Generosity is almost universally regarded as a virtue. When someone with wealth makes a decision to give in order to help the poor, this is generally applauded. However, when a decision is made on behalf of a group, to generously give of that group’s resources to some cause, this type of decision is often less popular. When and how should groups make decisions to be generous, to help those less fortunate? How we view collective generosity can have a big impact on how we see the role of the church and the government. Many feel that when an individuals help the poor it is generous, but when organizations or governments use their resources to help the poor, it is coercion, or even theft. In this post, I wanted to examine what scriptures say about this subject.
Looking for direct scriptural examples can be helpful, but difficult. In 2 Corinthians, Paul points to the church in Macedonia as an example of a church collectively demonstrating generosity, and uses this to encourage the church of Corinthians to follow suit. This certainly appears to be an useful example. However, due to the lack of details, we can’t be certain of exactly how this was carried out, how people gave, and how these decisions to give were made.
It is worth remembering that in reality there is actually a wide spectrum of scenarios from true individual generosity to completely leader-dictated giving. When a family has a discussion and based on the outcome of the discussion decide to give to cause, this has an element of group decision making with a high degree of individual input. What about if a church votes and decides to give a certain amount of the budget to a specific cause? This has a larger degree of group decision making, there may be some members that vote against it. What if leaders make recommendations for causes to donate to? What if a country or state votes on a budget, choosing to allocate a certain amount for helping the poor? What if individuals vote for representatives who then decide on budgets? Again in all of these situations there may be decisions made to use resources that some disagree with, but there was also free-will input from individuals that influenced that decision as well. Of course, on the far side of the spectrum, you could have a dictator that makes decisions on budgets with no input from citizens. However, the majority of group decisions that we experience fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Returning to scriptures, is there any other teaching that can be applied? One of the most important keys that Jesus taught in understanding scriptures is to look for purpose. I described this in more depth in the previous post. One of Jesus biggest critiques of the Pharisees was that they went through surface obedience, yet ignored the purpose behind the law. Likewise, if we take a look at generosity, what it might mean to a group of people, we should examine possible purposes behind generosity. There are a couple possible purposes I think we can consider (and they are not mutually exclusive). Determining the purpose behind generosity has a big impact on what it means for how we apply it to a group.
First, we can consider that generosity is for the purpose of the giver making a sacrifice. In particular, the purpose of generosity might be the voluntary, free-will decision of a person to make a sacrifice. Certainly the notion of sacrifice is incredibly important throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law has a heavy focus on sacrifice, and Christ, as our example, paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Furthermore, freely making a decision to sacrifice, is an opportunity for a giver to demonstrate love. Certainly, love is most clearly demonstrated when someone makes a decision to sacrifice on behalf of another. Without this free-will decision, the giver is not really demonstrating love.
And acts of sacrifice are not simply a negative experience for the giver, a giver, who gives cheerfully can expect to be rewarded by God. As Paul said, it is better to give than receive.
This element of an individual’s choice to sacrifice is indeed important, and in the context of the question about collective giving, we should definitely seek to maximize the opportunity that people have to freely choose their contribution. However, the possible purposes don’t end there.
Next, we can consider that the purpose of generosity for the sake of the recipient. While generosity is important as an act of sacrifice of the giver, obviously it also serves a purpose for the recipient. Generosity is an act that offers mercy for those who are in need. As we consider generosity as a form of mercy, it is important to note the center of focus: the focus is on the target of generosity instead of the donor. This is important when we consider generosity as an act of love, and what form of love that might be. Love may take an emotional form, often manifested by the emotions that a donor may experience as they feel the satisfaction of helping another. However, the Bible frequently lifts up “agape” (one of the Greek words for love) love as the highest form of love. Agape is characterized by a sincere interest in well-being of the object of love, rather than the experience or emotion of love. Generosity with focus on the donor may be an exercise in the emotions of love, but generosity with a focus on the benefit to the recipient is an act of agape love.
Again, the purpose of generosity has a significant impact on how we assess the collective versus individual generosity. If the purpose is making individual choices of sacrifice, than collective giving is pointless. However, if the purpose is mercy for the recipients, than the nature of the donation is not of substantial importance, and trying to make a significant distinction between individual and collective giving is erroneous.
Interestingly, when we analyze generosity from the perspective of purpose, the Bible is suddenly surprisingly clear. Hosea is very explicit about the true, underlying purpose:
Hosea 6:6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;
In fact, this is not only stated in the Old Testament, but it is so important that Jesus actually repeats this verse:
Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
This is one of the clearest declaration’s of purpose found in scriptures. Based on this, it is unavoidably clear that generosity is not all about individual’s exercise of sacrifice (although that is an important mechanism), that the true end goal is to bring mercy.
Another helpful insight from scriptures comes from the emphasis we see on community in scriptures. While the scriptures certainly demonstrate that individual’s are responsible for the decisions, this does negate the strong theme of building community. And community is shallowest when it is simply a group of individuals that tolerate and stay out each other’s way as they all make their own decisions. True, deep community comes when we actually consider, discuss, and see to understand, and work through our values, priorities, and commitments, and seek purpose together, sharpening each other in the process.
The Bible teaches that wisdom is found in the multitude of counselors, and giving wisely has tremendous impact on our giving. If our generosity is for the purpose of mercy, than we should be deeply concerned with the fact some forms of giving have 10s, 100s, or 1000s of times more impact in bringing mercy than other forms. Wisdom is important to the true purpose of generosity, and we can be much wiser together. We should not be surprised to find that the collective generosity of a group has an impact far beyond what individuals might do on their own because the collective wisdom can multiply the effect of the collective resources.
In assessing collective generosity, it is often important to think in absolute terms, rather than in relative terms. While we can certainly make comparisons between individual and collective generosity, we also have to recognize that in many situations these are not even mutually exclusive options. When a group, organization, company, or government is considering generosity, such possibilities are often compared negatively to individual giving, when in fact that this does not replace individual’s opportunity to be generous as well. Leaders that are making decisions to be generous are usually only using a small fraction of available resources, and this has a negligible impact on the individual’s resources and ability (in fact collective generosity can often be just as likely to encourage individual giving as to discourage). The frequent complaint that collective generosity will replace individual generosity or vice versa is a false dichotomy and a poor excuse for the generosity of a group or society.
By looking at the purpose of generosity, we can hopefully can gain a better understanding of appropriate forms of giving. We should indeed strive to encourage individuals to freely choose to sacrifice for the sake of others. However, when individual generosity and collective generosity are not mutually exclusive, the true purpose of giving reveals that we should pursue collective generosity alongside individual generosity.