Faith Matters: Charity or generosity, that is the question


Community Outreach Coordinator, Athol Congregational Church

Published: 04-29-2023 1:26 PM

Have you ever considered the difference between charity and generosity? Does giving to others make you feel good? When you drop a few coins in The Salvation Army bucket at Christmas, or donate a little to Saint Jude’s Children’s Hospital, do you take notice of your giving and pat yourself on the back just a bit? Or when you volunteer a few hours at your local food pantry, do you feel you have done your part?

All giving is good, and meeting the needs of others as we can is commendable, but there is a marked difference between charitable acts and generosity. Let’s read from the great Sufi poet, Hafiz, to see how he addresses the subject of giving:

The Sun Never Says

Even after all this time

The sun never says to the Earth,

“You owe me.”

Look what happens with a love like that,

It lights up the whole sky!

“Look what happens with a love like that …” Hafiz’s poem speaks to far more than half-hearted or “tit for tat” giving, and it reminds us of how transformative selfless giving can be for all of us.

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The word “charity” derives from the Latin word, caritas, which means “love,” and not an impassive kind of love but an actual act of love. Charity helps meet the needs of others with our surplus, and it can have a huge impact on the lives of those around us. Charity is practiced regularly by many folks as it is easy to help others with our abundance. We can casually donate our used clothing, give from our pocket change, or put in a few hours assisting a non-profit that needs office help. After all, it is from our spare money or spare time, so that makes it feel pretty manageable to be charitable.

Generosity is another story, however, as it requires us to give not just from our abundance, but to give sacrificially. In other words, being a generous person requires us to give until we actually feel it a little, to share not just from our excess, but to give up some of what we might need so that another’s suffering is lessened. And, as Hafiz reminds us, just as the sun never says, “You owe me!” generosity isn’t offered with any expectation of gratitude or repayment to follow.

Think about it for a moment — when someone who you consider to be very generous comes to mind, has that person given casually from their abundance or have they given when you know they really don’t have all that much to give and it might mean they have a leaner month because of their giving? Have you scratched your head as you quietly watched that, and wondered why they would go without so someone else’s needs can be met?

Perhaps it is because that individual has experienced lack, and therefore understands on a deep level how much it means to have someone step up and offer help. Or maybe the generous giver is conscious of how their giving is amplified in the world … that “a love like that” lights up the world around them, serving as a beacon of hope to all.

Isn’t it funny how our seemingly insignificant, yet sacrificial giving, tends to be multiplied? Our gift of time can be used to help someone who needs a helping hand move to a better neighborhood, or your offer to drive them to a doctor’s appointment can help them get desperately needed medical care. This kind of help can relieve stress and offer hope when one feels alone in the world. Our financial gifts can feed, clothe or educate someone, and then they often go on to do the same for others. When we share the gift of our talents with others, we pass on skills that can lead to a better quality of life and sometimes even change the outcome of generations to come. Teaching someone to read can propel them out of poverty, and guiding someone to learn how to work with wood or crochet or play an instrument can bring joy not only to the student, but to the future recipients of the product of their newly gained skills.

Charity meets a need; generosity exceeds filling the need. Charity is offered from our abundance; generosity is offered from our heart’s desire to love the world as fully as possible even when we might have to sacrifice to do so. Charity often has conditions for its giving; generosity is limitless and does not keep score.

Maybe the next time a request is made of you to share some of what you have in this world you can ask yourself, “Am I doing this to be charitable? Or am I actually being generous?” and maybe dig a little deeper to offer just a little more … a little more love, a little more money, a little more time. Who knows, you might be surprised at how much light fills your heart and the world around you when you move from charity to generosity.

Athol Congregational Church, UCC, is a local community of faith that is “small enough to know you, large enough to serve.” The pastor and members are available for conversation on the Athol Congregational Church Facebook page, and through private messages. 1225 Chestnut St. Phone: 978-249-6202.