Did you know that giving can be dangerous? That sounds strange but is illustrated in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11), who sold a piece of land and brought part of the proceeds to the apostles. Rather than being honest about the amount they were giving, they claimed that they were giving the entire proceeds of the sale to the church. God punished them for lying to the Spirit.
The problem is not that they did not give the full amount. Once the land was sold, the proceeds were at their disposal (v. 4). There was no expectation that it should all be given to the church. The problem was that their lie undermined the work of the Spirit in the church. The text immediately preceding their story (Acts 4:32–37) shows how the Spirit was at work to produce astonishing generosity among the church’s members. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to be applauded as generous givers and so concocted a lie to make themselves look good. Without apostolic insight, it might have worked.
When Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira, he might have thought of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:2–4. Jesus warned his hearers to beware of manipulating their generosity in order to be “praised by others.” He (perhaps hyperbolically) spoke of the religious leaders sounding a trumpet before them in their giving. The hypocrites drew attention to their giving in order to receive the praise of people, and Jesus said that they received what they wanted, but voided the praise of God in the process. Jesus warned that surpassing righteousness is not interested in being lauded as generous but in simply being generous and allowing God to see and reward your generosity.
Generosity is important for Christians because it displays God’s character. Humans were made in God’s image, and since he is a generous God, humans are built to be generous. Christians should display this to an even greater degree, since our calling is to become like Christ, who is the very epitome of divine generosity.
Jesus warned his disciples that their generosity must not be like that of the religious leaders but must surpass their generosity in being truly Christlike. What does Christlike generosity look like? Here, briefly, are four biblical principles to consider.
First, Christlike generosity is motivated by love. Paul said that donating all your earthly possessions in order to feed the poor is useless unless it is not motivated by love (1 Corinthians 13:3). God loved in such a way that he gave (John 3:16) and our love should likewise result in sacrifice.
Second, Christlike generosity aims to please God. We give cheerfully because God loves cheerful givers (2 Corinthians 9:6–7). While we are moved by love for our neighbour to be generous, our ultimate Christian motive is to please God.
Third, Christlike generosity considers the needs of the body. Paul urged the Ephesians to be followers of God in a very particular way: to walk in love as Christ did by giving himself for his people (Ephesians 5:1–2). Christ considered the needs of his people when he gave himself. Our giving should consider the same.
Fourth, Christlike generosity is an act of faith—and a faith-building act. Paul thanked the Philippians for their generosity toward him and promised them, in response to their generosity, that God would supply their needs (Philippians 4:17–20).
The Bible calls us to generosity as Christians, but Jesus warned that generosity, ill motivated, can be dangerous. Generosity that God rewards is carried out in secret, not for the praise of people. Are you a generous person? Are you so secretly, motivated by love, aiming to please God, considering the needs of the body, and acting in faith? Allow God to transform your generosity in such a way that you can one day anticipate a reward from your Father who sees in secret.