Guest post from Randy Alcorn, excerpted and adapted by Unfolding Faith, from his wonderful book, Giving is The Good Life: The Unexpected Path to Purpose and Joy.
Not life, but a good life, is to be chiefly valued.
The good life is reserved for the person who fears God,
who lives reverently in his presence.
ECCLESIASTES 8:12, msg
Are you living the good life? If not, I know you wish you were.
People define the good life in different ways, but everybody wants to live it. After all, what’s the alternative? Living a bad life? A pointless, guilt-ridden, or miserable life? We’d all choose the good life any day, and yet we often don’t understand how to make it happen.
A quick online search reveals that most people’s idea of the good life includes happiness. That makes sense—nobody wants to be unhappy. Most of us also want to make other people happy and help them if we can. But when it comes down to it, even Christ followers suspect that spending our lives serving God and others might cost us our happiness.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could do what pleases God and what’s best for others, while at the same time enjoying happiness and deep satisfaction? But that’s not possible, you may think. Or is it?
What if we really can live the good life without being selfish? What if God not only wants us to live life more abundantly, as Jesus put it (John 10:10), but also provides clear instructions for how to actually experience it? What if it’s possible to discover what to embrace and what to avoid so we can live a meaningful and fulfilling life—the good life—even in this broken world?
Does that sound too good to be true? Actually, it’s both “too good” and true.
The Good Life Is Counter Cultural
We live in a world that screams, “Make lots of money and spend it on yourself, and you’ll be happy. That’s the good life!” There’s just one problem. It’s a lie.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly turned our definition of the good life on its head. For instance, he said, “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving” (Acts 20:35, gnt). Jesus told us that parting with money to help others will bring us more joy than hanging on to that money. Counter intuitive as it
may seem, our greatest good, and the happiness that accompanies it, is found in giving, not receiving. In other words, generosity is the good life.
This idea that giving away money and possessions equals happiness is a paradox. Human reasoning says that spending money on ourselves is in our best interest—and to a degree, that’s true. We all need food to eat, a place to live, clothes to wear. But once our basic needs are met, money can easily stop helping us and start hurting us. According to CreditCards.com, the average American has nearly $16,000 in credit card debt. The average college student graduates with $40,000 in student loans, and some with far more. Almost 40 percent of Americans carry credit card debt month to month, continuing to spend more than they have and remaining in financial bondage. Debt is routinely incurred in pursuing the good life, yet psychologists attest that the debt-funded lifestyle leads to depression, anxiety, resentment, stress, denial, anger, frustration, regret, shame, embarrassment, and fear.
This is the very opposite of the good life. It’s the terrible life!
Here’s a truth that can set us free: “living large” actually makes us smaller. Living “the good life” (as our culture defines it) results in missing the best life. Deep down, we all know it’s true: you can spend every last cent you own on yourself—and, through credit, far more—and still end up miserable. In fact, if you want to be miserable, greed and stinginess are the perfect recipe. Those who hoard their money, like those who spend it all on themselves, are the unhappiest people on the planet. Jesus calls us to do something radical: love others by giving away our money and time. That sounds like loss, not gain. Yet in God’s economy, that’s exactly how we can expand and enhance our own lives.
Generosity Pays Off
You may wonder if I’m trying to make the generous Christian life sound easier and happier than it really is. First, I’m not suggesting that giving always comes easily or without sacrifice. What I am saying is that in God’s providence, the payoff far outweighs the sacrifice. Generosity is God’s best, designed just for us. This is always true in the long run, and usually it’s true in the short run too.
Suppose I give up some vanilla lattes and two lunches out each month in order to support a child in Haiti. There’s nothing wrong with lattes or meals out, and I may miss them, but thoughts of how the money helps a needy child flood me with happiness greater and far more enduring than twenty minutes of pleasure from a drink or eating out. My life has a purpose beyond myself, and as I say no to that small thing, my day is put in perspective. That gladness and perspective don’t disappear when I finish the meal or toss the coffee cup in the recycle bin.
