedom is never found in hoarding so much that you will never need any more. True freedom is found in knowing that no matter how much you need in the future, God will give it to you when you need it.
That’s the practical effect of “giving alms.” Try it, and you will see for yourself that the chains of fear are dissolved. While you are trying this experiment, you will also notice something else. You will notice the stirrings of a good feeling inside.
I am not talking about a sense of pride at how good you look to others. That is, rather, poison to be avoided. The good feeling that giving gives is something that comes even when no one else knows. Giving freely resonates with something deep inside every human being.
Christians have an explanation for this. When we say that all people are created in the image of God, it implies that when human beings are being truly human, it will be an echo of what God Himself is like.
The deep longing that people have to give kindness to others who have no “right” to it is a clue to the meaning of the universe. It points to the nature of God who gives not out of obligation, but out of grace.
Seen in this light, the fact noted above — that God gives everyone not only enough to survive, but enough to share — tells us that giving is not some burdensome obligation. Rather, the ability to give alms is itself a gift from God. God not only wants us to experience the joy of receiving, He also wants us to know the joy that He has in giving.
The true joy of giving is not experienced as your achievement, but as something that you were blessed to receive. Rather than shameful pride, it is more like taking delight in a masterful piece of art created by someone else.
Even in our giving, the true Giver remains the God who gives Himself to the world. In giving Himself, He gives all that makes us human — even the gift of giving itself.