What Is “Generosity”? The modern English word “generosity” derives from the Latin word generōsus, which means “of noble birth.” That Latin word was passed down to English through the Old French word genereus, later généreux (“noble, magnanimous”). The Latin stem gener- is the declensional stem of genus, meaning “kin,” “clan,” “race,” or “stock,” with the root Indo-European meaning of gen being “to beget.” The same root gives us the words “genesis,” “gentry,” “gender,” “genital,” “gentile,” “genealogy,” and “genius,” among others. Most recorded English uses of the word “generous” up to and during the sixteenth century reflect an aristocratic sense of being of noble lineage or high birth.
To describe someone as generous was literally a way of saying “to belong to nobility.” During the seventeenth century, however, the meaning and use of the word began to change. Generosity came increasingly to identify not literal family heritage, but rather a nobility of spirit thought to be associated with high birth—that is, with various admirable qualities that could vary from person to person, depending not on family history but on whether a person actually possessed the qualities.
In this way, “generosity,” in seventeenth-century English, increasingly signified a variety of traits of character and action historically associated (whether accurately or not) with the ideals of actual nobility: gallantry, courage, strength, richness, gentleness, and fairness. In addition to describing these diverse human qualities, “generous” also became a word during this period used to describe fertile land, the strength of animal breeds, abundant provisions of food, vibrancy of colors, the strength of liquor, and the potency of medicine.
Generosity Is Paradoxical (Part 1)
Those who give, receive back in turn. By spending ourselves for others’ well-being, we enhance our own standing. In letting go of some of what we own, we better secure our own lives. By giving ourselves away, we ourselves move toward flourishing. This is not only a philosophical or religious teaching; it is a sociological fact. The generosity paradox can also be stated in the negative.
By grasping onto what we currently have, we lose out on better goods that we might have gained. In holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word “miser” is etymologically related to the word “miserable.”
Generosity Is Paradoxical (Part 2)
In recent years, I (Smith) have been leading a study called the “Science of Generosity Initiative” at the University of Notre Dame, in which I (Davidson) have been deeply involved. In that study, we have been conducting a nationally representative survey of Americans’ practices and beliefs about generosity, hundreds of interviews with Americans around the country on generosity, and participant-observation studies of local religious congregations.
…What we have learned is the following. First, the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy. This association between generous practices and personal well-being is strong and highly consistent across a variety of types of generous practices and measures of well-being.
Second, we have excellent reason to believe that generous practices actually create enhanced personal well-being. The association between generosity and well-being is not accidental, spurious, or simply an artifact of reverse causal influence.
…Third, the way Americans talk about generosity confirms and illustrates the first two points. The paradox of generosity is evident in the lives of Americans. Fourth, despite all of this, it turns out that many Americans fail to live generous lives. A lot of Americans are indeed very generous—but even more are not. And so the latter are deprived, by their lack of generosity, of the greater well-being that generous practices would likely afford them.
The Generosity of Oseola McCarty
Generosity is not strictly for those who have material abundance. Because Oseola McCarty recognized this truth, the world is a better place. Born in 1908 in rural Mississippi, she quit school after sixth grade to support her ailing aunt, spending the rest of her life as a washerwoman. She never married, lived quietly in her community, and attended church regularly with a Bible held together with Scotch tape.
Throughout the years, the people of Hattiesburg paid her in coins and dollar bills to keep them looking freshly pressed. She found immense dignity in her work, noting that hard work gives life meaning. “I start each day on my knees, saying the Lord’s Prayer. Then I get busy about my work.” In 1995, at the age of eighty-six, she contacted the University of Southern Mississippi to let them know she would be donating a portion of her life savings to fund scholarships for African-American students to receive the education she had missed—a sum of $150,000. “More than I could ever use.
I know it won’t be too many years before I pass on,” she said, “and I just figured the money would do them a lot more good than it would me.” Oseola McCarty, child of poverty and child of God, wanted to do good, and generously so. Praise God. Those who know good awaits them in heaven can afford to be generous on earth. They lose nothing in the giving of what has been given to them.
