Generosity and the Good Life
As Americans, we are born and bred on a version of the “good life.” Wal-Mart proclaims, “Save money, live better,” suggesting the more money we have, the better our lives will be. We pine to get that startup venture we’ve been financing off the ground, get paid the big bucks to do what we love, find that “perfect” home in which to raise a family, or save a huge nest egg so we feel safe and secure—financially, at least. We are told if we just seize the day (“carpe diem”), work hard, be smart with our finances, and clutch to the “land of opportunity,” we can be whoever and own whatever our hearts desire. Is this truly the good life?
Do we not more frequently hear the stories of feeling stressed out, over worked, in debt, or simply discontent? How often do we hear of material struggles due to finances? You may ask, “Is there something wrong with me wanting to invest in a small business? Should I not save for future purchases or retirement? Is it wrong of me to take ahold of the good opportunities that come my way?” Not necessarily. Perhaps you are not asking the right questions. It’s like the teenager asking about sex, “How far is too far?” Instead, you should ask, “What is the implication of being in Christ while living in a city of great comfort and wealth?” “What does it look like to be a disciple of Jesus in a city continually providing opportunities to consume?” Or maybe you should ask, “What does it mean to be generous in the midst of my piles of bills and debt, or limited income?”
In 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Paul commends the church of Macedonia for its generous collection and calls the Corinthians to share in God’s grace through their generosity towards the Christians in Jerusalem. Much like we see in our great city of Austin (or any thriving, contemporary city), Corinth was an urban center of the region. It thrived off of a strong, flourishing economy and the peoples’ enjoyment of its pleasures. Corinth was modern, booming, and trendy. Opportunity and the hope for the good life filled the air and people inhaled the gratifications of this prosperous city. As such, Paul challenged the Corinthians’ default view of wealth, status, and their definition of the good life. In this passage, Paul plunges into the theological underpinnings of generosity.
Sowing Bountifully, Reaping Bountifully
Paul shares a familiar old farming principle “…whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (v. 6). Paul is not preaching a prosperity gospel to the Corinthians. Some use this passage as a proof text and, unfortunately, ignore Paul’s further words; they simply believe if I give, I will get. “Well, God I gave you 5% more last month. Where is my raise, the job you were supposed to provide . . . what about helping me pay this tax bill I just received from the IRS?” This belief demeans the core of Paul’s exhortation of the Corinthians. It appeals to a selfish, materialistic theology rather than to a theology of sacrificial, selfless generosity. When interacting with God in this manner, we move the focus from God to ourselves. We become more concerned with what we have received (or haven’t received) versus what we have been given. We miss the tremendous generosity and provisions that have already been graciously handed down to us. Paul does not provide the Corinthians a shrewd investment strategy for them to accumulate wealth nor is he teaching the key to negotiating and getting what you want from God. Rather, Paul reveals that through their willing generosity, they are participating in God’s generosity and provision, bringing glory to God—the source of all grace.
Farmers aren’t stingy with the seeds they sow because they know their harvest will continue to produce seed for further planting. For a farmer, sowing a lot of seed is not considered a loss, but rather gain. Paul says, “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (vv. 11-12). God could provide everyone’s needs without us, but he chooses to allow us to participate in his generosity. He provides for our needs, and then he “enriches” us for the sake of generosity. And if we remain generous, he will continue to enrich us so that there will be much fruit from our giving. This is what Paul means when he says, “Whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully!”
Generosity, It’s a Heart Issue
What the Corinthians are to do as believers is clear in Paul’s mind, but he does not explicitly command them. Paul says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart” (v. 7). Paul goes out of his way to avoid giving the impression that he is trying to force them to give. He knows that if they comply with his appeal, they will do so out of obedience and love towards Christ rather than obedience to him. The implication is that we give willingly, thoughtfully, and joyfully.
C.S. Lewis makes this keen observation,
“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. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusement, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our giving does not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say it is too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our commitment to giving excludes them.”
When did you last say “no” to something because of your commitment to generosity? Do you sit down, pray, and discuss your giving and if you are being pinched by your generosity?
We should routinely seek the Holy Spirit in our giving. Families need to do this together. Parents, you should include your children. Let them see true generosity. Let them in on how your family is being pinched by its commitment to God to be generous. Ask God to pinch your idea of comfort and security, and pray for your church, your city, world missions, and church planters. Also, consider sharing this with your Fight Club or City Group. Ask them to challenge the heart motives behind your giving. Share your fears and complacencies about giving. Let the Holy Spirit break down the money barrier.
Often times we do not enjoy discussing money because we all lean towards spending more on ourselves rather than others and God. Let the gospel in to work on your heart. Generosity is not just a money matter, it’s a gospel matter! The gospel should transform your heart and its views of spending, saving, and giving. It’s not simply about the amount you give, but it is about the condition of your heart from which you give. Are you giving out of joy or pressure? Do you not give so that you remain comfortable/secure or are you willing to be pinched by your generosity? It’s a heart issue . . . one that only the gospel can restore.
