There’s an old tale of a monk who found a precious gemstone. He picked it up and put it in his knapsack and carried it with his few other belongings. One day he struck up a conversation with a traveler. When the monk opened his knapsack to share some food, the traveler saw the jewel and asked the monk to give it to him. The monk did so readily.
The traveler went on his way, overjoyed by this unexpected gift that would bring wealth and security for the rest of his life.
After a few days, however, the traveler returned in search of the monk. Once he found him, he immediately gave the stone back and begged of the holy man: “Please give me something much more precious than this stone, as valuable as it is. Give me that which enabled you to give it to me.”
The particular feature of this monk that captures our attention is his generous spirit. Not his generous deed of giving away something precious, but his generous spirit that appears to shape his entire outlook on life.
I like to distinguish these two aspects of generosity. Any of us is capable of carrying out a kind or charitable deed. All it takes is a soft moment, brought on by a compelling grab at our emotions, and our hands and wallets open wide. But a person who enjoys little spasms of generosity is not the same as one who is generous to the bone.
A life steeped in generosity pours out love unconsciously. This is a person whose instinct for generosity is second nature or, as Jesus put it, reacts in a way that “your left hand [doesn’t] know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). These are the righteous ones in the parable of the final judgment, who seem surprised to learn that their reflexive kindness defined them. “When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you …?” (Matthew 25:38).
The most startling dimension of generosity may be the irrelevance of extensive means. Generosity has nothing to do with means, and everything to do with desire. The poorest of the poor can be as generous in spirit as the richest of the rich. The widow in the temple who gave her last two coins is emblematic of one whose desire runs deep. So are the men whom Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl remembers walking through the barracks comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread.
When 5,000 people sat hungry before Jesus one day, the disciples saw only scarcity. They proposed a go-it-alone strategy for resolving the crisis. Everyone in the crowd was to head home and fend for him or herself. Jesus stepped in to transform their frugal thinking into the mystery of abundance. Breaking open five loaves and sharing two fish would provide enough for all.
It can be hard to see how generosity fuels abundance, especially in a world where doctrines of fairness and reciprocation hold center stage. “There is no free lunch,” we hear. “You get what you deserve.” So what do you make of people who love you more than you deserve? And what about God who forgives you in more ways than you can comprehend or repay?
A deep generosity in the heart of God easily puzzles. We grouse when others seem to land a better deal in life than we do. There is a payroll manager in Scripture who looks and behaves strangely like God. When he says to his disgruntled friends, “Are you envious because I am generous?” we ought to sit up and pay close attention (Matthew 20:15).
Anyone can learn to be generous in life. It is, after all, one of the nine fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. From those who have cultivated this fruit so well, I have drawn the following conclusions: Truly grateful people tend to be generous people. And generous people tend to be really happy people.
I don’t have scientific evidence to prove as much — just a lot of anecdotal evidence to confirm it. I have never met a generous soul who is a grump. Should you ever encounter one, however, take a good second look. You won’t want to confuse bursts of charity with bone-deep generosity.