Giving Away Lobsters
My friend James Crocker, a successful entrepreneur, recently shared a story with me…James and a few of his friends went out on a boat trip to fish for lobsters and had succeeded in gathering a maassive catch of 125 lobsters.
When he got home, he had a freezer full of lobsters—more than enough to last him an entire year. The day after James got home, his friend Jeff dropped by the house, and James offered him a lobster. Jeff was delighted. This interaction prompted James to ask himself, Who else do I know who might like to have a lobster? James got so excited by the idea of giving friends lobsters that by the end of the week, he had given away 122 lobsters, leaving only three for himself. He had such a great time giving, he didn’t even mind that his supply had dwindled from enough for a year to enough for a meal.
A few days later, James went into his garage and was assaulted by a terrible stench. He followed his nose to the freezer and opened it to find that the electricity had gone out, and his remaining three lobsters had spoiled. As he cleaned up the mess, he felt sorry for himself. But then he remembered all the lobsters he had given away, and it gave him great joy. If he hadn’t shared his bounty with others, all of it would have been wasted.
The Giving Path
In More Give to Live, Dr. Douglas Lawson provides evidence that the urge toward generosity begins early in life. He describes a continuum that he calls the “Giving Path.” This path begins with parents teaching and modeling examples of generous behavior. When the children are old enough to go to school, the Giving Path continues, with teachers and religious instructors reinforcing principles of generous behavior.
Eventually children begin to give and to share on their own, using their own resources to help those in need. In their teen years, they embark on volunteer service—perhaps a homebuilding project or spending time with mentally or physically disabled persons. These patterns continue into adulthood. Sharing resources becomes a natural part of a life, a responsibility that is not burdensome, but is rather accepted and even welcomed.
The Giving Society
I attended a gathering of givers where we took turns telling our stories. The words fun, joy, exciting, and wonderful kept surfacing. There were lots of smiles, laughter, and tears of joy. One older couple shared how they travel around the world, participating in the ministries they give to. Meanwhile, their home is becoming run-down. They said, “Our children tell us, ‘Fix up your house or buy a new one. You can afford it.’ We tell them, ‘Why would we do that?
That’s not what excites us!’ ” Ray Berryman, CEO for a national municipal services firm, says he and his wife give at least half of their income to God’s work each year. “My joy in giving comes from serving God in a way that I know He’s called me to and realizing that what I give is impacting people for Christ,”
Ray says. “It’s exciting to know we’re part of evangelizing, discipling, helping, and feeding the needy. It just feels wonderful.” The more we give, the more we delight in our giving. It pleases us. But more important, it pleases God. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). However, the cheerfulness often comes during and after the act of obedience, not before it. So don’t wait until you feel like giving! Just give and watch the joy follow.
God’s Abundant Provision in Genesis 2
There is a tendency among readers and scholars of Genesis 2:16-17 to focus on the prohibition of verse 17: “but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.”
…I want to pause to consider with you verse 16: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden.”
We have already learned in Genesis 2 that God “made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (2:9). Now we hear that the man, and by implication all human beings, may eat the fruit from every single tree in the garden, save one. God is giving us all kinds of fruit from all kinds of trees, inviting us to enjoy it. The Hebrew phrase which could be rendered literally as “from all the trees of the garden to eat you may eat” underscores the opportunity and freedom for human beings. We may “freely eat” the fruit of every single tree, with one exception.
I’m struck here by this picture of God’s generosity. God did not give us just one kind of tree with one kind of fruit. God did not provide just what we need to survive. Rather, God created a great variety of trees with a great variety and quantity of fruit. If you’ll permit me to read into the text a bit, God created apple trees and orange trees, lemon trees and pineapple trees, cherry trees and plum trees, almond trees and coconut trees, peach trees and pear trees, pecan trees and olive trees. (If I have missed your favorite fruit tree, please add it to the list!)
God made all of this variety and then said, not, “Eat just what you need” but “Freely eat” from all of this. “And as you enjoy the taste and benefit from the nutrition, enjoy the beauty of the tree as well, not to mention its shade.”
Many Christians were raised in homes and churches in which God was not seen to be generous. God was stingy, giving us only what we really need and no more.
Moreover, God was the rule maker, who formed our lives principally by telling us what not to do.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on generosity. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!