Have you ever noticed how good it feels to give? I remember the first time I’d earned my own money to spend on people at Christmastime. I was 13, so I couldn’t go out shopping without someone driving me, which means they’d know about their presents, so I got the sneaky idea of ordering everyone something from Avon. Then the presents would come to my house. It was a kind of early online shopping. And on Christmas morning, my mom was pleasantly surprised; my brother was probably a little perplexed—there wasn’t much in the Avon order book for a 19 year old guy–but I remember most of all how happy and excited I was for weeks before the holiday, simply enjoying the deliciousness of my secret plan and feeling so happy that—finally—I, too, had something to give!
Giving is a simple concept that is often misunderstood and undervalued in our world. It’s hardwired into our spirits to give—it is a vital impulse that manifests in our care for one another. It is our inspiration toward goodness and connection, the vehicle for our empathy and our love. Giving—whether it’s giving someone a seat in a crowded room or giving a person a break when they’re having a bad day and behaving rudely—is a work of grace, a gift of God, and it always—always, when done with a giving heart—brings more light and love not only to the receiver and the giver, but to all those who feel the rippling goodness of the act.
Giving can mean doing our best, going the extra mile, investing our effort and energy to make something extra special just because we think someone will enjoy it. I think of a present my daughter-in-law gave me last Christmas—she had taken special care with the wrapping, added a lovely ribbon, and hand-made the card. They were all extras, little touches of love. She could have simply used department-store paper and stick-on tags like the rest of us. But she put special thought and care into it and the result was beautiful and generous. That’s one of the hallmarks of a giving heart—the things the person does, the things they say, the way they show up in the world often shows a richness of soul, a special kind of beauty that comes from grace.
Sometimes when we give, it is a kind of calculation. Well, I have a dozen apples, we think; I’ll give you four so I have enough for myself if some of them go bad. That’s not the type of giving I’m talking about. That’s as much about ourselves as it is about the other person.
Real giving in this case would be finding our friend’s favorite kind of apples and buying them and taking them to her simply so we can see her face light up. We look forward to the joy they will give her. There’s no self-interest in it. The apples are the vehicle of love, and we’re not thinking about what we might or might not get back. In truth, we are blessed by her joy—our own happiness is increased—but that’s not our purpose in giving. If we begin to think, “What am I getting out of this?” and hope for something in return, it isn’t really giving anymore; it’s become a transaction, the acquisition of something we want for ourselves.
So you can hear that it’s tricky and subtle, and what matters most, if we’re to give truly, is the intention—the purpose—deep in the quiet of our hearts. Why do we give our gifts of love, time, encouragement, acceptance, forgiveness? And to whom do we offer them? God will help us learn those answers because when we recognize the healing and freeing power of living with a giving heart, we’ll know clearly what it means to share God’s light with others. It’s our purpose. It’s a ministry. It’s joy.
Over and over again through the Bible, book after book, prophet after prophet, Jesus and the Gospel writers and Paul and Peter all try to teach us what it means to give truly, to share God’s blessing with others without being overly concerned with ourselves. Our Old Testament reading today comes from the book of Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. Not much is known about this prophet—in fact the name given to him is simply a placeholder and really means, “messenger.”
By the time this prophet arrived on the scene, the memories of Babylonian captivity were all but gone for the children of Israel. The temple had long since been rebuilt, and the walls of Jerusalem repaired. Even though it had been only been a few generations since God brought the people back from exile in Egypt, not many had held on to any of the good lessons they’d learned about relying on God, worshiping God in spirit and in truth, and letting their faithfulness to God inspire their actions and guide their behaviors with others. Corruption, hard-heartedness, and cynicism had spread like a sickness through the people—and this was especially true for the priests, who were supposed to be the leaders of the community. God brought Malachi forward at just this time to speak the truth to those going in the wrong direction, to call them back to God’s goodness and love.
Interestingly, in Malachi’s message we don’t hear the same anger and frustration from God we heard from the earlier prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Malachi reminds the people of God’s great and unconditional love for them, calling for leaders who would, as my commentary says, “walk with (God), providing edifying instruction, and direct people closer to, not away from, (God’s) heart.” Malachi promises the people that if they’ll return to God, God will return to them. He tells them once again that God is a God of goodness and constancy, wanting to bless and enjoy them as they enjoy their lives and each other.
Our verses are taken from the third chapter, where Malachi spotlights a central theme: God’s generous, always-giving nature. When you first hear this passage, you may think it’s about money, but that’s not Malachi’s point. This is about blessing. This is about all the goodness in our lives, in anyone’s life, in any life that has ever been or ever will be. It is about the generous, unlimited nature of God’s love, pouring out equally to all, without exception. In this passage Malachi tells us how we become part of that blessing by extending it freely to others—thus furthering the light and love of God in the world—which in turn blesses us and increases our joy, even though that was not our intention.
Listen again to these verses and instead of picturing a tithe as gold or grain or anything else that might be traded in a transaction, imaging that Malachi is talking about blessing–happiness, love, openness of spirit, and joy:
“Bring the whole tithe (or blessing) into the storehouse, that there may be food (or goodness) in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.
