When Reader’s Digest asked readers to share a time when someone took care of one of their needs, the stories poured in, proving that our world is still full of ambassadors of generosity.

Clarence recounted the frustration of leaving a shop only to realise that he had left his mobile phone and car keys in the locked car. A teenager on a bicycle noticed his distress and stopped to find out what had happened. After Clarence explained that he couldn’t call his wife on the phone and that they didn’t have another car for her to bring him the spare key, the teenager offered to go and get it for him, even though he had an 11-kilometre round trip on his bike. After an hour, the matter was resolved and the teenager refused any kind of reward, claiming it was an opportunity to get more exercise.

Jamie chose to talk about a difficult time financially. His mother was going through a divorce and her income was no longer enough to pay the bills and buy enough food. And that’s when they experienced generosity of the nicest kind—for months, until the family got back on their feet financially, boxes of food were left on their doorsteps in the morning, without the recipients ever knowing who the donor was.

Jerilynn recounts a remarkable gesture made by her co-worker as she struggled with widowhood. After her husband died unexpectedly, one of Jerilynn’s co-workers sent her a card every week for a year, with messages reassuring her that she was not alone in the whirlwind of her life.

Generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, some very creative, and the timing of its manifestation is as important as the attitude that accompanies it (there’s a reason why they say, “He who gives quickly gives twice”). The desire to help is sometimes stifled by our concern for our many (and, of course, legitimate) needs, by a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the overwhelming needs and emergencies of those around us, by the precariousness of our financial resources, or by the very narrow criteria we apply to determine who “deserves” to be helped. It is equally true that some people have had no model of generosity to follow in their formative years as adults.

Generosity is learned

A Barna report found that the majority of American Christians—and adults in general—say the reason they are generous is because they have been the beneficiaries of the generosity of others.

Nearly half of American adults (46%) say they have been the recipient of someone’s unusual generosity at least once, while 43% admit they have not had such an experience. When asked about the source from which they learned altruism, 40% of adults cite their mother and 35% their father as examples of generosity.

For practising Christians, Jesus is the best example of generosity (for 61% of respondents). Similarly, 65% of practising Christians said that they had been treated generously (and that this experience played an important role in their decision to practise generosity themselves), and 79% said that someone had taught them what it means to be generous.

Practising Christians appear to be more likely to be both initiators and recipients of acts of generosity because they belong to a religious community (which tends to emphasise themes such as gratitude or generosity), the report’s authors conclude.

As King David noted long ago, all that we possess, and therefore all that we share with others, has only one Source: “Lord our God, all this abundance … comes from your hand, and all of it is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:16).

Biblical generosity and its principles

In times of prosperity, as in times of crisis, we must live with compassionate hearts and open arms, writes Pastor Tom Nelson, pointing out that this is the way of life we were created to live by the God who made us in His image.

After the fall, selfishness infiltrated human nature, perverting it and robbing it of the blessings that come from living generously. Even for the early church Christians, of whom we have an idealised image, generosity was not an easy choice, Nelson notes, recalling that the apostle Paul repeatedly urged believers to show the same generosity with which they were treated by their Creator.

While we don’t find information in Scripture about how much we should budget for our holiday, house or wardrobe, or how much we should save or give to others, we do have clear principles about our finances, points out Christian author Amy DiMarcangelo, noting the need for frugality, a lifestyle that encourages giving, and faithful stewardship of possessions.

Generosity should not be the fruit of occasional impulses, but a conscientiously practised discipline, writes Dan Olson, director of a Christian studies centre. From a biblical perspective, generosity often involves sacrifice (the poor widow brought her last penny to the temple; the Macedonian Christians proved very generous despite their poverty). “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare,” writes C.S. Lewis about the limits of generosity Christians must show.

Generosity regardless of financial resources

“Generosity isn’t just about money.” Pastor Brent Van Mourik says he hears this slogan a lot, but he’s not sure if those who use it understand its implications. Analysing several Bible verses, Van Mourik points out that the Bible doesn’t mean to say that we need to stop helping financially, but that it talks about a generosity that goes beyond opening our wallets. And if we are to manage all our resources, of whatever kind, with the needs of others in mind, our responsibility is greater than we are used to thinking.

God expects us to be willing to give the resources He asks for (which may be the very things we have come to rely on) because “this sort of generosity is a sure-fire cure for misplaced trust,” the pastor concludes.

Christian author James Clark also writes about the limited way we view generosity, reducing it to its financial component, pointing out that we have valuable things to give whether or not we have the financial resources to meet the needs of others.

Many passages in the Bible focus on the need for a generous attitude without, in most cases, specifying a particular form of giving. Moses, for example, urges the Israelites to reach out to their brothers in need and give them what they need, whether it is a loan or a helping hand that never needs to be repaid (Deuteronomy 15:7-10). Acceptable forms of giving are tailored to the needs of those around us, concludes Clark, who lists some of the ways Christians can express generosity today—from hospitality to visiting a sick person in hospital, and from offering emotional support to donating goods or blood.

Generosity does not begin and end with money, but with understanding how God’s goodness flows into our lives, giving us more than we are worthy to receive. Because He loved us, God gave (John 3:16). Because we love Him, we too will give to Him. Not just money, but the money He needs, not just of what we have enough of, but of what little we have: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Without ever having counted my acts of generosity, I know that whatever I have given Him, He has returned to me much more, even though He owed me nothing—it is from His pocket that I give anyway, whenever I choose to do so. My needs (in which I sometimes recognise hidden desires) never end, and selfishness keeps sprouting new shoots, as I keep finding out whenever I remember to stop and reflect.

Nevertheless, whenever God (in his created beings) is hungry, suffers from cold, or does not have enough money for medicine, I look once again into my pocket (which is actually His, however confusing the logic may be), calculating according to other than mathematical rules.

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.