By David Hegg
For most of society, hearing a clergyman announce that he intends to speak about generosity drives them to guard their wallets. Not without good reason, many think of the church as only interested in their money. But trying to solve and shape that discussion can wait for another day. My interest here is on the other side of the coin. I want to explore why it is that most of us find it hard to accept generosity with simple sincerity.
Let’s start at the shallow end of the generosity pool with the topic of compliments. Why do we find it so hard to accept a compliment simply, and without trying to fend it off? Have you ever noticed that when someone offers a compliment, the receiver more often than not tries to undo it? If someone likes our clothing, we respond by telling that it was really on sale. Or if someone compliments our singing or playing or speaking, we try to downplay it. Why do we find it so hard to simply say, “Thank you?”
Have you ever received an unexpected gift? If you’re like me you immediately begin thinking about giving something in return. I call it the “Christmas Card Shuffle.” You know, after you send out all your cards, you get one from someone not on your list and you feel obligated to send them one as well.
This whole idea that it is hard to be on the receiving end of generosity was recently brought home to me. My wife and I were graciously gifted a vacation stay in Oregon by some friends who own a cabin there. They offered us a few weeks for free and we took them up on the offer. When we arrived, we found that the “cabin” was actually a lovely three-bedroom home, with all the amenities, beautifully situated in a fantastic resort village. We were shocked and amazed, and thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
But it was more than that. We immediately started thinking about how we could repay their kindness. We considered all kinds of ways to express our thanks, and somehow show them that we weren’t freeloaders.
It hit me just how hard it is to receive love with no strings attached in this world where everything seems to come with strings. It is even harder to accept what we don’t think we deserve. After all, the only ones in our society who get things for nothing are the criminals and the governmentally dependent, and we don’t want to be seen in that light.
Now, just know that we did express our thanks to our friends in a tangible way. After all, gratitude is an essential societal value. But, even as we put together a nice package of sincere thankfulness, I reflected on the simple joy of being on the receiving end of great generosity.
We’ve all been shaped by the ideas that you get what you pay for, you have to pull your own strings, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. While all of these are true in some way, together they help drain away an important concept in our society. That concept is the ability to simply and sincerely accept love and the packages in which our benefactors wrap it.
In the realm of theology we have the same problem. God’s generosity is understood as his grace, which comes to us though we don’t deserve it. God’s grace can’t be earned, purchased, or merited. That’s what grace is: undeserved kindness in the place of deserved judgment. And yet we look a gracious God in the face and say, “Wait, let me dig in my pockets and find a way to buy your love. Or let me earn it by my righteousness.” It must seem pretty silly, even quite sad, to God as he watches us try to leverage his love with our works when all the while he offers it for free.
True generosity is an extension of love. It isn’t a loan, or the first step in quid pro quo. Those who are sincerely generous find great joy in giving as an extension of their own character. It brings them joy to do so, and while our first reaction is to make excuses, or contemplate a payback, the better response is honest gratitude for their undeserved gift.
So, the next time someone compliments you, try just saying “thanks.” And the next time someone who loves you showers their generosity on you, just revel in it. You can think of ways to be generous in your gratitude later, since grace is never meant to be repaid and its magnificence is diminished when we try to do so, whether it comes from our friends, or from our God.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.