You’d think that as a trained, professional economist, one of the ‘must-read’ magazines on my list would be The Economist. Not so.

I used to read it, many years ago, but I gradually stopped as I found the articles unhelpful. However, a few years ago I stumbled upon one that I thought might actually be useful at some point for this column, so I filed it away for when the time was right. Now is that time, but it’s not useful in the way I originally thought.

The article in question reported a study that allegedly had found that people with a religious upbringing were less likely to be generous than those with no such upbringing. A provocative finding, to say the least. It was reported in dozens of other media outlets around the world at the time, as the anti-Christian press almost fell over themselves to say, ‘see, we told you that religion was useless’.

As it turns out, the study that was so enthusiastically reported was completely wrong! Most of the media outlets that reported the study have since formally retracted it. Oh, every now and then someone with a bent against religious people will run it again, uncritically. However, it made a very basic statistical error that rendered the finding simply incorrect*. This has been acknowledged, even by the author, I believe.

Christian values and generosity

Furthermore, most other studies that have been done around the world show a positive relationship between being brought up on Christian values and a person’s level of generosity. Phew!

That said, generosity is not a natural thing for people, is it? At times of crisis, such as this summer’s bushfires, many people dig deep, but not in the normal course of life. Being raised with Christian values should – and according to these numerous studies does – increase the likelihood that you will be generous, but it seems to me that we always have to be reminded and cajoled and urged and encouraged to switch on this particular spirit.

For the ancients in Israel, the main way this urging took place was through the law. The people were required to tithe, or give the first 10% of all income, for the priests, who were not allotted land when Israel moved into Canaan. Therefore, everyone else was commanded to provide first for the priests and then for their own families and communities. There was also a system of offerings, which were expected but not commanded, as well as other provisions in the law intended to ensure that the poor were afforded at least some financial dignity.

It was pretty straightforward. Yet what do we read in the prophets when they spoke against Israel’s sins? “You are robbing me”, says God, through Malachi. When asked how, the reply is “through your tithes and offerings”, which were not being provided as required. (Malachi 3:8-10) That’s just one example demonstrating that being generous did not come easily to ancient Israel.

Being generous doesn’t come easy

For the followers of Jesus in the early Church it was, it seems, a binary situation. You either overflowed with generosity or you were a bit reluctant; your eye was bountiful, or it was cloudy. The great example is found in chapters 8 and 9 of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Although the apostle starts this passage with a statement of confidence in their generosity, he then delivers two chapters that add up to a profound piece of reminding, cajoling, urging and encouraging.

  • Look at the neighbouring Macedonians, he says. They were facing tough times, but they opened their hearts and wallets when others needed support. “I’m sure you will excel in this, too”, he tells the Christians in Corinth.
  • We’ve boasted to others about you, he says. So we’re sending Titus – one of the outstanding leaders in the church at the time – to oversee the collection and make sure you don’t make us look foolish.  
  • Finally, look at the grace of God, which overflows for you. In that light, weigh up your own hearts – there’s no compulsion here – but God loves a cheerful giver.

It doesn’t really matter what the formal statistical studies show about the relationship between being Christian and being generous. The reality is that it’s up to us, as individuals and in our church communities, to decide what we’re going to do with Paul’s arguments. Do we reinforce the positive conclusion and act generously, or hold the statistics back?

When we look at the grace of God, at the Lord’s astounding generosity to us, how can we choose other than to be cheerfully generous?

There’s a wonderful turn of phrase in the book of Proverbs about generosity. “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches; whoever has a bountiful eye (i.e. is generous) will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.” (Prov 22:1,9)

May God grant us all a bountiful eye!

*Footnote: In the original study that I saw in The Economist, the actual negative relationship with generosity was more to do with nationality than anything else. Some countries are more generous than others, but within most countries, Christians are more generous than average.

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