Editor’s note: The following Q and A originally appeared in Christian Union: The Magazine. Reprinted with permission. Christian Union is a leadership development ministry with faculty teams at some of the most influential universities in the nation.
Mark Dillon has spent his career helping Christian causes secure support, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Wheaton College, American Bible Society, and now as the executive vice president at Generis, a firm committed to growing generosity in churches, Christian education, and many other Christ-centered ministries. He is the author of Giving and Getting in the Kingdom: A Field Guide (2012, Moody Publishers).
CU MAGAZINE: How would you define generosity?
MARK DILLON: Generosity is a way of life—a way of being—that exudes profound gratitude for God’s provision and deep regard for the needs of others and Christ’s kingdom above their own. Truly generous people understand, innately, that what they have received, including material wealth, is an unmerited gift of God. The world says, “I’ve earned this and it is mine.” The follower of Christ says, “what I earn and invest in this temporal life counts for very little.” “But what I invest in God’s eternal kingdom lasts forever.” That is where joy and meaning comes from—in this life and the next.
CU: You have said that generosity and giving are consistent with God’s very nature. Can you elaborate?
MD: Sure. When you think of it, grace defines all of God’s activity toward His creation. He’s freely given us everything: life, breath, family, provision, salvation, an eternal home. Someone has said we’re most like God when we’re giving. Giving lavishly, regardless of merit, is the mark of a true child of God.
CU: In your book, Giving and Getting in the Kingdom, you write that not all givers are the same. What do generous people have in common?
MD: One of the great joys of my life has been interaction with thoughtful Christian stewards—scores of them if not hundreds. Generous people have guided me to be a more generous person, and frankly, a better person. Here are the consistent characteristics that I see over and over again.
First and foremost, generous people exude joy. They are grateful for life and breath and every material and spiritual blessing of their lives. Reluctant givers hold tight to what they believe are their possessions. Generous people get joy out of giving their wealth, wisdom and service. The more they give of themselves, the more joy they radiate.
True givers are not consumed with their own comfort. Their perspective is other-oriented, not self-oriented. A few months ago, I was walking in New York City and passed a sleeping homeless person I had seen many times before. I saw a woman do a beautiful thing. She saw his crusty, dirty feet sticking out of his tattered blanket as he slept. She got down on her knees at the foot of his “bed” and carefully, gently, pulled the blanket over his exposed feet and patted his feet. Beautiful.
One of the givers I admire most spends many days every year helping to build housing for the homeless. He could give money to enable others to do it, but he gets his hands dirty and his body tired for the sake of others.
True givers are humble about their possessions. They don’t talk about what they have earned or achieved, they talk about what God has given them: life, family, and yes, material prosperity. It is not what they have earned, it is what God has graciously given them as a trust for their stewardship.
True givers never stop pushing themselves to be more generous. I think generosity is much more a spiritual discipline than an innate gift. Generous givers are always learning from others and from Scripture how to be more like God in giving of themselves.
CU: What surprised you when you wrote your wrote, Giving and Getting in the Kingdom?
MD: The most pleasing response I’ve received, particularly from fundraisers for Christian ministries, is “Thank you for sharing how my work is not talking people out of money they don’t want to give, but rather, encouraging God’s people to be generous with their resources for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. It makes all the difference in the meaning of my work.”
The other overwhelming response was the observation that there are different kinds of givers, even in the Church. We tend to think that all Christians are the same. But, when it comes to money and possessions, there is a lot of diversity in the body of Christ. We talked about four kinds of givers.
First, the reluctant giver. This, sadly, represents more of the Christian community than we would care to admit. They adopt the prevailing secular view: “my money is my business.” In my experience, many Christians who hold this view have not grown up in a family that modeled kingdom generosity. I heard recently that 50% of regular attendees/members in churches give $100 or less per year to their church. Sad but true.
Then, there is the casual giver. The casual giver usually needs to be asked for a gift. They have some notion of God’s call on their possessions and wealth, but they lean toward wealth as being their possession. Their calculation is, “how much of my money should I give to God?”
The thoughtful giver is the Christian who understands God’s claim on their possessions. Their giving comes with more joy, though it often comes as the result of request. While their giving seems right and brings joy, it is not without the calculation of “what am I giving up to give this gift?” Their calculation is, “how much of God’s money should I give?”
The gifted giver is rare (in my experience, less than 5% of all givers). They are truly generous in the way they conduct their life. They take unbridled joy in their giving. Seldom do they need to be asked. They seek opportunities to advance Christ’s kingdom. Their calculation is, “how much of God’s money should I keep?”
The wise pastor and ministry leader will recognize that not all Christians approach giving and generosity in the same way. Generosity is a key sign of maturity in Christ and that maturity must be cultivated. Calling all God’s people, where they are at in their maturity in thinking about money and generosity, is an important part of growing believers in what it means to be a generous, joyful Christian.
CU: As a society, particularly in the Christian community, are we trending more or less towards generosity?
MD: One of my greatest disappointments in Christ’s people in this generation is that we don’t differ very much from the culture at large. Statistics on giving to the church bear this out. But, I am not without hope. As someone who has observed culture for the past 40 years, I see more emphasis on generosity in the church in recent years than ever before. Pastors, and their congregations are realizing that the theme of generosity is not a construct of those who need money, but, instead, the very heart of God that His people mirror his generosity to us.
CU: What are two of your favorite scriptures about generosity?
MD: There are so many scriptures that deal with money and possessions. Why does 15% of Christ’s teaching deal with money and the use of money? I think it is because Jesus knew that money consumes an inordinate amount of the thought life of every person—rich or poor. Think how many times, every day, we think about our possessions and make decisions on how we spend or wealth. How we handle our money and possessions reveals, better than anything, our priorities.
So, my two favorite scriptures. First, Jesus’ teaching about the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-43). This is radical for followers of Christ. What did Jesus commend her for? Not the amount! He said, wealthy people give out of their wealth—but she gave out of her poverty (in other words, she changed her level of living to support Christ’s kingdom). That is what is pleasing to the Lord and what is so hard for us to emulate!
The second is the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12. Here was a man who was prospering greatly. And what did he conclude about his wealth? I should build more barns, store more of my wealth and “eat drink and be merry.” The point is unmistakable. Storing wealth for personal comfort is foolish. Our mortality is certain. But giving wealth for the sake of others and for the sake of Christ’s kingdom is clearly what is wise in God’s sight. I can’t think of a passage that more clearly shows where our priorities should be.