Alex Haley, the author of Roots, is known to have a picture in his office of a turtle sitting on a fencepost. When asked why he kept this picture he said that it reminded him that if a turtle is on a fencepost you know he had some help.
In an age of platform-seeking celebrities, it’s easy to overlook this reality. Both inside and outside of the church, nobody is the person they are without the investment of others. A glimpse in the rear-view mirror of life will reveal that the mysterious hand of God’s sovereignty often worked through the love, investment, and sacrifice of others. We are who we are because of other people.
Blessed by the generosity of others
Christians are no exception to this rule. It’s easy to think that we’ve carved our own way, worked hard, proven ourselves, and been blessed by God as a result. There’s some truth here, but these realities need not obscure the fact that we are all in the positions of influence that God has us as a result of the generosity of others.
We’ve all had help and we know it.
This may be a blow to our deep-seated pride, but along the way there have been those who have gone out of their way to give us an opportunities, met with us when we were at a low point and wanted to tap out, challenged us to grow in grace and holiness, and confronted us in our prodigal waywardness.
Christian leaders are where they are because someone cared enough to love us when we were young, foolish, and naive. Some of these people we know, and some we don’t. Often, we are where we are because of a conversation or a phone call we may never know about.
We praise God when this happens in our lives ‒ celebrating the fact that the baker and the cupbearer did not forget about us. Someone spoke kindly of us, prayed on our behalf, gave us grace when they could have given up, or advocated for us in places that mattered. And God used that to change our lives.
My story is no exception to that rule ‒ I would not be where I am were it not for parents who prayed, a camp staffer who talked to me about the gospel while we shot ball, a pastor who spent time showing me how the gospel changes all of life. I’m not a self-made man and I know it.
Generosity isn’t just about money
Over time it becomes my turn to do the same for others. But far too often I don’t. Sadly it seems that though I know I am where I am due to the generosity of others, I fail to demonstrate that same level of generosity to those God has put in my life.
I used to think of generosity primarily in terms of money. I was generous when I saw a need around me and provided the resources to help. Or, I might see generosity as a gift of time ‒ I was generous when I gave time to meet a need. But, I’m not sure this is the full extent of the generosity God calls me to. In many ways this level of generosity is reactive in nature ‒ I see a need around me and seek to do something to address it.
Generosity can also be proactive. In Philippians 2, Paul challenges the church to count others as more significant than yourself by not merely looking to one’s own interests but also to the interests of others (2:3–4). Looking out for the interests of others extends far beyond giving money or time to someone in need.
It means that I consciously ask myself: “What could I do to promote the interest of someone else?” “How can I make them better?” “How can I serve as a conduit of God’s grace?” “How can I give them an opportunity they might not otherwise have?” These questions demonstrate a truly generous heart.
It often seems like this type of generosity is far more common for believers in the fourth-quarter of their lives. They know that their legacy hinges on the investment they make in others. But it’s often a rare trait for Christians in the prime of their lives, who have recently awakened to the beauty of the gospel and taken on leadership positions in the church.
We’re often quick to forget the life-shaping role we can play in the lives of others by looking out for their interests before we consider our next pet project, work promotion, or personal growth plan.
The starting point
The context for such proactive generosity must begin with those I’m around most, such as my wife and kids. It’s one thing to serve my wife by providing for our home or doing the dishes when I know she’s had a hard day. These actions, while laudable, require very little conscious effort.
But it’s another thing to consider how I might be truly generous ‒ how I might look out for her own interests on a regular basis. For this to happen I must consider ways I can put her in positions to thrive, ways my choices can free her up to do the things she loves, or how I might create opportunities for her that she would not have, or know about, if I weren’t being intentional.
Then, it extends to colleagues and friends. True generosity requires that I, first, refrain from using people to accomplish my predetermined end, all in an effort to make myself look good. This is considering my interests, not theirs.
But it’s more than just what I don’t do. It’s also being thoughtful to consider unique and meaningful ways that I might get them on the fencepost. This might mean giving up a day in conversations that have no personal benefit but make it easier for someone I love to do what they sense God calling them to.
Generosity might mean that I meet with the prodigal one more time, because I remember what it was like to roll around in the muck. It might mean saying no to some opportunity so that someone else can have a shot. This might mean giving someone a project that they haven’t earned the right to tackle. It might mean taking a risk on an unproven, young leader and putting my reputation on the line to give him a chance to lead. It might be advocating for a brother in a meeting, when I could far more easily keep quiet.
Sure, these seem like small gestures, but we all know that these are the very same acts that got us in the places we are today.