My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

17 September 2006


Our college class is continuing to plow through an overview of church history using Mark Noll's Turning Points. Today we came to his chapter on St. Benedict and his "Rule," which is really the story of the rise of monasticism in Christianity. The first time through the book, I was struck with Noll's approach to monks and their ascetic practices; rather than begin by lining out all the chaff of monasticism we need to guard against, he rejoices in how Christ used monks throughout the church's history. While he does make clear his own Protestant, Calvinist (un-ascetic) leanings, his approach is purposefully charitable. So I remarked to the class that our approach to these saints so different from us ought likewise to be generous. That is, we ought to begin with a posture of love and grace and goodness to those professing faith in Christ.

But then I got to wondering afterwards, "Is that a valid use of the word generous?" Certainly no one would disagree that Christians are to be generous, but what exactly does that mean? Thus enter a fun word study:

In the Hebrew, there are two main words for generosity. The first (nadiv) represents someone who is (1) inclined [to something or someone], (2) noble, and/or (3) generous. This tie between nobility and generosity seems distant at first. Consider, though, that our very word generosity comes from the ancient French word genereux, meaning "of noble birth" and only later in time "unselfish and plentiful." How perfect! True nobility comes not only from station in life, but also how well one uses that station for the good of others. I.e., Josiah and Asa were both kings, but only one was noble.

What does this have to do with us? We only have to remember that we, too, have been born of royal stock - or, we should say, reborn of noble stock (Rev. 20:6). We are sons and daughters of the most high King. By birth we have a nobility unmatched by the richest, most powerful ruler in this world. And, we have been called to live out that nobility through selflessness, through sacrifice. Thus, without generous nobility, there is no truly Christian life.

The second Hebrew word (chanan) appears 8x as "generous" or "generously" - but the Hebrew word appears 89x in the Old Testament. In almost all other instances, it's translated as "graciously" or "mercifully," especially when it speaks of God's actions. This is a great lesson, too - our generosity is of the same genus as God's grace. Though God's mercy and grace are infinite and eternal, whenever we think or act generously, we are showing the world just a little piece of God's original graciousness toward us.

Our New Testament doesn't have as many references to generosity by name - rather, it's pictured as a part of the Christian life. John, in his first epistle, gives us this wonderful picture in the third chapter:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? 1 John 3:16-17
I believe John is referring back to Deuteronomy 15:7-8,
If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.
The Greek in 1 John 3:17 is a rather gross picture: not being generous is pictured as the atrophying of our kidneys, our guts (i.e., our heart, our compassion) against someone in need. Rather, John says, we are to remain perpetually pliable by the plights of others, continuously sensitive to their needs. Such sensitivity and pliability leads to the position of "open" - whether it's our hearts or our hands, if we are in Christ, our default position is open, not closed.

Back to our original question: is it out of bounds to call us to generosity in our approach to church history? Or in our approach to other believers? Not at all - if our default position, especially to those within the house of Christ, is set in the "open" position (Gal. 6:9-10), then generosity means much more than an extra 5% on our tithe check. It means a willingness to think the best of brothers and sisters until we're proved wronged. It means a willingness to learn from others Christ has used in His church (whether monks, Methodists or Moravians), even if we have theological qualms. And it means living nobly among the hurting and poor of this world, keeping our heart soft by looking always to Christ. Again, this isn't saying that error shouldn't be confronted and corrected, or that we should be more wishy-washy in doctrine and life, but that our hearts, like our wallets, are to be open and bountiful, rather than locked and stingy.


Alicia said...

Thanks for the word study and practical application!

Ellen Olivetti said...

One more point. These Christians to whom we are to be generous, though we may disagree with much of their theology, may also have a great deal to teach us in certain areas. Though our doctrine may be more sound (sounder?)overall, I am often amazed at the practical application of Christianity I can learn from those I previously considered less learned. It's just another way the Lord has used to humble me.

Tamara said...

Uggh! That Hebrew link had me crying. I love the language. It messes with me. :)

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