Did you know that if you’re an average person living an average life in America right now, you probably have a standard of living that is better than 95 percent of the people who have ever walked on the face of this planet? That’s pretty awesome to think about, isn’t it?
Sometimes I wonder, though, if over the last generation or so a big chunk of the cost of this increase has been extracted from our daily lives. I mean, we might have more stuff and cushier surroundings, but do we have more personal time? Do we have more freedom to strengthen family bonds or cultivate personal relationships? We might have more money, but do we mostly do the right things with our money? Our culture raves about having piles of cash and cribs full of cool stuff, but does it also gloss over – or worse, glamorize – the “wants” that having a bunch of money and stuff creates?
I’m not saying we should be against having stuff; I like cool stuff and our generation probably has more cool stuff than any other before us. And a lot of these neat things help us to be more productive, be healthier and live smarter. The problems start to creep in as we begin to define our lives by our possessions and end up having that ever-present umbilical cord of monthly bills affixed to our stockpiles of cool stuff. These days, going through life with constant debt is almost the norm. I mean, how many people do you know that don’t have credit card debt, student loans, car loans, cell phone contracts and all that? I’d bet the answer is “not many.” Proverbs speaks of borrowers being servants to lenders; so if we become indebted to satisfy our lack of something, then haven’t we entered into a sort of slavish contract? If we are “slaves” to a lifestyle propped up by our debts, then how can we be truly free to pursue a life lived for others and the promise of treasures stored in heaven? When the Apostle Paul exhorts us to be “lacking nothing” I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about buying stuff on credit. Paul warns that we should not become slaves of men since we have already been “bought at a great price”.
What I think really stinks is that I run across people all the time that have a generous heart, want to “give something back” but they just don’t think they have the free cash they wish they had to help the causes they believe in. I hate to say it, but when I look around at myself and others, it’s pretty easy to see that these days, if and when any of us have extra money left over after taking care of our monthly obligations, the big temptation is to go right out and spend that extra money on ourselves. It’s like regardless of how much stuff we buy, there is always lots more stuff for us to want. Surrounded by a culture that preaches a false gospel of materialism, we have developed a core dissatisfaction which has led many of us to a consumerist mindset, seeking out gratification through possessions, especially the “latest and greatest.” Of course this is just fool’s gold, and contrary to what our modern culture would have us believe, the ones who win aren’t the ones who die with the most stuff. Instead, it is those who have cultivated the satisfaction that comes from living their lives for a purpose greater than themselves who are the ultimate victors.
So maybe what would be cool to do is to try and change the relationship we have with money – to change the way we think about consumerism, money and debt. We need to pay our bills. We need to save. And we all feel the pain of the pinch from time to time when we have to back off from some personal spending in order to cover some bills or make that necessary retirement fund deposit. But maybe we should try something new; maybe we should find out what it’s like to experience that same pinch in order to give some money away. Most of us face an ongoing dilemma: We need to keep up with our current expenses and we want to sock money away for the future, but we also want to give money away. So the struggle here is to find ways to stay afloat and save without having to sacrifice our giving. And the obvious way to do this is by cutting back on our lifestyle expenses. Generous giving does come at a price to the giver; there is no true generosity that has a cost of zero.
Now, if you haven’t ever sacrificed the personal pleasures of spending money on yourself in order to give that money away, you may think that what we’re talking about here is going to be too tough to do. But you may not be realizing the payoff for the sacrifice. Most people like payoffs, and this payoff is huge. It’s better than the self-esteem jolt of buying some new, hip clothes or some sweet, new Nike shoes; and definitely it’s better than the feeling brought on by a fleeting night out on the town. The payoff we’re talking about here is an overall sense of fulfillment and truly feeling better about yourself and the immediate world around you. I’m speaking of experiencing a kind of personal balance that’s hard to get any other way – in short, a path to an honest feeling of contentment.
If you’ve already gotten into the swing of sacrificially giving away some of the hard-earned money that you bring in every month, then you already know what I’m talking about. And if you don’t, well, all that can be said is that you’re definitely missing out. Big time. Seriously, the stuff you would normally snag with that extra money probably couldn’t come close to what that money would do for you and others when you thoughtfully direct it to another person, group or organization.
That said, the big picture thing to remember is that generosity is not just “all about the money.” Living a generous lifestyle is way more than that. It’s more than just tithing to your church or offering part of your paycheck to a charity. As a matter of fact, in a lot of cases being generous doesn’t have to involve your money at all because one of the best gifts you can give is the gift of your time. Giving away your time to people and organizations where you can see their needs first hand and help to put a solution in place can be one of the most rewarding habits you could ever get into. The personal rewards can be almost addictive.
This is the essence of volunteerism, and one of the coolest things about volunteering is the whole range of opportunities that are out there. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how educated you are, what kind of shape you’re in or what your personality is; there is such a world of need out there right now that you are going to discover lots of volunteering ideas that will mesh with your skills and resonate with the core values of true Christianity. And that is the key – for us to look for opportunities that match up with our strengths and personalities while maintaining the views of love and compassion for others expressed by Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we run the risk of doing things that just end up being another activity we wedge into our lives that keeps us busy but doesn’t bring us any lasting change, meaning or joy.
Helping others in a regular, organized fashion also brings some practical, earthly rewards to the volunteer as well. Doing things for others stimulates the exact same neuro-pathways as sugar and crack cocaine, and studies have shown that people who volunteer regularly tend to be less overweight, have lower rates of heart disease and actually have lower health care costs. It is indeed more blessed to give than to receive!
So, why not find some things to “give” on a regular basis? Make it a part of your life. Explore some charity event ideas, look into some family volunteer vacations, mow an elderly person’s lawn for free, buy a panhandler a sandwich… Start somewhere; do something. Be generous. Of course, being generous begins inside you, at your core. It really is a personal thing. If you are a stingy you-know-what and practice fake generosity just for recognition or to look good to the outside world, then what you’re probably going to end up with is cheap imitations of fulfillment and joy and wasted opportunities for personal growth.