Practicing generosity can help us grow in the virtues

3 mins read
practicing generosity

If you’re like me, you’ve played a rather embarrassing game. When asked for spare change, you will reach into your pocket looking for the small coins, hoping to sort them quickly and discreetly from the bigger ones. Maybe, because we have large one- and two-dollar coins, this is a specifically Canadian temptation? If I can give a dime or a quarter, I can avoid the awkwardness of saying “no” without any real cost to myself. I might even look a little generous while being, in reality, quite the opposite.

As a young man, I once played this game in reverse. I was leaving a downtown church one evening with a girl I was very happy to be walking alongside, when a street person asked for money. In a hurry and wanting to look good, I reached in, grabbed an indiscriminate handful and gave it away. The girl even noticed and commented on the number of large coins.

Here’s the thing: In both cases I was failing in the virtue of generosity. In both cases I put expediency and ostentation above people. And, here’s the kicker, in both cases I felt kind of gross. The girl’s noticing my faux generosity actually made things worse. Indeed, I doubt I would remember the incident all these years later if not for that shameful feeling of being a fraud.

Giving freely helps us live joyfully

I have stopped playing this game. I stopped because when I reflected on how playing it made me feel, I realized that it was robbing me of freedom and of joy. Though I am not perfect, I am now much more conscious of doing what Jesus instructs us, namely, giving to anyone who asks. Deciding beforehand that I will give when asked frees me from (moral and financial) calculation in the moment and allows me to give joyfully.

It is easy to imagine that the reason Jesus tells us to give is because people have needs and we should try to meet those needs. And it is certainly good to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. But if we think this is the only reason Jesus asks this of us, we are missing something essential.

If the only reason to give is to meet another’s material needs, the question necessarily follows: “What will this person actually do with this money – with my money?” After all, Jesus taught us to feed the hungry, not inebriate the drunkard. And perhaps we should not even give to the street person, who can hardly be trusted to use the money well, but to some trusted agency or institution instead? That way, the funds can be used responsibly to help people like the person asking me for money or even to keep people from ending up in that situation in the first place.

Is it prudent to give?

Now, prudence is certainly a virtue. We cannot give everything to everyone, and so decisions need to be made on some reasonable basis. And there is nothing wrong with giving someone a granola bar rather than cash, or with supporting agencies that do good work with the poor. On the other hand, the virtues work together. And if my so-called prudence is working against making me more generous, then it is not actually prudence at all. Perhaps more to the point, Jesus did not say “Make sure, when anyone asks something of you, to be prudent in the distribution of your goods.”

I suspect this is not because Jesus does not value prudence, but because he understands that the primary temptation in the human heart when we are asked for money is not imprudence but lack of generosity. We are told to give to anyone who asks, not simply to meet others material needs, but to meet our own spiritual needs. Jesus wants us to become virtuous, free and joyful people. Giving to anyone who asks is one way to cultivate the virtues that lead us to freedom and joy.

Spending money on drink

Out for a walk together, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were approached by a beggar. Lewis, as the story goes, gave the man a substantial amount of money. Tolkien chided him, saying that the man was only going to spend the money on drink, to which Lewis replied, “I was going to spend it on drink.”

Giving without judgment not only helps us to grow in generosity, but in humility. It is easy to imagine that we are always wise and prudent with our money and lean on an inflated sense of our own virtue to justify not giving to others who might be more inclined to spend it foolishly. But are we being honest in our comparison here? Are we as scrupulous with every penny as we would expect a beggar to be?

And so, in the end, giving should help us grow not only in generosity and in humility, but in honesty and even in prudence itself. The question about how the beggar is likely to spend the money should become a mirror in which we can see our own relationship with money more clearly.

Brett Salkeld

Brett Salkeld, Ph.D., is a Catholic theologian, speaker and author. He serves as archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan.