We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, 6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.2 Corinthians 8:1-6
Generosity is one of those words that has a great range in meaning. We can talk about generosity of spirit as a sort of general quality of a person, or we can talk about specific acts of generosity. But in the end, being a generous person tends to be synonymous with being kind, and doing nice things for other people. The problem with this definition, however, is that we tend to think about generosity in terms of how it others evaluate our actions or disposition. In other words, we tend to take generosity as a measure of our intrinsic moral virtue as seen by others. As we have already seen in this letter, this sort of understanding is problematic for the rich and refined community in Corinth.
In contrast with this definition of generosity, consider Pauls’ conception in this letter. The kind of generosity Paul lifts up in this letter isn’t just a kind, second thought that leads us to do nice things for others. Generosity, deep generosity, is rooted in our shared experience of the overflowing grace we have already received in Jesus Christ. In other words, generosity, true generosity is measured in relation to Christ and what Christ produces in us, not ourselves or in comparison to others’ expectations.
Again, think back to Paul’s experience with the community in Corinth and the need for this letter illustrate the distinction I am trying to make. If you will remember, we picked this passage up early in the series as we discussed chapter 1, verse 23 through chapter two, verse 4. At that early point in the letter, it was clear that Paul was taking up a defense of himself and his ministry on a few points. One, he was delayed for reasons beyond his control; God had other plans. Two, the wound in his relationship with the community was still deep given his previous visit and letters, and the timing wasn’t right. Third, there was the matter of his pressing work in Macedonia and the offering he was taking up for the Jerusalem church, stricken as it was by famine and hardship.
After his defense of himself, his ministry, and his co-workers previously in the letter, while also giving a renewed appeal to the community in Corinth of his understanding of the power of the good news about Jesus, he returns to explain in greater detail all that went into his travel plans, and what he suffered for the sake of the Gospel. Now in chapter 8, Paul turns the corner to take up the issue of the offering with the wealthy Corinthian community. It appears as if this rich community, by the relative standard of Christians in the 1st century, had made certain pledges and promises to help their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, but because of the conflict with Paul, were going back on their promises.
In response, Paul uses these first six verses to challenge the Corinthians to examine themselves by measuring themselves relative to others in their region. Corinth was a top spot for commerce, culture, and wealth in the ancient world, and giving should have been easy for this community. So what do you do when those who can don’t? You challenge them exactly at their point of pride, their wealth, especially since we fallen human beings tend to measure our wealth and status relative to how others are doing. In other words, Paul challenges the community’s standards of generosity, as typically conceived so as to show how they fall short even of their own paltry measures.
It turns out that poorer regions in Macedonia, particularly church communities like those in Thessalonica, had really outdone themselves, giving in ways they should have not been capable of, if we are measuring by worldly wisdom. Paul outlines this in this passage, even using elaborate language in verses three and four to describe how these poor Christians were even begging Paul to take their offering to share with brothers and sisters in need in Jerusalem. To put it another way, the poor have outgiven the rich, shaming the Corinthian community’s conception of itself.
Nonetheless, Paul goes further. It isn’t enough to simply stop at typical measures and estimations of generosity. Yes, he has shamed them, but he wants them to think much deeper at what generosity really is, and who is its true measure. The deep logic of generosity that Paul describes the Christian communities in Macedonia as having is ultimately rooted in Jesus Christ. Paul tells us in verse 5 that they gave of themselves, or out of the deepest pockets of their personal resources, both monetary and personal, because they were dedicated with everything they had to the Lord. Committed to Jesus because of what they had already received, their offerings to Paul for the sake of the Gospel was just the natural outflowing of this first commitment.
In other words, deep generosity is the natural response when we truly know the great riches we already possess in Christ, not how others will perceive the giving of our gifts, or our own internal/external comparisons. What is money compared to the grace of God? Money is, from this perspective, the easiest thing to give. In the end, what we have been given in Christ transcends such measures because (and this is key) his life in us generates and brings to life the love already planted in our hearts by the One who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).
By this measure, generosity isn’t a kind disposition of doing kind things. True generosity is to bear the fruit planted deep in our hearts, acting in accord with the generative and life-giving Spirit at work in us, uniting us to Christ. To put it as Paul himself does in Galatians 5:25, “since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Generosity, seen this way, is a fruit of the regenerative work of Christ in the lives of his people, as easy and as natural to them as breathing.
Here, I conclude with a question: is it easy for you to give? I don’t ask this to accuse you, but to have you genuinely reflect on the matter. Personally, there are times I find myself pulling back, both in terms of my checkbook, as well as myself – my time, my attention, my heart. We aren’t anyone’s saviors, to be sure, and we all fall short.
But it is at those point when I feel myself pulling back that I need to remember that God has already been overwhelmingly generous to me, and anything I have or can give is but a paltry sum compared to His immeasurable grace. In fact, I would even argue that giving, itself, is a spiritual discipline, one that calls us to cast down our pride, our fearful clutching of checkbooks, and our uncertainty so that we might grow in greater confidence in God’s ability to provide, and the depths of riches that God has yet to reveal to each of us.
In other words, the more we learn to give ourselves away, the more we understand what we have in Jesus and live into the powerful witness of his Spirit at work in us, and the less it hurts us to kick against the goads (Acts 26:14). True generosity produces life, and lessens our desire to hang on to the things that must ultimately pass away.