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How to Be Generous

Nobody wants to be stingy because nobody likes a Scrooge. 

Deep down, I’m convinced we all want to be generous–if for no other reason than we were created in the image of God. And God is generous. The most quoted Bible verse of all–John 3:16–describes God as the Giver of the world’s ultimate gift.

God is generous. And his children should be like him. But sometimes it’s hard to know how to be generous and what that generosity should look like in everyday life. After all, we don’t have unlimited resources. And we sure don’t want to donate money to unscrupulous people or unreliable groups who will squander those gifts.

No wonder we have so many questions! Questions like…

  • Whom should we help? (Do we give money to people or organizations even if we’re not 100% convinced they’re going to do the best things with it?) 
  • When should we help? Is generosity more critical at certain times than others?
  • Where should we direct our giving?  Local churches and ministries? Or national organizations? Or international charities?

These are all valid questions. 

Good Stewards

I’ve had countless conversations with clients who have both the resources and the desire to give but they just aren’t sure how to go about it.  

Typically, the people who are in this position have plenty to give because they have a history of handling money wisely. They’ve been shrewd business people. Or they’ve followed biblical principles of money management. Usually, they’ve done both.

But regardless of how they acquired the resources they now want to share with others, they often freeze up because of all the questions we just cited. That’s when giving can get tricky.

Return on Investment (ROI)

If you have a business mind, it’s natural to think about ROI (return on investment). When you have a for-profit company, you try to make sure that whenever you pour money into some new venture or equipment, etc., you get good results. You want your investment to pay dividends. 

In the non-profit world, ROI is hard, if not impossible to measure. How can you quantify whether a heart has been touched, or healed, or changed? How can you possibly know right away if a mission trip “worked”? The fact is, we can’t see inside a soul–or see into the future. We don’t know when the seeds planted today will sprout and bear fruit. 

This is why we can’t really use ROI in determining the investment worthiness of a church or charity. A ministry that tries to keep prisoners from becoming repeat offenders, or one that helps at-risk kids rise above toxic family situations may not be able to show you great “success rates.”  

Does that mean we don’t invest in such organizations?  Not according to the Bible!

The Biblical Call to Generosity

We see God’s heart for broken people and for taking care of the less fortunate all through Scripture. The ancient Israelites were commanded to look after widows and orphans (Exodus 22:22), even though, as Jesus would say later, we will never completely eradicate poverty in this life (Luke 14:7). 

In another place, Jesus advocated caring for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the sick person, the individual in poverty and the person in prison (Matthew 25:31-46). In fact, he said that when we take care of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), it’s like we’re taking care of Him.

And then there’s the apostle Paul’s instruction that we are to be “cheerful” givers. (For the record, the Greek word he used there is where we get our English word hilarious). The idea is that we are to give freely, gladly, generously.

Stagnant Churches?

I’ve had some clients tell me they don’t want to give another penny to their local church. When I ask why, it’s often the same story: The church is on solid financial ground. There’s plenty of cash flow, maybe even a substantial cash reserve in the bank. So what’s the problem? 

There’s no vision! The church isn’t doing anything with all that money.

Even though we have to be careful to not get caught up in the “ROI game,” as givers we do want to see our resources used to bless others. It’s not wrong to want that. When we don’t see our church reaching out and moving forward, it’s hard to get excited about giving if all we’re doing is contributing to a growing bank account.  

I always encourage church members who are frustrated by a situation like this to share these concerns with their church leadership. Perhaps a humble, gentle, but truthful nudge–not an angry critique–can get your church to rethink their practices.

Illegitimate Charities?

What about unscrupulous charities? Sadly, they’re out there. And their existence prompts the question: How can you be sure the charity or ministry you’re investing in is doing legitimate kingdom work?  

Thankfully we have the ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) and other watchdog groups that do a good job of screening charities. 

But here’s my ultimate answer to the legitimacy question (and I’ll warn you in advance, you may not like it).  

I had a client–I’ll call him Mike–who met Ray, an inner-city ministry leader. Mike liked Ray and liked what he was doing. So much so, he decided to give him some money. 

Oddly enough, Ray turned down Mike’s contribution! He explained to Mike that the only way he would accept a gift from him was if Mike would first come see the work in person.

Mike agreed. Later, when he took the time to go see firsthand the impact Ray was having, he was flabbergasted–in a good way. He gave Mike’s organization an even bigger gift, and then he volunteered! He got personally involved in the ministry!

Since then, Mike connected me with Ray, in hopes that our team could work with him to help him get his ministry better organized.  

Do you see? Now Mike isn’t content just to throw a little money at the situation; he’s personally committed to helping meet the needs of the organization and the people it serves. He has a relationship with those involved.

It’s a perfect partnership. As is common with so many good-hearted non-profit leaders, Ray is a lover of people. He’s not so great at administration, but he’s remarkable when it comes to loving children into the kingdom of God and helping them out of the current socio-economic life they are in. 

Mike loves people too, but his real gift is having “business smarts.” And, as you can tell by the way he pulled me in to help organize the “small business” side of Ray’s work, he’s also a great networker.

There’s more. Because Mike is also generous with his financial resources, he has now funded an assistant for Ray and purchased a computer and some other things that will help Ray get more organized. All this means Ray is positioned to be able to help even more children over time!  

Investing in someone like Ray, building a ministry like his, is a slow, arduous process. From a business, ROI perspective, one could make the case that this whole ordeal is not worth the effort… but try telling that to Mike, or to all the other people that have been forever affected by this work.

Bottom line: This is the best answer I’ve found for not knowing where to give your money. Roll up your sleeves and get involved. You’ll know soon enough if a ministry is worth your investment.

I think of what James, the half-brother of Jesus, and a leader of the early church said some 20 centuries ago. He stated that “pure religion…is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27, ESV)

Notice that James didn’t say, “just write a check” or “give a one-time donation.” He uses the verb “visit.” Sending money is great. But lavish generosity goes beyond that. The ideal is to get involved. Give, not just your treasure, but your time and talents too.

That is when we really experience the truth of Jesus’s words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35, ESV)

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