How to be Generous, Even When You Feel Empty

Written by Mara Bowman

“I’m just a broke college student.”

I think this a phrase that all college students have said or heard more times than we could count. All too often we are absorbed in the chaos of our own financial uncertainty. Money is the most tangible way we are encouraged to express generosity—but there are so many other ways to practice thankfulness in the form of giving.

Time (and lack of it) is another big part of the college experience. A couple weeks ago I was walking up the stairs into the sanctuary for Pause with a friend. When we reached the door to the sanctuary she expressed to me uncertainty if her busy schedule allowed the time to go to Pause. I think this hesitation is a sentiment we all have shared at some point.

“I can’t decide Mara. Should I stay or go? I have a lot to do.”

The physical representation of the decision was raw and real, as her glance shifted back and forth between the two doors: one to leave, one to stay.  I looked at her and I said, “Do you need to breathe?” (The theme at Pause that night was breathe coincidentally). She looked at me. I could tell she was still uncertain.

“Do you need to breathe?” I said again. Eventually her gaze shifted back towards the sanctuary and we ended up walking in together. When I asked her afterward, she said she did not regret her decision.

Generosity is being mindful not just about the ways in which we are giving, but also where and how we devote our time. Oftentimes we look at our schedules as hectic blocks strictly sectioned off in a Google calendar. For me, Pause is time spent but I do not see it as a “loss” or deficit of time. When we invest our time in things that restore us, we become re-centered in Christ’s call to live a life of gratitude and generosity. Think to yourself: why am I engaging in this event? Personally, I knew engaging my time in the LCM community was spiritually fulfilling for me. Don’t attend things mindlessly and make it a mundane task, but pursue it with intention. Reflect and remember why you sought out this community and why you continue to seek it. What energizes you about it? What renews and sustains you?

Although pausing to worship may not be seen as a form of generosity, I think it perfectly illustrates how our time can be the greatest form of generosity. I recently heard Bryan Stevenson—author of the bestselling novel Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative—speak at the University. One of his main points was reminding us to remain proximal to broken communities to bring about healing. Being generous with our time means wrapping ourselves around the issues, people and broken communities we care about. Bryan Stevenson has poured himself into his work, dedicating his entire life to radically change the criminal justice system and saving the lives of his clients. Time spent getting proximal to the communities we are trying to reach out to can be the greatest form of generosity.

Generosity also means intentionally looking at the gifts God has blessed us with and pushing ourselves to use them many ways in our lives. For Bryan Stevenson, this manifests in his eloquence, compassion and intellect; gifts which led him to devote a lifetime representing wrongly convicted people on death row and educating others about the painful racial divides which still remain in our country. For you, this looks different (because you aren’t Bryan Stevenson). Take a minute or two and reflect about how you give and have given your talents to the communities you are a part of.

It can be extremely easy to view our commitments as ways in which we are pulling from ourselves. Sometimes our perceived moments of “generosity” feels like we are pulling away pieces of ourselves. We get caught in a draining cycle of timed commitments. I’m familiar with the heavy feeling of knowing how many meetings, assignments or appointments I have in a day. When we feel surrounded by these obligations, it feels like we don’t have time to be generous. You may think, if I give up any more of my time, or myself, I’m going to dry up.

We should treat our spiritual lives differently—it shouldn’t be like a box we check off of our busy week. We shouldn’t approach service to others as a way of fulfilling our resumé of what we believe makes us “good” Christians. The Bible (unsurprisingly) has some wisdom for us on generosity. At first I was expecting to find a lot of “hey, if you’re generous and give to people, God will reward you later,” which I did find in quite a few places. However, a few of the verses I read reflected a more one-sided view of generosity: you give to other people because, well, you should.

And it makes sense really. God is the master of giving; creator of the universe, creator of the plants and animals which bring beauty and diversity to the earth, creator of humans whom God gave the earth to watch over. God even sent us the ultimate gift: Jesus, who died on the cross to bring grace, redemption and healing into a broken world. Jesus extended God’s generosity to a hurting and broken people, and Jesus showed compassion while growing proximal to the communities that were rejected by society. God continues to give and give and give to us complicated humans, even when we destroy, reject or return those gifts.

At the end of the day, maybe we are all just a bunch of broke college students. There are so many distractions and obligations and worries that make it so much easier to turn away. Yet, you are called to engage and give to those around you, even when it feels like you have nothing left to give. A verse I particularly liked from Proverbs paints a nice picture of the outcomes of generosity: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what they should give and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will themselves be watered.” Generosity can in fact restore and renew us.

As we draw nearer to the holiday season, generosity tends to become more present on our minds. When we are celebrating the gifts of time spent with family, we might remember the people who are celebrating alone. When we sit down for our Thanksgiving meal, and lay on the couch with an uncomfortably full stomach, we are reminded of those who are wondering where their next meal is coming from. When the weather gets cold and we’re bundled up in our wind/water/ice/snow/you-name-it proof jackets, we’re reminded of the people who sleep outside in below freezing temperatures, or can’t afford a jacket. Remembering the many things we have to be grateful for; challenge us to seek ways to spread our gifts to others.

This Thanksgiving as you share your gratitude with loved ones, I encourage you to reflect on how you can transform your gratitude into generosity for other people and communities. God, the ultimate giver, reminds us that all are deserving, all are worthy, all are broken, and the gifts we possess are not intended to be kept to ourselves. Generosity enables us to actively show God’s unrelenting love, grace, and mercy in the world.