Galatians 5 tells us that it’s obvious when we’re living by the Holy Spirit, which is that aspect of God that lives and moves within each of us. When that spirit is at work in and among us, it inspires us to act with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are God’s gifts to us, and our gifts to each other. Today, I’d like to look at generosity—the gift of giving—God’s astonishing generosity toward us, and how we can be the hands and voices of God’s generosity for others.
Back in 1992, a Baptist minister and marriage counselor named Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages. His theory is that people express and experience love in five distinct and different ways, which he calls “love languages.” These are:
And Chapman has set up a series of quizzes so you can confirm what your own primary language is, and also your secondary language, because many people have two.
So we can imagine a person named Kris, who is in a relationship, and Kris experiences love as acts of service, and so Kris express love by doing the laundry while Pat naps. If Pat speaks the same language, Pat may mow the lawn for Kris. And they will both understand that these acts they do for each other are ways of saying “I love you,” and they will both feel loved.
But if Pat experiences love as Words of Affirmation, Pat will assume Kris is merely taking on a share of the household chores, as Kris should, and Pat will feel hurt that there are never any compliments, no statements of love, no tender words. So Pat feels unloved, and Kris feels unappreciated. And Chapman believes that this kind of misinterpretation is at the root of most relationship problems.
So to help solve these problems, Chapman advocates finding out what “love language” your partner understands, and learning to use it, even if it feels foreign to you. His weekly blog offers small ways you can use love languages that may not be native to you, ways that you can practice them.
Chapman originally intended his book to help married couples. He has since expanded his scope to include parents and children, single people, friends, co-workers, and even the military.
Notice that each of these languages involves an act of generosity—that is, a conscious decision to look for what the other person needs and wants, and to do our best to give it to them.
And notice also that only one of these languages of generosity involves giving stuff—and even in that one, giving a gift might be something as simple as “I thought of you at lunch today and so I brought you home my chocolate chip cookie because I know how much you love them.”
One of the great Torah scholars of all time was a man named Maimonedes, who lived in Spain during the 1100s. One of his more familiar accomplishments—familiar to us, now—is an analysis of different kinds of generosity, ranked from least valuable to most valuable. Number eight on his list—that is, the bare minimum of generosity—is giving reluctantly, with a bad attitude. It’s better than not giving, but not by much. And that implies that real generosity means that we are glad to give, happy to help, joyful in making the other person happy.
This is because generosity is as much about sharing ourselves as it is about sharing our possessions. Maybe more so. Being generous means we have to open our hearts to our partners, both to give them what they need and to receive what we need—and by “partner” here, we’re talking about spouses, life partners, children, parents, friends, work colleagues, and people out in the rest of the world. Your encounter with a partner might be for a lifetime, or it might be just long enough to acknowledge their existence with a smile or a friendly word.
And one of the reasons generosity is joyful is because we have received so much, because our God is the essence of generosity.
Each of us is the recipient of uncountable blessings, starting with the fact that we exist at all, that we survived our birth and babyhood, that we made it to this age, this place, this moment where we are sitting or standing right now. God, who is our Creator and Sustainer, has been showing us immeasurable love in all the love languages we can use, and a lot more we don’t even know about. Let’s look at those languages again. And if you feel like calling out ways you’ve experienced these languages, please do! I’ll leave a little time between each of them for you to share.
Physical Touch? Puppies and purring cats. A newborn grasping our finger, the feeling of walking barelegged through long grass, the warmth of a fire…and hugs, and handshakes, pats on the back, a hand on your arm or around your shoulders, high fives.
Words of Affirmation? The Bible is full of them. Our hymnbooks are full of them. If you grew up in a church, you know “Jesus Loves Me.” I heard that sung at an African American church tea party a year ago, and it touched me and moved me, and I knew it was true, because the singer knew it was true, and she let us all know it. God is Love, and that love is for you, for your beautiful, valuable, loveable self. Can you open your ears, can you open your heart, and hear that message?
Acts of Service? God has been working through our teachers and parents and caregivers, our friends and other loved ones, and millions of strangers…and through the ways we all take care of each other in a functioning society. So many, many ways God works in and through us to perform acts of service for each other.
Receiving Gifts? Where do we start? Mount Rainier. Sunsets. The Milky Way. Blackberries. A lightning storm for your viewing pleasure. This beautiful region we live in! The miracle of clean water. Aspirin. Life itself.
Quality Time? A walk in the woods, as your blood pressure lowers and your breathing deepens, and your eyes and heart fill with green life. A quiet evening to meditate on the power of love. This church, where we sacrifice our Sunday mornings to spend time together. Sleep, and good dreams.
These are some of the ways God lets us know and experience God’s love, in all the ways we can understand. And every act of generosity you and I perform, every gift we give, every honest compliment, every hug, every sit-down-and-listen time, every task we offer to do for our fellow humans, is a way of paying God forward.
You’re probably familiar with that concept—paying it forward, rather than paying it back, but just in case you’re not, here’s how it works. This happened to me a few years ago.
I was waiting to be checked out at the grocery store, and as soon as I’d piled all my groceries onto the conveyor belt and they were on their way to the cash register, I realized that I’d left my wallet at home.
Well, maybe we can put the groceries aside somewhere, and I’ll go home and get it?
Don’t do that, said the woman just in front of me. She had just finished paying for her own groceries. I’ll buy them for you. I can do that.
I was surprised and a little shocked. I can’t let you do that! I said.
But I’m happy to do it, and I have the money. Why not?
Well, it’s going to be about forty dollars, I said. Can you give me your phone number, so I can arrange to pay you back?
That’s fine, she said. You don’t need to do that. You’ll do it for someone else, won’t you?
Of course, I said. And I did. There was no shortage of opportunities. I never had a chance to buy anyone’s groceries for them, but I found other ways to pay it forward.
So, this is what that other scripture is about—the odd little story we heard, from the Gospel of Mark. It’s a short little parable. There’s not much to it. A farmer goes outdoors, scatters some seeds on the ground, walks away, and goes about daily life. And the seeds grow, as seeds do, and the plants get tall, as plants do, and eventually the farmer comes back with a sickle, as farmers do, and harvests the grain. The End.
But Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven looks like.
The kingdom of heaven—or the kin-dom, that is, the family or community of heaven, as some of us are calling it—is a state of being in which we humans help each other to flourish, that is, we help each other become our best selves, to experience and pass on the boundless and creative love that is God. We help each other become a little more like God, by acting out the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by paying God forward.
And so we scatter our small seeds of relationship—those actions in which we see and acknowledge the humanity of our partners in living, including those we know intimately and those we meet only briefly. And then those seeds grow, and someone who feels seen and loved and acknowledged can then pay that action forward, and gradually the community of love grows and expands and flourishes.
This is how the gifts of the Holy Spirit work in and through us to build the family of heaven, one generous act at a time.
The God of Love is infinitely generous to us. So may we each and all be blessed with so many opportunities to be generous, to pay forward God’s astonishing love! And may the family of heaven grow, through our acts of generosity.