Almost every religion grapples with the meaning of giving and receiving, generosity and greed. How do these things add up for the believer?
Earlier this week, not long after daybreak, I had gone to a local coffee shop to participate in a Bible study. As I approached the counter to place my order, the barista handed me a large cup of coffee and informed me that somebody else in the group had already paid for me. I looked around at the group, not knowing who to thank, and offered a word of gratitude to my nameless benefactor, who never took credit.
My day had begun with great coffee that came as unexpected gift. Furthermore, as I participated in the hour-long Bible study, I realized that I was also the recipient of the leader’s careful study, organization and learning. By 8 a.m. as I rode my bicycle back home, I realized that it was going to be one of those days that would end with me more on the receiving end of life than on the giving end.
And so most religions try to help people live daily lives in such a way that they are gracious receivers and generous givers, the two actions as closely related as inhaling and exhaling. Breathing needs both, and to over-emphasize one over the other is unhealthy.
I would love to conclude each day believing I had been more giver than receiver, but it more often feels to me like the reverse is true. The old saying that a person can’t out-give God comes to mind. I’m not even sure that a person can out-give other persons, especially if one becomes acutely aware of how much of life consists of receiving.
If some “generosity accountant” could tote up your pluses and minuses for each day of generous or self-centered living, where would you find yourself on each evening’s balance sheet? What kind of accounting rule would you use to compute the love of a parent, grandparent or mentor? Would that parental love be depreciated over the years or increase in value? Would an act of self-centered greed leave one in a deficit on the generosity ledger, or could a person take a one time write-off of such an act?
As I returned to my house after Bible study I knew that, no matter how hard I tried, I was going to end that day on the receiving side of the ledger. Scheduled for later that same day would be the birth (by c-section) of my first grandchild, a gift so enormous that I knew that I could never end that day in the “plus column” on giving to others.
Even that is OK, because another task of religion is to teach believers to be gracious receivers. Nobody can be “ahead” on the giving side every day. Even the richest, most powerful people can be — and must be — gracious, sincere receivers.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.