A TRULY GENEROUS LIFE
Written by Doug Ponder on November 25, 2012
An Encounter with Jesus
The recurring pattern among many people who met Jesus was remarkably similar: they became convicted of sin, humbled by their need for forgiveness and rescue, and deeply thankful for God’s mercy and grace. But these people weren’t just thankful; they were changed. Their encounter with the generous grace of God transformed them into men and women who generously gave their time, effort, and resources to serve others.
That’s precisely what happened to the churches in Macedonia that Paul the apostle described in his letter to the church at Corinth. They had witnessed the grace of God at work in their lives (2 Cor. 8:1), producing within them an “abundance of joy” that “overflowed in a wealth of generosity” toward others in need (2 Cor. 8:2). Paul explains that these churches had found ways to give far beyond their means, even in the midst of their own hardship and extreme poverty. Even though they had little, their deep love for God spilled over into love for others. Commenting on all this Paul reminds the church at Corinth that living generously is the normal response we should see in the lives of people who understand the grace of God. More than that, Paul even says that not being generous with what we have is one of the biggest signs that we don’t really love other people (2 Cor. 8:8). In other words, we should expect those who truly understand the grace they’ve been shown to be gracious with what they have.
Our Failure to Live Generously
So, why don’t more of us live generously with our time, effort, or resources? Well, it’s certainly not that we “don’t know any better”. Just about everyone agrees that charity is good, that it’s good to share, that we shouldn’t be selfish, and so on. The problem is that even though we believe those things, we lack the power to “force” ourselves into doing what we believe is right. This hasn’t stopped people from trying to do so, of course. That’s why you hear folks appeal to things like hope: “Imagine how much better the world would be if everyone lived generously”, or sentimental love: “That homeless woman is somebody’s baby girl”, or fear: “Everyone should give to the poor, because that could be you some day,” or pride: “Don’t be like all those selfish people. Give to the poor because you’re better than that”, or guilt: “Don’t you realize that if you helped that man he wouldn’t be so bad off?”, or even greed: “Give away some of your stuff so that God will give you even more stuff!” None of these motivations work very well because fail to deal with the root of our problem.
The real reason we don’t live generously is because we are sinful—which means we’re crooked deep down and we even see things upside down. Our hearts are like a river that is polluted at the source, and everything that flows downstream is affected. In particular, our sin often takes the shape of two especially dangerous ways of living.
Often we are enticed by our sin to seek our joy apart from others in a kind of sinful individualism. This way of living overlooks the fact that God created us to live together, both in community with him and with each other. All of us are like “pipes” or “conduits” that are designed to channel the grace we’ve been shown into the lives of others. When we try to bottle it up for ourselves, however, the grace that was intended to be a blessing turns rancid. It spoils us. So instead of thinking that we have been blessed in order to bless other people, we arrogantly think that God blessed us for our own enjoyment. The irony is that by trying to enjoy the blessings of God in an individualistic way, we miss out on the true joy that they are intended to bring. Just as when two friends share their sorrows the burden is divided, when friends share their joys the blessing is multiplied. This is why Jesus says, “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48). God blesses us so that our thankfulness for his undeserved grace is transmuted into generosity toward others in need.
The other reason we don’t live generously is that we think happiness comes through consumption. But we should know from experience that this isn’t true, since there are people with far less than us who may be joyful even as there are people with far more than us who may be miserable. Furthermore, our society engages in endless consumption of new experiences, new gadgets, new toys, new foods, and so forth. Yet none of these leave us satisfied. This is because God created us to find our joy in him, not in the things that he has made. (And even when his creation brings us delight, it delights us in a way that points us back to him. Crisp, sweet apples should cause to us pause and think of how much greater the Maker of the apple must be.)
The Gospel of Generous Grace
Paul the apostle knew about the dangers of individualism and consumerism, which is precisely why his final word to another church (in Ephesus) was essentially a call to remember the gospel of grace and to be generous with others (Acts 20:32-35). These were not separate ideas in Paul’s mind. They were more like the relationship between a flower and its seed. The seed gives birth to the flower in the same way that the gospel of grace gives birth to generosity. This is why Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35). It’s also why Paul reminded his readers of the heart of the gospel in this way: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Paul understood that if his readers remembered both their great poverty (in terms of righteousness) and Jesus’ great riches toward them (in terms of grace), that they also would be transformed into generous people. Martin Luther, the German-monk-turned-Reformer, understood the gospel in the same way. His dying words were, “We are beggars. This is true.” When you see yourself as a beggar at the foot of God’s door, bringing nothing but your empty hands in the hopes of receiving God’s undeserved mercy and grace, then you will be deeply moved to help your fellow “beggars” in whatever way you can. Luther was right. We are all beggars. And beggars who understand grace live generously with what they have been given, because they do so from the abundance of joy they have in Jesus.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.