Bring all the ways you are blessed and share that goodness freely with others, God says, and not only will your own blessing multiply, but I will preserve it and keep troubles and other circumstances from taking it away from you. In the community in Malachi’s time, led by corrupt priests, people weren’t sharing their blessings; they were hoarding what they had, amassing power and riches, damming up the flow of goodness God poured their way to preserve the best for themselves. God wanted them to know that their selfishness was fragmenting and damaging the whole society they were chosen to lead. If they would have a change of heart and share the goodness they received, others would be blessed by that and would share the goodness that came to them, and God’s light would begin to spread once again through their lives, and their families, and their town. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” God tells them. That beautiful grace—the joy of the giver’s heart—would be obvious in the way they treated one another and it would grow and spread so much their whole community would become a model to other nations.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he touches on why this kind of giving is so important to God and God’s purpose in our world. It’s not just that God doesn’t want us to be stingy and self-centered. It’s that God’s blessing cannot flow as it is meant to flow if we lock it away and hide it in our homes or keep it under our mattresses. The blessing is meant to be shared so others can see God at work in our lives and be encouraged in their own faith. The light in us inspires light in others, from one heart to the next.
Paul is writing in less-than-ideal circumstances here. His second letter to the Corinthians comes after a time of conflict and misunderstanding—there had been a question of whether the young church in Corinth would follow Paul’s authority or not. There had been visits and meetings and conversations that had not gone well. But in this second letter, Paul does his best to live and teach according to the values of Christ he trusts. The commentary in my Life with God Bible says at this point,
“It is easier to conceive of a Christlike life than to live one. (Here) Paul teaches that Christians, beholding the beauty of the Lord, are being transformed into his image one … step at a time. Spiritual transformation is a gradual process, and Paul knows that we have this treasure in what he calls clay jars, meaning fragile selves, perhaps referring to himself.”
In the passage we heard, Paul emphasizes how important it is to trust God for what we need. When we’re certain that God is the one supplying the good in our lives, it is easier for us to give freely, sure that our giving is in the flow of God’s love. Paul puts special emphasis on how we feel about our giving: he says she should give happily–not begrudgingly, not grumbling, not trying to hold on to every penny, every moment, every object we can, but freely, and glad to give. Here’s what he says:
“Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”
We’re talking about much more than money here. When we have a giving heart, we see opportunities for spreading joy and loving generously. That kind of heart looks beyond judgments and categories and labels that determine whether someone is “worth” loving not—the love just pours out of them, because it is given freely by God. They are filled up with God’s love and it naturally spills out into the world around them. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
I’m sure we’ve all met a person who has this kind of truly giving heart—they make a huge impact on us. This is the kind of person who never met a stranger; who is always interested in hearing what we did today. They never make us feel rushed, like we are taking up too much of their time. They want to hear about our grandkids or about that great restaurant we found or maybe just about how we sat and watched the snowflakes fall yesterday. They aren’t worried about and don’t judge what we have to say or how we say it, who we voted for or what we think should be done about any of the top 100 problems on social media. It doesn’t matter. They love us, they enjoy being with us, and it is obvious—in their actions, in their expressions, in the way they encourage and embrace us. They love us freely and we don’t have to deserve it; in fact, we can’t deserve it, because they already love us and nothing will make them stop. And if we mess up, if we do something we wish we hadn’t, if we fall short somehow, we are already forgiven before we ask, because they see the best in us, always, the truth of who we are beyond the personality and ego and limitations of our nature. They just know that deep down, in the essence of who God created us to be, we’re good humans. They know that because the pure love of God shining through them shows them that. And trusting what they see in us, we can start to believe it too. That’s what the love of Christ feels like when it shines through a human life. And once we’ve been the recipient of it, we won’t forget it. And we’ll likely be inspired to learn how to live that way ourselves.
On Friday afternoon I went to see one of my favorite hospice patients. We have great conversations and the hour I spend with him always passes by very quickly. As I was getting ready to go, he suddenly remembered something he wanted to show me. He asked his wife to get it and when she placed a small circular wood carving in his hand, he held it up and he asked me if I could tell what it was. I looked closely but no shape was obvious to me. So I guessed. “A flower?” I said. He smiled and shook his head and reached into the pocket of his recliner and pulled out a small flashlight. He held the carving up and shined the flashlight on it and then nodded toward the ceiling and said, “Look.” I glanced up and saw that the pattern of shadow showed the face of Jesus when the light shined through it. Without the light, it just looked like a piece of carved wood.
As I left that afternoon, I thought about how each of us are like that carved disc—we are each works of art, works of God’s art—but the truth of who we are as children of God isn’t visible–to us or to anyone else–until God’s light begins to shine through us. And when it does, when we start to love freely, with a giving heart, others will see the presence of Christ in our love, in our actions, in our lives. That type of giving blesses not just us and those we know but ripples outward to others in unknown and uncountable ways. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord. All because we’ve learned to share the pure love that flows continually from God’s giving heart.
- OT Malachi 3: 10-12
- NT 2 Corinthians 9: 6-15