A Different Kind Of Generosity
Truly the thought that counts
All I ever needed to know about generosity, I learnt at nursery. That is, my daughter’s nursery.
Our youngest child, Maddy, was almost four when we moved house and she had to change schools. On her first day, she nervously looked around at the cheerful noisy chaos of children playing in the classroom and visibly shrank behind me. That was when another little girl approached her and said, very kindly, “I’m Nicole. Do you want to see my playhouse? I made it for my dollies.”
As Maddy shyly held hands with Nicole and headed for said playhouse, she looked back at me with relief in her eyes. And over the next year, as she found her feet in the new school, Nicole would come to her aid over and over again. When a group of girls started calling Maddy names, Nicole jumped in and fiercely defended her new friend. On a school outing to the zoo, when Maddy forgot to bring her pocket money for treats, Nicole bought a packet of sweets so that the two girls could share.
Nicole was not perfect, not by any means, but to us, she embodied the word “generosity”. As parents of the newest member of the class, we were profoundly grateful at how a young child could be so giving, without, it seemed, much expectation of how Maddy might repay her. She seemed to simply be able to think of others with a largeness of heart which left our daughter a happier, more confident person, and myself, as an adult, staggered.
When I read the book of Acts and come upon Joseph the Levite, aka Barnabas, one of the first missionaries of the early church and the apostle Paul’s travelling companion, I like to think that at his nursery school in Cyprus, more than two thousand years ago, he would not have been much unlike Nicole in his largeness of heart, even as a young boy.
Think of biblical generosity and you’re likely to land upon Joseph the Levite as a key example. After all, Luke’s account of events in the book of Acts tells us that in the early days of the church, as believers in Jesus came together to form a worshipping community, they provided for one another’s needs by selling their possessions and sharing the proceeds (Acts 4:36-37). It is Joseph who stands out as having sold a piece of property to supply the needs of the group, thus earning him the name Barnabas, or “Son of Encouragement”, as the apostles duly nicknamed him. What we often forget is that while his calling was encouragement, his character was shaped by generosity. To be generous, after all, is to give to others above and beyond what they need, without any expectation of repayment. And that is what Barnabas did in giving up a piece of land for the needy church. As a Levite, such a property might have been his burial ground, and would be akin to giving his entire CPF away to help those less fortunate in our community. That in itself would be a challenge.
But that is just our introduction to Barnabas. For in the remaining chapters of the book of Acts, we come to see that his financial giving was surpassed by his generosity of spirit in drawing in the outsider, in recognising God’s power and goodness in others, and in being willing to play second fiddle at times.
For it was Barnabas who brought the newly-converted Paul into the church in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27), speaking up for the truth of Paul’s conversion experience, convincing the believers that the former persecutor was now a trusted brother and co-worker for Christ.
It was Barnabas who, seeing evidence of the grace of God in the Gentile believers at Antioch, continued to preach the gospel and disciple them (Acts 11:23-26), so that they became the first Christians – “Christ-bearers” - in the non-Jewish world.
It was Barnabas who chose to forgive John Mark’s failings in ministry - even to the point of disagreement with Paul - and who then gave the younger man the restorative second chance of working alongside him in Cyprus (Acts 15:39-40).
And finally, it seems it was Barnabas who, having helped Paul get established in ministry (Acts 11:25-26), was willing to work alongside the less experienced man, as an equal and a partner (Acts 13-15), and then to the point of disappearing almost completely from Luke’s writings altogether.
It is no wonder that Barnabas has the rare accolade of being described as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:24), and one of the clear evidences of this is the way he always seemed to be giving, in one form or another. For the essence of biblical generosity is the act of looking at others’ needs and making the decision to give to them, with no thought of getting anything in return, so that their needs are met and God’s Kingdom enlarged. I’m not just talking about money or material things, though it is hard enough for us to be generous with those. More than anything, biblical generosity requires the giving of self – in the form of time, emotion, love, kindness, support, affirmation, encouragement – whatever it takes to minister God’s grace in any situation.
Of course, Barnabas’ greatest example, and the only reason he could give of himself, is also our example and source, our Lord Jesus Christ. With such a rich source, we need never be insecure or fear losing out. Jesus Christ is sufficient even for the most kiasu among us. For as Paul reminds us, since we have such a loving heavenly Father “who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)?
Society today is desperately in need of Barnabas people – people shaped by generosity – who can break the cultural cycle of obligation and expectation which sometimes shapes giving in South East Asia, even in the church. In hard economic times, we need Barnabas people who will give sacrificially to help others when repayment is impossible.
More than that, we need Barnabas people who, with largeness of heart, can trace the evidence of God’s work in others and fan into flame the sparks of passion for Jesus and service for God in younger believers. We need Barnabas people who can work alongside those who have failed, picking them up, walking alongside them, modelling restorative grace, faithfulness and obedience. We need Barnabas people who, having given so much, are willing to retreat from the limelight so that God can have all the glory.
I don’t think Barnabas chose the glamorous route. But for the little we know about his personality, it seems his legacy is larger than he, or we, could ever imagine. Without him, Paul might not have become a missionary. Without him, the church in Antioch and elsewhere would have had much slower beginnings. Without him, John Mark might have never found his way back to being, in later life, a co-worker with Paul.
We often talk about generosity and think about money. But if a nursery-age child could give the precious gift of acceptance and affirmation to a classmate, and a little-known Levite could encourage a young believer who became one of the greatest missionaries of all time, then we too are called to a greater kind of generosity, that of living in a constant mode of extending grace and friendship, of recognising God’s handiwork and encouraging His gift, so that His Kingdom, in the lives of others, can grow ten, a hundred or even a thousand times beyond what we give.
Lynette Lim-Teagle is involved in outreach to international students at university in Oxford, England, together with her husband Peter and three children. Since studying at the Discipleship Training Centre in Singapore, she has always been interested in the lives of evangelists and missionaries from East Asia. She is presently pursuing doctoral studies at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.