“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The words of Jesus, quoted in the book of Acts, are some of the most famous in the Bible. They celebrate the goodness and blessing of generosity. The Christian virtue of generosity, however, is surprisingly nuanced, involving both receiving and giving, and doing so in particular ways.
To understand generosity, we might begin by considering the opposite vice — greed or avarice. Dante’s treatment of this sin in Inferno shows us how greed corrupts both receiving and giving.
When Dante arrives in the fourth circle of hell, he sees two mobs rolling large stones at each other and jeering. Both are greedy, but the form of their greed is different. On one side are the misers, those like tightfisted Scrooge, whose philosophy is best summarized as “Get all you can; can all you get; and sit on the can.” Opposed to them are the squanderers, those who fritter away their goods in wastefulness and luxury. Dante’s keen insight is that while these two groups may outwardly look different, at heart they are the same. Both are in the grip of greed, since greed can either manifest as ill-receiving or ill-giving.
In both cases, the greedy have gone cross-eyed in the mind; they can’t see reality rightly since they are fixated on earthly goods.
Receive, Don’t Take
Recognizing that both our receiving and our giving can be corrupted helps us to see the wisdom and beauty of the biblical virtue of generosity.
Perhaps surprisingly, generosity begins with receiving. And not just any kind of receiving, but a particular kind. We can grasp it if we consider the difference between receiving and taking. In both cases, we end up with some good, but there is a difference between gratefully receiving the good and sinfully seizing the good. Thus, one of Paul’s many exhortations to generosity begins with, “Let the thief no longer steal” (Ephesians 4:28).
But theft is only one form of taking — or rather, there are many kinds of theft. The obvious kind involves plundering your neighbor’s goods, but we also can steal from God. When we refuse to receive his gifts with gratitude, but instead act as though the things we have are ours by birthright, we rob him of his rightful glory as the Giver. So Paul can rebuke the Corinthians by saying, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Thus, the first step toward Christian generosity is to receive what God has supplied with deep and heartfelt gratitude.
Receive to Give
It’s not enough, however, to merely gratefully receive. Grateful reception can quickly turn into ill-keeping or ill-giving. The thief who stops stealing must now labor honestly in order to have enough to share with others (Ephesians 4:28).
Here we consider the difference between sharing and wasting, between well-giving and ill-giving. James 4:3 warns of the danger of asking God for blessing with the wrong motives: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Desiring wealth in order to selfishly spend it on our passions is wasteful. God loves a cheerful giver, not an indulgent squanderer.
Wealth is a gift from God for the sake of his mission. He gives to us that we might give to others.
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)
God has richly provided us with everything for four purposes. First, for our enjoyment; it is good for us to gladly receive what God supplies and to enjoy it for his sake. Second, he provides so that we might do good, that our wealth might serve the joy of others. Third, he provides so that we would be rich in good works. Not just rich in wealth, but rich in deeds of charity and mercy. He meets our needs so that we can gladly meet the needs of others. Fourth, he provides so that we would be generous and ready to share.
This readiness is crucial. It challenges the greed in our hearts. When we have good gifts, are our eyes locked onto the gifts alone? Like the avaricious, have we gone cross-eyed in our fixation on earthly goods? Or are our eyes up, looking around for opportunities to share what we’ve received? Is there an eager readiness to be generous, or is there a selfish miserliness on our part?
Christian generosity begins with grateful receiving and then moves to ready giving. We receive in order to give.