On generosity and selflessness



What does the Bible say about generosity? And does generosity only refer to money, or is there more with which we are called to be generous? 

Probably most of us feel that we’re pretty generous people. Actually, we are— the distinction is who we’re generous towards. Our natural inclination is to be very generous towardsourselves. But when it comes to being generous towards others, we are quick to settle for what’s “reasonable”, or to put it off for another time, or wait and see what’s left over after you’ve satisfied your self-generosity. But I believe the Bible calls us to a kind of selflessness that results in generosity towards others that seems beyond reason— a kind of generosity that speaks Gospel truth into the lives of others as it reflects the Lord’s generosity towards us, a kind of generosity that is a way of living out the humble remark of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

After the well-known Do Not Be Anxious passage in Luke 12, where Jesus comforts the crowd telling them not to worry about their basic needs (not wants– needs; we need to redefine that word in our culture), He says:

For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
(Luke 12:30-32)

We are told that if we seek God’s kingdom we will be supplied with what we need. Real selflessness can seem a bit overwhelming, impractical, maybe even crazy, but here we are promised that the Lord will supply all our needs. Yet, because our sin nature is so easily allured by things other than the Lord, in pursuit of our wants we are quick to hold back, quick to settle for the world’s norms and practicalities, even when God offers us His Kingdom!

Right after exhorting people to seek God’s Kingdom first, Jesus speaks pretty directly on selflessness:

Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
(Luke 12:33-34)

At first glance we might downplay this as an extreme calling for a special few, or as an admonition for those really selfish people like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). But note that these aren’t instructions for certain extra-holy people, or just for the disciples to follow, or just for admonishing the swindlers of that day; rather, this is in one of his many teachings given to a crowd that included all kinds of people, so the implications are far-reaching.

The way we live shows what we treasure. We are generous towards that which we treasure, so we are either generous towards those who are needy (spiritually, physically, relationally, etc.) by preoccupying ourselves with giving, or we are generous towards ourselves by accumulating more things, squandering our time and resources, and leaving our talents unused for the Kingdom. We either treasure His Kingdom or our own little pretend kingdom, and that is displayed in not if, but where we are generous. What we treasure shows whether we are selfish or selfless.

I know, I know– that whole “sell your possessions and give to the needy” part still sounds crazy. How would that even work? But Jesus doesn’t call us to such a lifestyle without purpose. He goes on to explain why:

Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.
(Luke 12:35-36)

Do we really live as though Jesus could come back at any moment? If we lived with a global, Kingdom-minded perspective, we’d realize we are essentially “on call” all the time for living worshipfully and generously in a way that is counter-cultural (yes, sometimes even counter to “Christian” culture) because only by living contrary to a culture can we change it! Rather than being “dressed for action” as ambassadors of Jesus, we so often settle for dressing ourselves in the rags of a watered-down me-first theology that hardly looks all that different from the culture we live in— and then we wonder why the world isn’t changing!

But the Gospel does ignite change, and when the Gospel is lived out in our lives to the fullest extent we see a ripple-effect of change in our homes, in our churches, in our communities, and beyond in a way that is baffling, in a way that could not be accomplished by our own might but by the Lord’s. Isn’t that what we want to see– change in our communicates and in our world that is so crazy beautiful we can only chalk it up to the power of God? This happens when the very power of God works in His people to create a sub-culture of selflessness that allows the Gospel to flourish.

We see a glimpse of what this could look like in the model set by early church as described in Acts:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
(Acts 2:42-47)

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
(Acts 4:32-35)

Does your community look like that? Does your church? Our lack of generosity, among other things, may be why there are millions– even our own brothers and sisters in Christ– who are still needy, why we don’t really see “signs and wonders”, and why we don’t see daily additions of those who are being saved (not “attending church” – being saved day by day).

In addition, Proverbs is full of verses on generosity and on being content with less so that you can give more:

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.
Whoever brings blessing will be enriched,
and one who waters will himself be watered. 
(Proverbs 11:24-25)

Better is a little with the fear of the LORD
than great treasure and trouble with it.
Better is a dinner of herbs where love is
than a fattened ox and hatred with it. 
(Proverbs 15:16-17)

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD,
and he will repay him for his deed. 
(Proverbs 19:17)

Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor
will himself call out and not be answered. 
(Proverbs 21:13)

Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth,
or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty. 
(Proverbs 22:16)

Whoever gives to the poor will not want,
but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. 
(Proverbs 28:27)

Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God. 
(Proverbs 30:8-9)

Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy. 
(Proverbs 31:8-9)

But wait, there’s more!

It is more blessed to give than to receive:

In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
(Acts 20:35)

Generosity isn’t relative to how much you have; it’s about the heart:

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
(Luke 21:1-4)

Generosity isn’t just towards those who “deserve it”:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”
(Luke 6:27-31)

Here we have a pretty direct verse on “the rich in this present age” (FYI: odds are, on a global scale, that’s you) and a reminder that generosity towards others allows us to “take hold of that which is truly life”:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
(1 Timothy 6:17-19)

A lack of generosity has consequences:

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
(2 Corinthians 9:6)

Here, Jesus basically says a lack of generosity should cause us to question whether someone’s heart is right with God:

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
(1 John 3:17)

Really, this generosity is kindergarten-level morality, and it’s a lot simpler than we think:

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
(Matthew 7:12)

Generosity comes naturally when we’re following the Greatest Commandment:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
(Luke 10:27)

It’s all part of living as Jesus did:

whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 
(1 John 2:6)

In short, your generosity reflects your heart, because we are most generous towards the things we treasure:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
(Matthew 6:21)


(And just for fun– Regarding generosity with finances, if you think you’re too poor to give, enter your income level into the Global Rich List and see how rich you really are. Then, do the same onGiving What We Can and see an example of one way that just 10% of your the Lord’s money given over your lifetime could change people’s lives.)