The Joy of Generosity
We face a challenging statement in the refrain for Psalm 112: “Happy are they who have given freely to the poor.” The statement is concise, and it hits like a slap in the face. It calls us to stop and consider both attitude and conduct. Am I happy right now? Am I giving freely to the poor? Whether or not you are happy in this season of life, undoubtedly you can think of many people you know to be perpetually resentful and dissatisfied. Why?
Often times we can point to an answer because we are subject to the same sins and temptations as every other person who has ever lived, particularly covetousness and idolatry. And every aspect of our society, the wealthiest and most materialistic in all of history, is designed to trigger those sinful impulses every minute of every day, pointing to one central desire: “We need more stuff to be happy!”
The ingredients of worldly happiness are right there in front of us. Almost anything we want can be ordered online and arrive at our doorstep in two days or less. We have access to all of humanity’s knowledge and information on our laps and in our pockets. And social media provides us a limitless release of dopamine and an endless supply of ideals to chase after. Ironically, none of these riches make us any happier. The more stuff we get, the more stuff we desire. The more we desire, the more we focus on what we lack in comparison to others. And we spiral downward in a cycle of lust for the possessions we acquire and resentment for that which we do not yet have.
It should be obvious then that gathering more stuff for ourselves will not make us happy, and yet we fall into the trap of materialism so easily. This is why Psalm 112, honestly understood, makes us uncomfortable – it takes our base understanding of happiness and turns it upside-down. Not that the idea is foreign to us: we hear time and again that “money can’t buy happiness”, but we have a hard time putting it into practice.
Our Call to Agape Love
And so, we must engage with a command and a reality from God. The command from God is to give freely and generously to the poor among us, and the reality is that happiness is found in giving of ourselves freely and generously. The two are not linked by accident! The common denominator, as we shall see, is agape, the self-sacrificial love poured out for us by our Savior Jesus Christ, when He died on the Cross to purchase our salvation. Selfless giving through willing obedience to God’s commands and abundance of joy exist in a reciprocal relationship perfectly embodied in the person of Christ, and it is our duty to follow His example.
The Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians gives us an example of what it should look like. Paul, calling the repentant Church in Corinth under Titus to finish the collection they began for suffering believers in Jerusalem, cites the powerful witness of the churches in Macedonia:
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part”.(2 Corinthians 8:1-2)
Paul is encouraging the Corinthian church to give to the suffering believers in Jerusalem, and he shares this example of genuine love. For these churches in Macedonia were not only suffering severe affliction (we do not know what exactly, it was likely persecution) but also extreme poverty. So, these churches are being harassed by their enemies, and they are extremely poor, but what happens? Do they apply for a stimulus loan from the government? No! In fact, what is so amazing here is that their extreme affliction and extreme poverty result in greater generosity, not less. In verse 4 we learn that the Macedonians were actually begging Paul for the opportunity to give to the saints in Jerusalem. They were begging to give. How can this be?
Look again at verse two. The wealth of generosity is rooted in the Grace of God. And Paul, as he does throughout this book, uses an incredible wordplay here when he mentions grace. Paul uses the same Greek word for grace which gives us the word Eucharist we know today. “Eucharist” – Holy Communion – is thanksgiving for God’s Grace through the Sacraments. In the context of Paul’s letter, then, Thanksgiving for God’s Grace leads to an abundance of joy amid affliction, which causes an overflow of generosity. And all of this, Paul says in verse 8, is not a command but the reality of genuine love.
To Each According to His Need
Yes, we rightly obey God and give freely and generously, not to follow a command, but because of genuine love for God and neighbor, which is the overflow of God’s grace in our lives through joy which seeks to meet the needs of others. In case it was not yet clear, Paul follows up in verse 9 with one more example:
“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…”.(2 Corinthians 8:9)
Christ left His exalted place in Heaven to come down and experience the ultimate humiliation and loss to save us from our sins, impoverishing Himself that we might enjoy the riches of God’s Grace. Christ’s sacrifice is the ultimate example of agape love calling us to meet the needs of others freely and generously.
Paul goes on to further clarify his request to the Corinthians. Citing how the Israelites were fed by manna in the desert, Paul explains that the requirement of love is not to burden one church to benefit another, but to show fairness to the brothers and sisters in Christ. Do not be mistaken – Paul is not calling for the Corinthians to live in a Communist utopia. Many people will wrongly twist this verse to support a political ideology. Paul is not calling for government distribution of wealth! The example of manna in the desert gives all the context we need: God gives to each person according to his need, NOT according to equity or equality of outcome. Measures of equity chop everyone off at the knees in order to put everyone on the same level. The principle of fairness, on the other hand, primarily among the family of God, seeks to emulate God’s love for us by making sure everyone’s needs are met, over against selfishness which causes us to cling tightly to our time, talent, and treasure, to the detriment of others.
Returning to Psalm 112, we are likewise reminded that the powers of the flesh will oppose our charitable acts: “The wicked will see it and be angry; they will gnash their teeth and pine away, the desires of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 112:10). Sadly, a sinful world does not desire the charity of the righteous, for when the light shines in the darkness, it illuminates all the sins we were hiding in the shadows. If we clearly and publicly carry out our ministry, we will face opposition. And as our country slides further and further away from Christianity, this reality will become more and more obvious. We already see clear cultural opposition to many Christian ministries and charities.
Consider last year, when Samaritan’s Purse faced fierce opposition from New York City to its Covid field hospital in Central Park. Franklin Graham’s Evangelical organization was freely caring for the sick and suffering, so what was the problem? They had the audacity to affirm that there were only two genders, and that marriage was instituted by God for one man and one woman.
Or consider just recently, the city of Philadelphia sought to bar all Catholic adoption agencies from operating in the city unless they agreed to give children to LGBT couples. Catholic ministries form the backbone of many charitable organizations we see today, and they are being targeted for merely upholding the Catholic faith. Fortunately, this case won a tenuous victory in the Supreme Court last week, but the issues are not going to go away. In our call to love others generously, we must be prepared to be bold. And we take heart, for happy are they who have given freely to the poor.
We must therefore dedicate ourselves to being fed by the Sacraments each week, giving thanks for God’s grace in our lives, and then allowing that grace to joyfully overflow into the lives of others as we seek to meet their needs with agape love. True joy is to be found in living this way, by loving God and loving neighbor. For an overflow in one area always leads to an expression of the other: The more we love and obey God, the more we will desire to serve others with our time, talent, and treasure; and the more we serve others in agape, the more our joy in the Lord will increase. So, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, may we eagerly seek out new ways to serve, and to give, and so savor the sweet joy of Christ Jesus.