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April-May 2015

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Devising Generosity

By Brenda Evans

I love dictionaries: my red, grease-smudged Webster’s, my computer’s New Oxford American, my husband’s collection of Bible dictionaries, and even those maybe-they-are-reliable-and-maybe-they-are-not online resources. So when I recently started thinking about generosity, I went to my dictionaries, but only after turning to Scripture first, because the prophet Isaiah had already been goading me about what generosity really means: “A generous man devises generous things” (Isaiah 32:8).

My elementary teacher, Emma Groves, told us never to define a word by using a form of the word, so I went to the dictionaries. Generosity, I discovered, is about the readiness to give or help and about the art of being plentiful, open-handed, liberal and noble, as opposed to mean or low. It’s also about action, as G. H. Gerberding says, “A liberal soul carries a blessing with him.”

Generosity moves us out of ourselves and toward a noble conscience and character that mulls over the needs of others. Remember how, one Sabbath day, Jesus scolded the small-hearted leader of the synagogue whose mind could easily settle on his thirsty donkey, but could ignore the suffering woman who had been bent and crippled for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17)? That man certainly carried no blessing with him. So I went back to Isaiah 32:8: “a generous man devises generous things.”


Just how does a person become generous?

John MacArthur points out that generosity comes from “that which is within” (Luke 11:41). His point is that giving begins as a heart-and-mind intersection that conceives and designs generous things. Which means we must guard against having the cold eye, closed hand, and “brightly sceptical” and “belittling” attitude that Triptweeze touts in Screwtape Letters. Triptweeze (Screwtape, too, of course) would like us Christians to be silent when we ought to speak, and to laugh when we ought to be silent. For devilish purposes, it is good for a person to think only of himself, never of others.

The Bible is replete with stories of people giving from within. For example, generosity flourished during Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It’s such an unlikely place with its physical barrenness and deprivation. The Sinai Peninsula had no storage units, and certainly no refrigerators for extra quail and manna. But Moses reported in Exodus that the people repeatedly gave generously during the building of the tabernacle. Who were these givers? Everyone “whose heart was stirred...and whose spirit was willing,” Moses says. A giver is an individual whose heart and mind (emotion and will) converge to see the need and are “lifted up” to generosity. Both commentators and translators note that the concept of lifting up is a quality of heart and mind that births noble generosity that moves people away from a focus on self to a focus on the needs of others.

Again in Exodus, and later in Leviticus, the Lord commands this purposeful liberality of soul. In Exodus 23 and Leviticus 19 and 25, Moses gave clear exhortations for how to design just and compassionate judgments and provisions for the poor. Partiality either for or against the poor in matters of law is forbidden. If a man falls into poverty, he must be given help. Gleanings must be left in the field for hungry neighbors and strangers. Where Triptweeze would belittle and sneer, God’s people must deal nobly and generously.

Before the Lord allowed the wanderers to enter their Promised Land of milk and honey, he recapitulated his laws, including those on just and noble generosity. Moses’ record in Deuteronomy 15 is an example. At the end of every seven years, a lender was required to surrender his claim and give “the Lord’s release” to any neighbor or brother who owed him money (15:1-2). Or if a man had a Hebrew bondservant, he had to release him in the seventh year, and he could not send the freed man away empty-handed. He was required to supply him generously with sheep or goats, grain, and wine, remembering his own servitude in Egypt (15:12-15). In addition, an Israelite was never to harden his heart or close his hand against those in need. “For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy’” (15:11). Or as commentator C. F. Keil translates the concept in another place, “let your hearts and minds work together to drive you to act nobly and purposefully to serve the needs of others.”


If the Lord’s commands do not motivate us, what will?

In 2013, American individuals, corporations, and foundations gave $335 billion to charities. Individuals, however, were responsible for 75% of that amount, according to a study by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Giving USA Foundation. What made us give? According to the Lilly study, a large number said it was their responsibility to give, and they believed their giving would make a difference. Some gave for personal satisfaction or were on a board or a volunteer for the charity and believed in its cause. Others gave simply because they were asked. Only about 40% gave because of religious beliefs.

Other studies at University of Chicago, George Mason, Yale, and Harvard add more insight. Not surprisingly, heart-tugging human-interest stories spur giving, along with advertising a gift from a big-name donor. Public recognition, getting a name out there as a donor, and social media pressure motivates some people. Others give because it makes them “feel good,” like a surge of the pleasure chemical dopamine. Not all reasons for giving are noble and good, though I think they should be.

How then do we become, as Isaiah 32:8 says, generous people who devise generous things?

First, assess our motives.

  • Am I obeying a scriptural mandate?

  • Am I making a measured decision from a biblical convergence of volition and emotion?

  • Am I fulfilling a duty or responsibility?

  • Am I looking for commendation or public recognition?

  • Am I mostly considering the social or political rewards I will get?

  • Am I making a show of my generosity (See Isaiah 58)?

  • Am I consuming myself what I could be giving?

Next, determine how to give with generosity. I could talk about percentages here, and I do believe in tithing, but a tithe is where we start, not where we end. Beyond the tithe are offerings where we can (and should) devise “the generous things” Isaiah described. Regarding the poor and needy, C. S. Lewis said, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare…. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small” (Mere Christianity).

I don’t have all the answers about generosity. But I can say here at the end of my thoughts that we should commit ourselves to being like the person G. H. Gerberding described: a liberal soul who brings a blessing to others.


About the Writer: Brenda Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Learn more at



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