The Generous Soul

Why overcoming the Scrooge in all of us begins with gratitude.
The Generous Soul
Image: Sasin Paraksa / Getty Images

One of my not-so-winsome Christmas traditions involves complaining to family members about the relentlessness of The Christmas Carol. Every year it seems there is another spin-off or remake of Charles Dickens’s classic. While I love the story, I am fatigued by the repetition. Ebenezer comes to his senses every December 25 but then reverts to being all Scrooge-like again in time for the next holiday season. Dickens penned this story 174 years ago—maybe it’s time for a new Christmas classic.

Still, even with my grumbling, I keep reading and watching The Christmas Carol or its variants most years. Some inner force draws me there even as my cortex complains.

Maybe one of the reasons that Scrooge has survived so long is that Dickens speaks to some primordial inner conflict that all of us know, and perhaps this inner conflict is even more ubiquitous than the movies and books and plays that I mutter about each Advent. The conflict between miser and benefactor, between thrift and munificence, is so familiar to each of us and powerful enough to keep us watching and reading Dickens year after year.

One part of us, like the miserly Scrooge, wants to live with fists closed, accumulating possessions even if it hurts others, focusing on our own goals and achievements, protecting ourselves by shutting out relational risk and the pain of the world. But another part, a better part, sees more complexity in the world, recognizes blessings, holds palms up to heaven, and gives time, empathy, and money to others as a reflection of gratitude for all the gifts life offers, including the gift of life itself.

If Scrooge persists in order to remind us of this inner tension, then perhaps I should be more patient, and even grateful, that he and his ghosts keep returning each Christmas season.

The Science of Generosity

This inner tension between miserliness and generosity can also be seen in how we relate to others. We can work to control and manage the other, making clear our demands and expectations, or we can lean into trust, kindness, affection, respect, and forgiveness. Among people who are married, those living with the greatest generosity toward their partners are more satisfied in their relationships, have less conflict, and perceive a lower likelihood of divorce in the future.The miser in us may be good for 401(k) balances but not much else.

Social scientists are uncovering the benefits of generous living. Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, authors of The Paradox of Generosity, note, “By giving ourselves away, we ourselves move toward flourishing. This is not only a philosophical or religious teaching; it is a sociological fact.” Those who give 10 percent or more of their income and those who volunteer their time are more likely than others to report being very happy. Similarly, those who are generous in their relationships, offering their attention and emotions to others, tend to be happier than those who are less generous relationally. Generosity also has health benefits. Those who give more money, volunteer their time, and are relationally generous are more likely to be in excellent or very good health than others. And those who are more generous in these ways also report a clearer sense of their purpose in life.

The burgeoning science of generosity is encouraging as it demonstrates various benefits to living with open hands and hearts, but placing this science in a context of Christianity can help us further understand the source and meaning of generous living.

Grace, Gift, Gratitude, and Generosity

I have no affinity for alliteration, but it happens that four concepts I need to connect all begin with the same letter. Grace is first—the first word of these four, the first movement of God that leads us to faith, and one of the first descriptors of Jesus, the Word who became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14). The second word is gift, which turns out to be almost synonymous with grace. Pauline scholar John Barclay begins his book, Paul and the Gift, by noting that the Greek word for gift or favor (charis) is translated as grace in many of Paul’s writings.

Every day is filled with moments to pause and consider the gifts—the common graces—that surround us. Consider the cloud formations that will never be exactly the same as they are right at this moment. Ponder the companionship of a partner or friend, the tastes and smells of good food or fresh coffee. Notice the colors and sounds and textures of nature—of rainfall or sunshine or a new snow, of shrubs and trees, of critters who scurry or fly or swim. Here, in the swirl of everything beautiful, we see that grace is not just a lofty theological concept but is comprised of moment-by-moment gifts from a God who loves us so deeply, and so values the goodness of creation, that the eternal Word would become human and live among us. Immanuel—God is with us.

Gratitude is the only proper response to a gift, especially such an enormous one. The science of gratitude is even more robust than the science of generosity. When compared with less grateful peers, grateful people enjoy more positive mood, higher self-esteem, a greater sense of well-being, and more life satisfaction. They are less likely to be depressed or anxious or addicted, have fewer eating disorders, and are less materialistic than others. Those who are grateful experience stronger social relationships, are more willing to forgive and help others, and experience greater social support. Some recent evidence links gratitude with physical health benefits, including better cardiovascular function.

With gratitude comes generosity. At first glance, this connection is filled with paradox because gratitude is about receiving, and generosity is about giving. But if we can break away from linear assumptions, we begin to see a loop where gratitude and generosity are deeply connected and intertwined. The process that begins with divine grace leads to profound gratitude for the gifts of each day and then comes full circle and produces a sort of human grace where we give generously to one another. As we live with open hands, gratefully remembering God’s sustaining and gracious presence in every moment, our relationships thrive and the miser in us recedes.

Spiritually-Rooted Generosity

If science reminds us that gratitude and generosity are good for our health, faith reminds us that good health is not the main point of either. We are called into this loop of abundant living where we celebrate God’s grace, revealed most fully in Jesus. This is a rooted generosity, a deeply relational experience emerging from the incarnation where we encounter God as the source and sustainer of all good gifts. Our only reasonable response is the sort of gratefulness that leads to loving God and neighbor.

True generosity cannot be measured by the amount of money spent on Christmas gifts. One might even argue that overspending at Christmastime creates a foothold for the miser to take control the rest of the year as credit card bills start rolling in. Rather, this is a full-life generosity authored by a God who goes to unfathomable extremes to be in relationship with us.

A generous soul emerges from the grateful part of us, mindful of the gifts of every day, immersed in the grace of Jesus.

Mark R. McMinn is a professor of psychology at George Fox University and author of The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church(Brazos Press, 2017).

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The Generous Soul