I’m talking about that kind of joy-filled, openhanded adventure of following Jesus, which brings us lasting pleasure and reaches far beyond this life to the next.
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” ( John 10:10, nkjv). The first step to finding life is clear: we need to place our trust in Christ. That’s where eternal life—the ultimate good life—begins. Jesus said, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”(John 7:37-38 NLT).
Once we believe in Christ, what can we do to experience the abundant life—a life overflowing with vibrancy, satisfaction, and contentment? Though we’ve been granted eternal life, many Christians don’t fully experience what Jesus came to give us. The stresses and pressures of life weigh us down and leave us feeling like we’re missing something. We lose both joy and purpose. Life becomes a drudgery, not an adventure. It’s a shrunken life, not a flourishing one.
If that’s where you find yourself, take heart. True, it’s not possible to eliminate difficulties and challenges until we’re living at last in the world we were made for (the New Earth when Jesus returns, not this one). But we certainly don’t have to wait until we die to experience the abundant life Jesus promised.
We should also consider the bad news and the very good news about money, as described in 1 Timothy 6. The bad news is that loving and serving money will destroy us and rob us of life and happiness. The good news is that if we recognize God’s ownership of everything, we’ll steward our resources to help meet physical and spiritual needs. Our reward will be both future rewards and present contentment, purpose, and what Scripture calls “the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19, niv).
Giving Is an Eternal Investment
Okay, you might be thinking, I understand that giving to others can bring me happiness. But is there really any benefit beyond that initial good feeling I get when I help someone? One of the biggest misconceptions about giving is that the money we part with to help the needy or to spread the gospel just disappears and is gone forever. While we hope others will benefit from it, we’re quite sure we won’t. We even buy into the devil’s lie that giving will rob us of the good life.
We couldn’t be more wrong.
Jesus told his disciples that when they gave money away, their hearts would follow the treasures they were storing in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). He also said that at the Resurrection, God would reward them for helping the needy (Luke 14:14). Somehow we’re forever connected to what we give and the people we give it to. Martin Luther has been credited with saying, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all. But whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” The Bible shows that anything we put in God’s hands is an investment in eternity. But that doesn’t just mean that someday our giving will bring us good. It will actually do us good here and now—at the same time it does good for others.
That’s why the good life is inseparable from generosity.
Generosity Is Good for Everyone, Not Just Christians
Even outside the Christian world, there’s a great deal of emphasis on philanthropy. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and various actors, musicians, and athletes have championed giving to various causes. It’s not uncommon for people who don’t profess Christ to believe in helping the poor and advocating for the oppressed.
In fact, modern research has much to say about the benefits of generosity. In their book The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose, sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson write about Smith’s findings on giving, which are based on years of careful studies. His conclusions may seem unexpected, but they shouldn’t be at all surprising to those who understand we’re created in the image of a generous God. They write, “Those who give, receive back in turn. By spending ourselves for others’ well-being, we enhance our own standing. . . . This is not only a philosophical or religious teaching; it is a sociological fact.”
Smith’s extensive research, which included more than two thousand surveys of American adults and many personal interviews, reveals this: Giving money, volunteering, being relationally generous, being a generous neighbor and friend, and personally valuing the importance of being a generous person are all
significantly, positively correlated with greater personal happiness, physical health, a stronger sense of purpose in life, avoidance of symptoms of depression, and a greater interest in personal growth.
In her book The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving, Jenny Santi shares the results of a 2008 study by Professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia. Participants received an envelope with either five dollars or twenty dollars. Some were instructed to spend the money by the end of the day; others were told to give it away. “Participants who were instructed to spend the money on a gift for someone else or for a charitable donation reported greater happiness than those who were instructed to spend the money on themselves.”
These are not isolated examples. Scientific studies back up what God’s Word has been saying for thousands of years: generosity pays immeasurable dividends. God rewards people for generosity in this life as well as in the life to come. He does this because he is a God of grace and a lavish giver himself.
Read Randy Alcorn’s Giving is the Good Life; The Unexpected Path to Purpose and Joy.