God Loves a Cheerful Giving
Paul continues, “. . . not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” When you give with a begrudging heart or merely out of pressure or necessity, you sow sparingly, unwillingly, and cheerlessly. Your gifts no longer come from a cheerful, hopeful heart for God and his mission, but rather a self-centered, self-worshipping heart that looks to yourself and your rights. “I’m a hard worker. I’m ‘wise’ with money. I save. And I give what I’m supposed to give. Am I not owed a little to buy the things I want. After all, I did work for it!”
Paul says, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (v. 10). “Now, wait a second, I went and bought the seed myself, and it was my hands that kneaded the dough.” We forget what we have is not owed to us, but rather was the righteous provision and generosity of God.
Miroslav Volf in Free of Charge gives the illustration of an interaction between a little boy and his father: “Daaad! Where’s my milk?” screams the little boy. He’s bothered that the glass of milk is not in his hand the moment he requested it. No need for “please” or “thank you” because that is why dads and moms exist, to serve him, at least in his little mind. The boy has yet to learn that much of what his mom and dad do for him is out of their generosity. They don’t owe it to him. I’m sure many parents can relate to this. Like the little boy, his dad too often makes the same mistake. He forgets that his money, job, every provision, even the demanding little boy are not somehow owed to him. They are God’s generosity and provision. Like the dad, we easily forget that all of it is God’s gift.
Perhaps you find yourself on the other side thinking, “Things are financially tight right now, so I can’t be generous. God, when you bless me with financial security I’ll start being generous.” In either scenario, you give your leftovers—assuming there are leftovers. Giving cheerfully of your first fruits acknowledges that God has bestowed his perfect generosity upon you and is your sole source of provision. David Garland, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, says,
“Reluctance to sow generously, then, reflects a refusal to trust that God is all sufficient and all gracious. It also assumes that we can only give when we are prospering and have something extra that we will not need for ourselves. Paul says that at all times God provides us with all that we need so there is never any time when we cannot be generous.”
Paul’s point is “God loves a cheerful giver because he, himself, is the Cheerful Giver!”
God, the Cheerful Giver
How do we not give from our last fruits, but cheerfully, willingly, faithfully with hopeful anticipation? Paul says, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (v. 8). He says, “God loves cheerful givers, and God makes it possible for you to be a cheerful giver!” Why? Because God is the Cheerful Giver! Now, this doesn’t mean wait until you are ecstatic to give. It means we can repent of finding too much comfort in our financial security and materialism rather than the comfort of God’s perfect generosity. It means we can turn in cheerful repentance to God because he’s given us the greatest gift ever—Jesus Christ!
God did not have to redeem, restore, and bring us into his eternal generosity, “but he so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” because he is the Cheerful Giver! God the Father brings us into his perfect generosity through Jesus! Paul had just finished saying in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For 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.” How often do you consider yourself rich? How often do you wake up to the reality of your wealth and provision in Christ? Or how often do you wake desiring more and feeling discontent? People who, in faith, are pinched by their generosity, it’s not because they are merely obligated, it’s because their faith is in Jesus who was pinched, squeezed, and crushed so that we would be lavished by his generous grace! What’s more when we are pinched by the generosity of God’s grace it shines the glory of God in Christ (2 Cor. 9:13)! “[By the evidence of this service], they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ.” A false prosperity gospel teaches, “You need to give in order to get,” but God, the Cheerful Giver, says, “I’ve already given you provision for your every need—spiritually, physically, financially, simply because it’s my nature and I love you! This may even include giving you less financially in order to give you more spiritually, to truly enrich you so that you may abound in good works!”
Paul says, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (v. 15). Paul doesn’t offer thanks to the Corinthians for being supportive to Paul’s exhortation and opening their wallets to one another. Rather, he appropriately directs it to God in Christ, the giver of all perfect gifts, who was pinched, squeezed, and crushed so that we could enter, share, and participate in his generosity! You want to live as you are in Christ, and be a part of God’s work and mission, be generous! You want God to use you and multiple you in good works, cheerfully and freely give. You really want the good life? Let your comfort be pinched by God’s generosity. Saying “no” because of your commitment to generosity is Christ saying “no” so that that his generosity spreads to the world.
It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit will free you from the bondage of materialism and wealth accumulation into selfless giving, (not because of your ability but) because of God’s infinite selfless generosity . . . that you feel the pinch of God’s call to be a generous people. We give because God first gave! That’s living a good life.
Austin Becton and his wife, Caitlin, live in Austin, Texas where he serves as treasurer of City Life Church and board member of GCDiscipleship.com. An accounting consultant by trade, he partners with churches, non-profits, and small to mid-size companies. He is currently pursuing an MA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. Twitter: @AustinBecton