If Thanksgiving is found to occasion head-on collisions with our complicated relationship to gratitude, then it is the privilege of Christmas to do the same for generosity. Generosity is the nebulously secularized “spirit of the season” and it haunts us at every turn!
Don’t believe me? Is there any pang so sharp, so sudden as being presented a gift by one for whom we have nothing to present in return? This pang is pantheonic among holiday trials, and is likely familiar to each of us. And it reveals the transactional captivity of generosity in our culture. Unreciprocable giving rattles the cage of our soul, and we’re left stammering like lunatics! (“You… You shouldn’t have. I-I don’t. I haven’t had a chance…”)
Christmas undoubtedly places generosity on the table like a big holly and silver-bell centerpiece. It is unavoidably before us, and, along with the aforementioned pangs, we must experience a miraculous birth with some prolonged effort—the delivery, as it were, of a healthy and whole generosity of spirit.
Christmas is, after all, a story of miraculous birth.
Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…
How, Bonhoeffer asks, can we possibly do this, let alone reconcile it with Jesus’ earlier exhortation to “let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good deeds”?
He concludes the following in Ethics,
[Jesus] is striking at the heart of the man who lives in disunion. He forbids the man who does good to know of this good… A Man’s own goodness is now concealed from him. It is not merely that he is no longer obliged to be the judge of his own goodness; he must no longer know of it.
In Cost of Discipleship, he puts it thus,
The genuine work of love is always a hidden work. Take heed therefore that you know it not, for only so is it the goodness of God. If we want to know our own goodness or love, it has already ceased to be love.
He elaborates, but you get the idea. Bonhoeffer names right giving—generosity—as being so natural as to awaken no awareness of its happening at all; true love has no consciousness of its operation whatsoever. The left hand takes no notice of the right hand’s charity. This is true generosity.
So just as gratitude might serve as a type of spiritual reflex signaling spiritual health (see my gratitude post), a piqued awareness toward giving signals a defect in generosity. And we know this. Subconsciously we do. When our giving results in resentment, pride or a need for control over the recipient it doesn’t resemble wellness. The backdraft of such attitudes degrades gratitude in recipients, but also degrades our joy in giving. Above all, the relationship suffers.
I mentioned previously that gratitude comes from the latin gratus or “pleasure”, but there is a pleasure—a gratification—in generosity as well. The mutuality of this gratus blurs the line of giver and receiver; because each ultimately finds themselves both beneficiary and benefactor. If we understand Jesus’ teachings on the relationship between obedience and joy, we realize that this pleasure is something he wants to preserve for us. No amount of accolades can replace it; those who announce their giving with trumpets forfeit this.
Naturalist, novelist, poet and polymath Annie Dillard described this in the etherial Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, naming it “innocence”:
Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all. Even a certain amount of interior verbalization is helpful to enforce the memory of whatever it is that is taking place…
Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest…
[Innocence] is not lost to us; the world is a better place than that. Like any other of the spirit’s good gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine. It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares: singlemindedly, driven by a kind of love…
What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration…
Dillard shares the story of how, when blind people receive sight, they are capable of seeing the world in ways that the always-seeing cannot. The always-seeing must actually practice in order to see this way. It’s a paradox. But Jesus himself said understanding his ways must involve becoming again like children.
That something so innate and innocent as generosity might require of us so dogged a pursuit to apprehend is disheartening to say the least, but the world does do a number on us all. Jesus understood this; understood that our inborn aptitudes of freely giving and receiving love become tread down by the time we reach adulthood.
Have you ever noticed the similarity between generosity and generation? The original idea was that generosity was a trait of noble birth. If the biblical narrative is to be believed, humanity is of noble stock; divine pro-generation! And this is the genesis to which we must return; to that hereditary likeness of the Creator, who, of his nature, outflowed the cosmos freely, pleasurably into existence, sharing his bounty gladly with humankind.
The Creator-God of the bible never begrudges a gift, but only laments the barrenness of the recipient. His generosity is born of a love that values the other and longs for relationship from first to last; not giving to get but getting from giving.
Christmas is indeed the story of a miraculous birth, as Handel mined from Scripture,
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given
If generosity is the nebulous spirit of the season, then this is its living personal embodiment. A God who has had his generosity scorned cannot respond in kind, but offers his very self to our race and, in this offering, an occasion for our own rebirth.
Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. This child-gift himself would one day attest, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”