Isaiah, the prophet says:
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! It’s announcement, but an announcement about hypocrisy. This is often a common issue for religious people—that they say they love God and they claim to do all the right religious rituals and they think themselves to be righteous. But truthfully, their lives do not reflect what they claim.
Oftentimes I get asked this question:
Why are less and less people participating in the Christian church? What is happening?
It is probably the easiest question to answer.
It’s the hypocrisy thing again. People on the outside of the institutional church know more about the Bible and the religion of Christianity than churchgoers assume. And those on the outside see that most churches don’t do what they say; they are not living as Jesus taught. So it should come as no surprise that most people are completely skeptical of and turned off by the church as a whole. No, it’s not about flashy programs, the “right theology” or the coolest music. It’s about being real.
It’s about doing as we say and being authentic.
Which is why Isaiah is so ticked off. People of faith spend WAY too much time fighting over whose religious fast is better. Our theology is superior to yours; our Bible interpretations are the best; our social justice outreach is exemplary; look at what we do and say—we’re awesome!
But instead of tooting our horns to pat ourselves on the back, Isaiah [and later Jesus of Nazareth] tell us to do the opposite. Yeah, toot your horns, but do so to call attention to those who are truly suffering in the world. Do so to shout out the truth! People are marginalized because of their skin color, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identification, and the language they speak.
And all the religious rituals, the ceremonial fasting, and the talking about God doesn’t cut it.
The chosen fast, says Isaiah and Jesus, is to loosen the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break down every barrier or limitation. The chosen fast is to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your house; and to clothe the naked; and to not turn away from all the humans around you who may need some encouragement or help.
And look—this spiritual fast [which becomes a living fast] is not some sort of guilt trip that God is laying on us. There are so many benefits to this fast. Light breaks forth like the dawn, healing springs up quickly; protection is provided. You call out and your voice is heard. You need help, and you’re not alone. Needs are satisfied; you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Broken relationships are reconciled and streets are safe and toppled structures rebuilt.
The acceptable fast is generosity.
Think about generosity for a moment. It is paradoxical, is it not? Those who give, receive something back. If we let go of something we own, we better secure our own lives. If we give a part of ourselves, we ourselves move toward fulfillment. This is not philosophy or religious jabber; it is a sociological fact.
The generosity paradox can go the other way, too. Instead of giving, if we hold onto what we currently have, we actually lose out on better things we might have experienced. If we keep possessions, we shortchange ourselves long-term. For example, one may think that she needs to protect herself from an uncertain future or possible problems, so she holds tightly to what she has. But this behavior makes her more anxious about more vulnerable to future misfortunes. If we do not give of ourselves to care for others, we do not practice self-care.
This paradox of generosity is reflected in many religious traditions. Consider the ancient Hebrew proverb: One gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but ends up impoverished.
Or, this teaching of The Buddha: Giving brings happiness at every stage of its expression.
And this Hindu proverb: They who give have all things, they who withhold have nothing.
And anyone hear these Jesus words echoing?
Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.
For the last three years Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson have been leading a study called the Science of Generosity Initiative. They have conducted a nationally representative survey of Americans’ practices and beliefs about generosity, hundreds of interviews with Americans around the country on generosity, and participant-observation studies of local religious congregations.
Here is what they learned:
- The more generous people are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy.
- Generous practices actually cause enhanced personal well-being.
- The way we talk about generosity confirms and illustrates the first two points.
The third finding is important to notice and very similar to Isaiah’s point about generosity:
We cannot fake generosity.
We can’t choose to be generous just so we can get something. We must desire the good of other people. Fake generosity, just like false humility, will not make us happier, healthier, and more purposeful in life. Generosity must be authentic. And this is the good news that the world needs to hear and experience. So embrace the generosity paradox. May your forty days of Lent be an opportunity to decide to make generosity your lifestyle. Amen.
 Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. The Generosity Paradox.