Looking at the words giving and generosity closely might yield some surprising results. Many times the two words have almost interchangeable applications. But there are a few hidden differences between true generosity and just giving. You can actually give, give often, and give a lot and still not be generous. You can also give little money but be extremely generous. There is a back-story or context to the words “giving” and “generosity” that demonstrate the difference.
The difference can easily be seen with the story of the poor widow who stands in comparison to the wealthy donors at the temple, the parable of the widow’s offering.
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.
42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Who gave more, the wealthy donors or the widow? If all you look at is the amount given, an objective number, the wealthy donors are the winners by a large differential. But instead if we look subjectively at the heart, the widow wins by a landslide.
We can easily make the mistake of focusing on the objective amount and miss the subjective and often invisible heart of the gift. We can also miss the fact that people can be generous with their time, work, skills, talent and influence even when they have no money to give. To really know if a gift, no matter how large it is, is a generous gift, examine the following aspects of the gift and its circumstances:
• Is the gift without any strings, requirements or worldly benefits? A gift that results in recognition (like the rich people in Mark 12:41), in business recognition, in a promotional benefit for the giver’s business, may be motivated by a lot other than the heart. In fact, it may be a “gift” that has enough donor-benefit that it eventually costs the giver little, if anything, because of the return on the gift. Is that really a gift? Is that really a generous gift?
• Is the gift limited to getting a tax deduction? The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 is going to end up putting this point to the test. The higher standard deduction will result in a loss of the charitable deduction for a significant number of middle income charitable donors, perhaps as many as two-thirds of the tax payers previously claiming deductions. In 2017 about 30% of taxpayers showed charitable deductions when they itemized. That is expected to drop to as low as 10%. The expectations and concerns of charities are mixed. Some fear that smaller donors will stop donating because of the loss of a tax deduction. Others are less cynical and believe (or at least hope), that donors will give regardless of the deduction. Will charitable giving suffer? If people do decide to donate less or not at all because they get no deduction, was their past giving really generous?
• Will the amount or thing donated be missed by the donor? It is one thing to give “until it hurts,” or give something that will be missed. It is another thing to give something that the donor was ready to throw away anyway. If the donor merely had to chose between the garbage can and the donation box, what kind of a gift is that? Was it really a generous donation?
• Is the gift expected to benefit the person or persons receiving it in a meaningful way? A gift may appear to be generous even if it lacks impact upon the party receiving the gift. However, some donors actually look for a need and try to fill that need specifically. There is an extra blessing to the giver when the gift results in an immediate and meaningful positive impact. Which gift is more generous, the one with or the one without a meaningful impact?
• Is there giving and not taking? If the gift is from a business, does the business also do right by its customers and employees? This can be a difficult question in these days of “social justice” and many views of “justice” will be highly subjective. But it is not hard to go back to relatively recent history and find American companies that were generous donors to charitable and political causes but at the same time they were using what as close to slave labor overseas. See Zechariah 7:9-10, Micah 6:8, 1 John 3:17-18, Luke 4:18-19, and Proverbs 31:8-9 among many others and then answer this question. Is giving with the right hand when the left hand has unjustly taken from others really generosity?
The answers to those finer points will say a lot about a person’s view of giving and generosity. Part of the reason for the potential for this distinction between being a giver and being a generous person lies in the etymology of the two words. The roots of the words “give” and “generous” are entirely different. “Give” comes from the Germanic or Norse languages whereas “generous” comes from Latin. To give means generally to hand over without expecting payment, as compared to selling something. To be generous is more an act of pure goodness without any strings attached or benefit expected. The meanings sound the same but in actual practice there may be a huge difference.
The difference, as Jesus saw it, lies in the heart of the giver, whether generous or not. As always, Jesus was far more interested in heart motivations than with appearances. Matthew 5:21-48. Paul also saw the distinction in 2 Corinthians 9:7 where he encouraged people to give but wanted them to give willingly and joyfully. In context, it is clear that Paul was heartily encouraging generosity. He wanted his church in Corinth to fully understand the blessings that were available to true generous givers. See God Loves a Cheerful Giver – So Be One! for a more complete discussion of 2 Corinthians 8–9.
The hard question to answer is the personal one: “Are you a generous person or merely a giver?” As 2 Corinthians 9:7 appears to imply, maybe it is time for a heart examination and greater generosity for the things of God. For more information on generosity or on the transformation it brings about in the heart and lives of the donor and the beneficiary, call us at (813) 264-8713.
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.