This past week I ran across some research findings that can be put in the “I Could Have Told You That” file. Researchers at both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University (both prestigious research institutions) released their studies that showed that people are happier when they give than when they receive. The researchers conducted two different experiments. In the first, participants were given $5 per day for five days. Some were told to spend the money on themselves, while others were told to spend it on others (charitable donation, tips, etc). In the second, participants played a word puzzle game; when they won, they received a small amount of money. They could choose to either keep the money or donate it. In both experiments, those who gave the money to others reported greater and longer-lasting happiness than those who kept the money for themselves. Researchers controlled for a number of other explanations for these results (over a dozen potential explanatory variables), but none of them yielded any explanation for the findings.
Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). It’s an adage that many know, even those who aren’t Christians, but one that few seem to believe. Our culture is a consumer culture, and while we may know the words of Jesus on the matter, we tend to follow a different proverb: “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” We accumulate stuff (if you don’t believe me, just move – you’ll discover just how much you have and how much you don’t need!). We see shiny objects, and like a raccoon, we grab ahold of it and don’t want to let go. This is not a critique of purchasing things that are needed or useful, of course, but if late night infomercials have taught us anything, it’s that what we think is useful might only be novel. Those things provide us with a fleeting sense of happiness that evaporates as quickly as the newness wears off, which prompts us to begin searching for the next new, shiny thing to bring us contentment.
We would be wiser if we heeded the words of Jesus (again, I know that’s in the “I Could Have Told You That” file!). But have you stopped to think about why it’s better to give than to receive? Let me share a few reasons. First, God is the ultimate Giver, and it pleases Him to give good gifts to His children. James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” Have you ever stopped to think about how everything we have – from the air we breathe to the clothes we wear – is from the hand of the Lord? He gives physical things, He gives spiritual things, and, most importantly, He gave us Jesus Christ. When we, who are bearers of the imago Dei, give gifts to others, we are praising God’s character and experiencing just a taste of the pleasure God has in giving to us. Second, gift giving builds community. When we give to others – whether a material gift, the gift of our time, or the gift of our love – we develop and strengthen the relationships that we have with them. The gifts we give are tangible examples of how we feel about someone else. Many of us can remember with fondness special gifts that were given to us and how that increased our love and appreciation for the giver of the gift. A third reason is that giving is part of God’s sanctifying process. In 1 Tim. 6:10, Paul writes, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” Part of the battle we wage with our sinful flesh is selfishness, and that is perhaps nowhere more evident than in our attitude toward our material wealth and possessions. When we give to others, we are necessarily reducing our material wealth; once we give it away, we no longer possess it. We are denying ourselves while focusing on others, which the Holy Spirit uses to sanctify us.
With the Christmas season now behind us, it is my prayer for you that the giving spirit that is so much on display during this time does not depart from you. I pray that we continue to be the givers that God has called us to be: giving freely, giving without any expectation of return, giving sacrificially, and giving lovingly. Just something to think about…