Five tips for building generous habits.
When I was in middle school, my Sunday school teacher asked our class to do a “spiritual gifts” inventory, a popular assessment among evangelicals based on passages in St. Paul’s epistles. After much box-checking and total-tallying, a quiet blonde named Rachel (named changed) spoke up.
“I think I have the spiritual gift of giving. I really like giving money and gifts to people.”
“That’s nice Rachel,” the teacher responded, “but that gift is for people who are giving large amounts of money. You probably have a different gift, like serving.”
Fifteen years later, that brief exchange still disappoints me. Not only did our teacher’s response belittle Rachel’s generous disposition, it misunderstood a vital truth about cultivating spiritual disciplines—a truth that Aristotle understood:
It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.
We acquire moral virtues through moral habits. In other words, we can never hope to be the person we are not currently becoming. Virtuous habits create a type of moral muscle memory. Olympics athletes rely on constant repetition over long periods of time to cement complex skills and routines. This is true for a thousand fields, from music to medicine. And it is true for the virtues. While it seems a special few are born with supernatural affinity toward patience, wisdom, or generosity (just as some are born a Mozart or a Stephen Hawking), most of us cultivate these qualities painstakingly over time and through trials.
My Sunday school teacher seemed to think that wealthy people abruptly receive the gift of giving along with their fortunes. I would argue that philanthropic individuals knew the importance of giving long before their net worth exceeded eight figures. Having more money does not necessarily make it easier to give money, unless the giver has already learned to part with it. Consistent giving, even in small amounts, helps loosen one’s grip on “stuff,” just like playing scales or running miles trains the musician and athlete.
To be sure, money is not the only thing we can give. Especially as a student or young professional, our time, resources, and knowledge are often more significant commodities than cash. Volunteering at church or a local non-profit, opening our small apartments in hospitality, or tutoring for free are also ways of giving. Some of the most generous souls I know are profligate givers of the precious hours between 5 pm to 9 am.
Yet I think we should give of these resources in addition to consistent financial giving to our local churches and chosen causes. When we give from our poverty, instead of our wealth, we reveal the true object of our worship and trust. Do I believe that God will provide for me financially, even as I help to provide financially for others? When we give, we not only create muscle memory for generosity, but are drawn into God’s plan to care for people in practical ways, be they our next-door neighbors or people half-way across the globe.
I do not mean to imply that we should spend irresponsibly or shirk our financial obligations. In fact, wise budgeting is a cornerstone of regular giving. Knowing how much we have helps us know how much we can give. Sometimes there will be seasons when we find ourselves receiving more than we are able to give—there is no shame in this. My point is that we should not let our financial generosity atrophy, no matter how small our bank account may be.
So what can you do to build generous habits?
Just like getting off the couch to go for a run, giving never happens tomorrow. Even if you are a college student who makes minimum wage washing dishes, try to set aside a small amount of your next paycheck. That small start creates the necessary momentum to keep going.
Build giving into the first fruits of you budget, instead of giving from what is left over. Believe me, by the time you there, everything will already be gone.
Give what you have decided in your heart to give
Pray, read Scripture, seek counsel, and then make peace with a fixed amount or percentage.* This number is between you and God. From personal experience, I find it never puts me in a financial bind or short-circuits important commitments, but it does demand greater frugality in my grocery shopping, dining out, travel, entertainment and wardrobe.
Consistency is the key to building habits. It sounds unromantic, but it helps to treat your giving like a monthly bill: if one month is tight, make a plan for paying it back. If you just have trouble parting with the cash, bite the bullet and program an automatic deduction from your checking account.
Get excited about giving
For a long time, St. Paul’s admonition that “God loves a cheerful giver” always struck me as artificial—like getting excited about a parking ticket. Over time, I’ve come to experience a jolt of excitement in giving financially. The dollars I give are like venture capital in the Kingdom of God, which is the only guaranteed investment anyone can make. Although we might be so fortunate as to see short term rewards from our earthly giving, most of us are in this for the long haul. There are no promises of earthly prosperity for giving generously. We are sending ahead for an eternal reward.
I have not seen Rachel since high school, but I hope that her desire to give remains unchanged. Giving small right now, whether or not you have the “gift” of giving, builds muscle memory for future generosity. As we give, we remember by reflex that everything we have is a gift, and come to reflect, with increasing clarity, the God who has given us all things.
* Although it is tangential to this discussion, I realize there is a great deal of disagreement over the term “tithing,” which is traditionally understood to be ten percent of one’s income (whether net or gross, I’ll leave to your conscience). Some choose to give to charitable causes (like World Vision, a crisis pregnancy center, or a local homeless shelter) in addition to a regular tithe to a local church, while others give 10% total, dividing that sum between their church and other non-profits. Still others disagree altogether that there is scriptural mandate for a 10% tithe. From my own study and experience, I find 10% to be a helpful metric for giving to a local church, but in keeping with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “each one must give as he has decided in his heart (2 Cor. 9:7).”
Meredith Schultz is the senior associate for the Values and Capitalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute and is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and the Trinity Forum Academy. Her articles on hospitality, modern mobility, and gentle apologetics have appeared in Fare Forward, Art House America, and Trinity Forum Reflections. She tweets @meredithschultz.
 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross, The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.2.ii.html.