In cultivating a Christian ethic of economic generosity, we tend to focus heavily on traditional acts of charity—donating our dollars, volunteering our time, and so on. Likewise, in heeding Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to serve the “least of these,” we often think through the lens of one-way material transfers.
Yet throughout the Biblical story, we also see generosity manifest in the context of relationship. Sacrifice is paired with partnership, with giving finding much of its meaning in the receiving. When it comes to our economic witness, then, how might we widen our perspective, taking full account of the ways our love might manifest on behalf of our neighbors?
In an article at The Gospel Coalition, Justin Lonas of the Chalmers Center poses a similar question, examining how an overemphasis on charity can lead us to neglect other spheres of sacrifice and service. “As followers of Jesus, we are called to give generously and sacrificially to the work of the church and to our brothers and sisters in times of need,” he writes. “But is giving [as charity] the only way to show economic love to others and demonstrate the kingdom of God to a watching world?”
Indeed, if we were to simply observe “what works,” Lonas notes, the driving force of poverty alleviation has not been sporadic charity or even organized philanthropy, but “the spread of institutions that foster markets in an increasingly globalized economy.” Through the ongoing expansion of economic freedom—of creating and innovating, buying and selling, trading and exchanging—we have seen historic declines in global poverty.
What we forget is that such expansion also leads to new opportunities for generosity. While trade certainly involves a profit, as well as a range of other external considerations, it also offers new ways of giving and serving others. “In its purest form, trade—that is, economic exchange in general—is simply sharing together in work and flourishing on a grand scale,” Lonas writes.
Through this perspective, trade and economic cooperation are simply part of God’s broader design for the created order, a picture of “relationship and reciprocity” and the interconnectedness of all things:
The complexity of human beings and natural resources that markets help us navigate is a feature, not a bug, of creation. A quick look at any part of the natural world reveals a vast and interconnected variety of minerals, chemicals, and living things in an intricate dance.
Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how stability is built into ecosystems as reciprocity. In Braiding Sweetgrass, she explains how North American nut trees in the Juglandaceae family…“communicate” with one another via interconnected fungi webs underground to produce similar harvests in similar years, helping to set the tone for the population of squirrels and their various predators.
People are also part of the system, able to harvest the natural surplus of nuts for our own consumption…and the overabundance…ensures that the next generation of trees will survive. We see this web of interconnectedness over and over in creation. No single corner of the world fully contains everything it needs to thrive. That interdependence, that mutual thriving, is part of the “grain” God has given the world—one we should work with, rather than against.
Through trade and exchange, we see a natural interdependence among neighbors, through which much, much more is possible. The challenge is that it can be often difficult to inhabit these relationships in a way that truly loves and honors our neighbors.
To fully flourish, we don’t just need human cooperation. We need a Gospel heartbeat of generosity, and one that influences not just “charitable donations” but all of our economic action, from mundane daily trades and exchanges to our daily work and creative service to new economic enterprises and institutions:
The generosity to which God calls his people isn’t merely charity that alleviates pain for a moment (though it’s certainly never less than that). It’s a spirit of giving freely from his abundance in ways that restore people to their God-given dignity and ability to participate in the economic life of the community as equals, not dependents.
We are not blind actors, bound to unfettered self-interest, but responsible members of a created community called both to understand the relationships God has built into the world, and also to respect his design. The growth of wealth, specialization, and efficiency that God allows through markets is never meant to overpower or contradict our accountability to the physical and spiritual limits he’s graciously given us.
This not a choice between one form of charity and another. All is gift, and we are called to be gift-givers across economic life, serving our neighbors in the full complexity of their humanity, from immediate material needs to ongoing relational support, from economic empowerment to ongoing economic discipleship.
This is not an either-or decision, as Lonas reminds us:
Scripture offers a vision of economic life that bridges the charity of giving and the dignity of work and trade—with gratitude as its governing principle. Our triune God created the world as an outflow of his love, and it thrives in interdependent love.
As such, God doesn’t call us to a “trickle-down” economy of unrestrained prosperity for a few that spills over in generous giving to the less fortunate. He calls us to an intricately interconnected web of relationships that together reflect his creativity and abundance.
By embracing this perspective and infusing our trading relationships with a spirit of generosity, we are simply aligning the work of our hands to the hearts of our neighbors through creative service and collaboration. By expanding our economic imaginations, we are opening new doorways to new redemptive relationships and the fruit that’s bound to follow.
“Fully realized generosity is about reciprocity, both giving and receiving,” Lonas concludes. “It looks less like a soup kitchen—where the ‘haves’ dutifully ladle leftover blessings to ‘have nots’—and more like a potluck—where everyone has a place and everyone brings a plate. Such mutual transformation should be the God-given outcome of healthy trade steeped in gratitude and generosity. For God made us to depend on each other, to flourish alongside each other, just like all the other ecosystems he has made.”