In a village in Malawi where families were starving, the Rev. Scott McKenzie experienced some of the most genuine generosity he's ever witnessed.
"It was at the height of famine in the early 2000s in Malawi, the height of AIDS. Villages were being devastated. The pastor had actually died of starvation," McKenzie explained.
As McKenzie's group prepared to leave, the people of the village came out "dancing and singing and bearing gifts for us. The only gift that they gave us was food. They're starving, their children are starving, their pastor died of starvation, and they gave us food!"
Though McKenzie and others in the group tried to refuse, their interpreter told them, "You have to take the food because they are so thankful that you came. Don't deny them the privilege of showing their gratitude."
"I don't think anybody in our delegation had a dry eye," McKenzie said. "It was amazing."
McKenzie, senior vice president at Horizons Stewardship Company, said he believes gratitude is what motivates true generosity.
Respond with gratitude
"Generosity is grounded in a real sense of gratitude," he said. "When I look at my entire life as a gift from the hand of a loving and generous God...the things that I have, they're not mine. I don't own them. So when I have a grateful heart and realize that's all a gift, then I'm much more inclined to share."
The Rev. Betsy Schwarzentraub, author and consultant on stewardship, agreed with McKenzie, adding that generosity is "both an attitude and a habit."
"Generosity is our passion for giving out of who we are and what we have in gratitude for God's generosity, God's self-giving relationship with us in Jesus Christ and also through the Holy Spirit," she said.
Schwarzentraub, former director of stewardship for Discipleship Ministries, said she considers generosity among John Wesley's means of grace, "meaning how we experience God's grace and how we get to respond to God's grace in gratitude."
"His primary statement about stewardship was earn all you can, save all you can, in order to give all you can," Schwarzentraub said, adding that Wesley's ideas about generosity also fall under the general rules of the Methodist societies – to do good and do no harm.
Reflecting God's image
Schwarzentraub and McKenzie both said they consider John 3:16 a fundamental biblical example of God's generosity.
"The very nature of God is to be generous," McKenzie said. "By definition, God is generous. If we believe we're created in the image of God, then we're created to be generous. I think that puts it in a different context for people. We were born to be generous and giving."
In their book World-Changing Generosity (iUniverse), Jim and Nancy Cotterill write that the Bible mentions the word "give" 921 times, and 17 of the 38 parables told by Jesus are related to giving.
"Jesus said that his followers would be known by their love for him and for each other," they write. "He instructed them to show their love by giving their time, talent and treasure to provide aid to the poor, widows, orphans and the downtrodden."
Even something as simple as listening can be an example of generosity, according to Cathy Wilcox of South Gibson United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. She was among those responding to this issue's "We asked, ‘...;' you said, ‘... .'" (WAYS) question.
"A generous lifestyle is one in which you make yourself and your resources available to those in need," she said. "Sometimes this means money, sometimes talent or spiritual gifts. Other times, the thing that's needed is for you to let go of yourself, open your mind and consider the person's point of view, to hear them and see them without judging, to listen and not speak."
Gordon Evans, who attends Erie United Methodist Church, also in Pennsylvania, said he believes God's love can remove any hindrances to generosity.
"God's love pushes out the fears – the fear of not having what we need, the fear of looking foolish in the eyes of our friends and family, the fear of making a mistake," said Evans, another WAYS responder. "God's perfect love gives us the courage to be bold, to speak boldly in love, to give boldly in love, to give of our time, love, money, expecting nothing in return."
Gratitude sparks generosity
To cultivate generosity, McKenzie encourages people to start by cultivating gratitude and then take small steps toward being more generous.
"If you really want somebody to begin practicing generosity, tell them to begin practicing gratitude," he said.
Research has shown that a daily practice of writing down what you are thankful for can increase gratitude, and McKenzie said he believes gratitude practices combined with prayer and an open heart will lead to more generosity.
"I think people become generous in all areas of life when they are prayerful and open to what God might have them do," he said.
Schwarzentraub agreed that an awareness of God's presence can be transformational.
"I think that generosity or generous-hearted living does become a way of living. If we keep intentionally trying to be open to God and grateful to God, it becomes a kind of outpouring of our gifts," she said.
Schwarzentraub promotes what she calls "first fruits living," which involves offering resources to God first "and then trying to manage all the rest of whatever we save and spend, according to God's generosity the best we can."
"Whatever the percentage is that people decide they can give, to do that first...that, in itself, fosters a sense of generosity," she said. "That includes more than just money. The first day of the week in worship, the first part of the day in devotions, the first part of our relationships encouraging one another in our faith and walk with God."
One easy way to be more giving, McKenzie suggested, is by offering generous tips to servers when you eat at a restaurant.
"There are small things you can begin to do in your life that would help you be more generous," he said.
Give every day
The book 29 Days (Da Capo Press) by Cami Walker has been an inspiring resource for some United Methodists, Schwarzentraub said.
The author "started out in a very dark place," she continued, but someone encouraged her to try giving something – even just a smile – to someone every day for 29 days. "She began to find all sorts of opportunities to help other people, to give in some way. Her whole approach to life changed."
McKenzie said he has seen repeatedly how people can grow when they begin to view their resources with a grateful heart.
"Gratitude and generosity will change people's lives," he said. "One of the neatest things is to be with somebody, to see somebody begin this process and have this typical American mindset of ‘what's mine is mine.' You take them through the process of gratitude and prayer. They really open up, and it's amazing to see the difference at the end. It's so cool to see that transformation."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.