Will generosity change the world?
The film Pay It Forward was not a great box office success, earning only a modest return for its producers in 2000. Yet the concept of the film had a good feel and was full of optimism.
What will change the world?
A schoolteacher places a challenge before his Year 7 students to think of an idea that would change the world. One of his pupils takes up this challenge and suggests that the world would be better if one person did an unsolicited, good deed to three strangers, then they in turn would be inspired to do the same to three other strangers and thus “pay it forward”. The geometric progression of such random acts of generosity over time would have a beneficial effect upon a whole society.
Alas, the critics did not always feel the same glow that the film wished to evoke in its viewers, as evidenced by Roger Ebert’s dismissive review.
"Someone does you a good turn. You pass it on to three other people. They pass it on. Moreover, what a wonderful world this will be. That is the theory behind Pay It Forward, a movie that might have been more entertaining if it did not believe it. It is a seductive theory, but in the real world, altruism is less powerful than selfishness, greed, nepotism, xenophobia, tribalism and paranoia. If you doubt me, take another look at the front pages."
Generosity is fruit
The word “generosity” does not appear in English translations of the Bible, but the concept is readily conveyed by the language of kindness, goodness and love. In fact, each of these is named in Paul’s list of nine characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.
That the apostle describes them as “fruit” of the Spirit, rather than “fruits” of the Spirit, suggests that each of these virtues ought to characterise the Christian life: love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. We cannot pick and choose by saying: “I have joy and peace, but neither patience nor self-control”. Rather, Paul is inviting his readers to consider if they truly have the Spirit, for if they do, then his presence will be redolent in their lives displaying all nine virtues.
The Spirit of which he speaks is the Spirit of the ascended Christ: those who abide in him will bear much fruit (John 15:5). It is not a bad test, therefore, to ask those closest to you if they see the fruit of the Spirit in your life – specifically ask them if they see each of these nine virtues.
Generosity ought to characterise Christian lives, displaying the Spirit’s fruit of kindness, goodness and love. Yet it needs to be intentional. This is not the same as being forced or coerced to perform acts of generosity – or worse, to do so out of guilt. Rather it is to reflect and display our heavenly Father’s generous love, as we have seen it in his bounty towards us in Christ.
How often are you generous?
In many discipleship courses, a high regard is placed upon the number of times we share our faith, yet I wonder if we value as highly the number of times we perform acts of generosity, of kindness, gentleness and love.
Recently at a church, I listened to a gentleman describe how he had walked past a person in the street asking for some money. He had initially walked on, but remembered the sermon on the good Samaritan the previous Sunday, so he turned back and gave the man all the small change he had in his pocket. An act of kindness.
In the same conversation a lady recounted how at a train terminal overseas, she was trying to buy a ticket from the machine, when a complete stranger came up and helped her, even inserting his own money into the machine. Before she could thank him and return his money, he was gone. Yet, three weeks later, she was at the same terminal and saw a person having the same difficulty as she had experienced, so she quickly offered her assistance and gave the man the money for the ticket. An act of kindness.
Acts of generosity, however, are not only acts of financial giving, but the attitudes we display to others. Whether it be in our family, our church, our workplace or on public transport, we can show forth the fruit of the Spirit in our behaviour. This may be a word of encouragement, a smile on our face, a loving response to criticism, patiently giving of our time to others in need ̶ to all people, not just our fellow Christians.
Such acts of generosity can make a difference in the world, seeking no honour or reward other than the joy of giving glory to God. In Peter’s words: “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles… that they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).