Generosity (Will Hignett)

Whatever generous urges that I have are greatly influenced by my parents and by my wife. In my adult life I also was attracted to and inspired by the generosity of Joseph, a man I encountered regularly while visiting my uncle in a nursing home. My uncle had developed fast progressing Alzheimer’s and it was a trying and sad experience to see this wonderful man disappearing and shrinking almost daily.

There was little brightness and hope when I visited my uncle except for Joseph who volunteered every day at this nursing home. He was retired, was a hugely positive person and used a large part of his time to benefit the needy. He spent many hours daily volunteering his time at the nursing home, going room to room to bring cheer to residents and their families, and also handing out donuts and other sweets that he’d pick up at area bakeries (where he knew the owners who donated the items). He would give these sweets to staff or occasionally to residents. He volunteered as well with his church and was an usher and deacon. He was an optimistic and happy force who I thought of as a great model of saintly habits and a force for good.

I admired him until the day he became ill himself and his health went downhill quickly. Sadly this immediately changed Joseph. It was jolting to see the rapid and troubling transformation of this man into a bitter, complaining and wicked person. Joseph felt let down by God. He would many times say as much. Although it is impossible to truly know another person, it seemed as though he felt he was going to be rewarded by all of his fine and outstanding volunteering. When he developed a very painful and energy sapping cancer his generous persona turned off and he became a nasty human being. I found it hard to witness this drastic personality change. Joseph, who was once a joy and inspiration to be around, became a person that no one, including his wife and family, wanted to be near.

I see now that what looked like generosity to my uncle and others at the nursing home may have been more of a form of self-centeredness for Joseph, or perhaps it was simply a desire to be saved or seen positively by others. If it truly was that he volunteered so much to be saved, well, as Christians know, it is not by our generosity that we are saved but by God’s. God’s blessings are not for sale -- we cannot buy them with money or good deeds. God generously gives, and we as humans exist because of God’s gifts. There really is nothing that we can give back to God, not even ourselves, since we were never our own in the first place. Doesn’t this kind of thinking make the idea of generosity more challenging?

What Joseph maybe missed was that he and we as well are God’s creation and objects of His blessing. God gives so that we can flourish and exist, but also so that we can help others exist and thrive. God gives so that we too can be givers. Not that we might be saved by our giving, as maybe Joseph believed.

The most we can do is to make ourselves available to God to be used as his instrument in the world. Again not that we are doing the Lord any favors, but as the theologian Miroslav Volf says, “We give ourselves for God’s use to benefit creation.”

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