The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose
by Christian Smith & Hilary Davidson
This book reports the results of a carefully constructed sociological study--including both quantitative and qualitative research. In the nine different categories of life investigated, generous people had greater scores of well-being—sometimes markedly so.
The conclusion of the book states: “In offering our time, money, and energy in service of others’ well-being, we enhance our own well-being as well” (224). As a sociological study the book is first and foremost an argument with research results to back up that argument. You may think, “makes sense to me. I do not need to be convinced.” Still, there are reasons to read the book. Even if you do not find the thesis surprising you may be surprised at the width and depth of the positive impact of generosity in the giver’s life. It motivates one to generosity, but also underscores the value of encouraging generosity in those we counsel, teach and disciple. It is not a “how-to” book, but it does provide some insights on how to increase people’s level of generosity.
The look into people’s lives is reason enough to read the book. The stories and examples from their qualitative research allows one to enter into the lives of the generous and the un-generous. The authors use short real-life examples throughout the book, but they also have a few long in-depth case studies of generous and un-generous people. There is much to reflect on.
I regularly think back to the description of one un-generous family—“Doug and Michelle Arnold” (120-133). What especially stood out to me was the intentionality of their ungenerosity. It is not that they happened to be ungenerous, they had principled reasons for their stance. In their logic everyone should take care of their own needs. Doug and Michelle did not ask for help, and reasoned that others should do the same—work and take care of their problems. The Arnolds made an exception for natural disasters--occasionally giving small donations. And it is not just in relation to money, but generous actions as well. They live as autonomously from their neighbors as they can—live and let live.
Doug and Michelle openly acknowledge that their purpose in life is to make enough money to have “the good life.” According to them the good life is having financial security and enough money to support a lifestyle of leisure with modest luxuries and perhaps a weekend home by the beach. Therefore for them it is counterintuitive to give either time or resources to others. Yet as they talk about their lives there is little sense of shalom or thriving. They make a combined $115,000, but the authors observed that the Arnolds, “clearly live in a subjective state of relative deprivation, imbued with a constant sense that there is not enough money for the things they need and want” (129).
The question that keeps coming up when I think of this couple is: how might I reach out evangelistically to them? I mean that in the traditional sense of inviting them to a relationship with Jesus, but also in a broader sense of the gospel—good news. They are so far from living as Jesus did. How might I invite them to follow the ways of Jesus and become people of generosity who love their neighbors? I ask that question out of concern for them—so that they may experience some of the well-being this book describes, but also out of concern for our society. The way they are living their lives is not good for them, their neighbors, nor our society as a whole.