What we can learn from Apostle Paul about generosity in hard times

(Photo: Unsplash/Chungkuk Bae)

We can find lots of reasons to get depressed at the moment; none of us are immune to 'a fit of the blues'. But in spite of the deluge of dismal news that threatens to overwhelm us on a daily basis, I've discovered that there is plenty to cheer us up too.

I have been particularly encouraged recently by some amazing acts of generosity as both individuals and groups, (Christian, non-Christian and avowedly atheist!) have reached out to show their care for others. In doing so, they have reminded me of my favourite New Testament letter which has a lot to teach us about generosity

The Apostle Paul was in prison and facing possible execution when he wrote a 'thank you' note to his friends in Philippi. They had sent him a very welcome gift, although there was a sense in which he said he did not need it! It seems that he had reached that enviable stage in life where he could describe himself as a 'contented' man.

It may be few in our culture who could echo that sentiment because most of us seem to think that contentment is related to what we have. But as may rich people will attest, wealth does not necessarily bring contentment. The fabulously wealthy industrialist JD Rockefeller understood this. When asked how much money it takes to make someone happy, he famously replied "Just one more dollar".

Paul's contentment was related to his faith and not the size of his bank balance or the type of car he had in the garage. Having said that it is perfectly obvious that his friends' generosity was a source of constant blessing. It's a reminder that the help we give to others can prove hugely encouraging.

I will never forget the anonymous gift of £20 that was pushed through my door when I was training for Baptist ministry, for example, just as I will always treasure the monthly gifts we received from a very small church in Gwent. We had no guaranteed source of income at the time and kindnesses such as this shaped my faith and the way I preach for the rest of my life.

But Paul said something else that is very interesting too. He told them that their generosity would not go unrewarded, and he wasn't afraid to afraid use commercial language to spell that truth out either. One translation puts it this way: "My concern is that you should have a healthy profit balance showing up on your account." 

Now don't get me wrong. Paul wasn't telling them they could buy their way into heaven, and he certainly wasn't trying to tell them that God wants every Christian to be rich. He was merely pointing out that our giving never goes unnoticed (even when it is done secretly) and that it will inevitably bring its rewards. Jesus made the same point when he said that even a cup of cold water would not go unnoticed or unrewarded.

So, what are the rewards? Well, I would suggest that the satisfaction of seeing hungry people fed, homeless people housed and people coming to faith is reward enough. Generosity feels good for the simple reason that we are being true to ourselves. After all we have been created in the image of an unbelievably generous God.

But there is more. We can be remembered for our generosity too, just as these believers in Philippi were. Then there is the tantalising prospect of what it will mean when we finally stand before Him. And let's not forget that the best gifts are those that are given 'in secret' without any attempt to make headlines or earn public praise.

Most importantly of all though, Paul told his friends that God thinks generosity 'smells' good. That might sound a strange thing to say but Paul was using an image that was familiar to those acquainted with the temple worship of his day. Their gifts, he explained, were like a "fragrant offering" (literally the aroma of a sweet smell).

Interestingly Paul used the same imagery in another one of his letters when he was reflecting on the sacrifice Jesus made at that cross. That was a remarkable thing for him to say because no one understood the magnitude of the cross more than the Apostle Paul. The death of Jesus dominated his whole life. Indeed, it gripped him like a vice (2 Corinthians 5), yet he was quite willing to tell his friends that their kindness reminded him of God's unbelievable generosity too.

All of this came to mind when I had to put the rubbish out the other day and the stench was quite off-putting. I get the feeling that God reacts to miserliness and stinginess in the same way, just as He finds our acts of kindness as appealing as I find the smell of a freshly cooked curry.