Generosity and Selflessness

A characteristic of giving in the kingdom of God is selflessness. Don’t confuse this with selfishness, because these two terms are polar opposites. Though they each contain the word self, their definitions couldn’t be more different. Each of their definitions has a focus on someone but is aimed in a different direction. Selfishness is focused on oneself instead of others, and selflessness is focused on others instead of oneself. My wife and I have been working through these two ideas with our young sons lately. Almost daily we are having to handle a situation where one of our sons snatches a toy from the other one’s hands. And every time we ask, “Why did you do that?” we hear the same response, “Because I wanted it!” There’s no regard for his brother, but only a focus on his own joy of playing with a toy. Each time we get to explain what it means for us to be selfless and care for each other as a family. You see, selfishness only wants what’s best for the individual instead of seeking to care for others. Selfishness is always focused on “me, me, me,” whereas someone who is selfless finds their greatest concern for others. A selfish person sees their life as the greatest priority, but a selfless person puts the lives of others above their own. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus is the perfect example of a selfless person: someone who puts the lives of others above His own, even to the point of death. Jesus even calls us to follow Him in a life of selflessness as we care for others. He tells us in the Gospel of John, “This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13). If we are going to love each other just as Christ has loved us, then we must put the concern of others above our own. As the perfect selfless Savior, Jesus laid down His own life for the sake of others. In following Christ’s command, we are to be selfless and care for others more than ourselves. 

Just as humility is a characteristic of a generous giver in the kingdom of God, so is selflessness. Not only does generosity in the gospel call us to give with humility, but it calls for our giving to be focused on others. We don’t give in order to be known, but to put the needs of others first and point people to Jesus Christ. Selfless generosity cares about the needs of others, even above your own. Let’s read Luke 21:1–4 together:

He looked up and saw the rich dropping their offerings into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow dropping in two tiny coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said. “This poor widow has put in more than all of them. For all these people have put in gifts out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”

This story is a perfect example of what it looks like to be a generous and selfless giver. We find a widow who gives a gift that is above and beyond in comparison to the wealthy people around her. No, her gift may not equal the amount given by the wealthy, but according to Jesus, her wealth isn’t defined by what she gave but by her character and disposition in giving. The widow displays a truly selfless act in giving because she gave everything she had. Again, we see how Jesus highlights the character of the giver over the gift in this story. The emphasis isn’t on the amount of money that was given, but on the heart and intentions of the giver. Jesus sees two different types of people dropping off their gifts to the temple treasury—the selfish and the selfless.

In the first century, the temple in Jerusalem was not just the central location of worship for Israel but was a repository for wealth. Israelites would come to the temple and drop off their offerings, as well as pay dues and taxes, make other monetary and non-monetary donations, or store their wealth. The money that Israelites gave often was turned around and redistributed to those in need. People often brought their wealth to the temple because they believed that a sacred place was a safe place to use as a repository. It would have been a common practice to see people regularly going to the temple treasury to give a gift. On this particular day, Jesus saw the wealthy give their offerings and a widow give two coins. In observing this, Christ says that all the gifts given by the rich, the widow’s gift surpasses in wealth (Luke 21:1–2). It’s striking to me that the comparison we find is not between a singular rich person and a singular poor widow. Did you catch that when you read the passage? Jesus says, He “saw the rich” and “a poor widow” giving their offerings. The “rich” is not a singular person but is a plural term and is likely referencing all the wealthy people who gave their gifts at the temple treasury. He is calling out all the rich in their giving. In comparison to the rich, Jesus uses the singular example of one poor widow to show how the character of giving surpasses the gift itself. 

In giving her two coins, Jesus says that the widow had given more than all of the rich combined. Now, I know I am not a mathematician, but how is it possible that all of the wealthy people’s gifts to the temple treasury are outweighed by the meager two coins of the poor widow? It’s simple, Jesus tells us, “For all these people have put in gifts out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:4). The widow, by no means, had any wealth that could be flaunted. To emphasize this, Jesus calls her a “poor widow,” really impressing into His hearers the state of the widow’s finances. At this time, widows would have been considered among the most vulnerable people in the community. They would not have had a source of income, and without an extended family to care for them, they would have been left to fend for themselves. This is why we hear the command to care for widows and orphans so frequently in the Scriptures (Acts 6:1–7; James 1:27; 1 Tim. 5:3–16). But Jesus says the poor widow gave more because she gave everything she had. Unlike the wealthy people giving gifts, the widow didn’t just give a gift; she exhausted her account to give. The widow had only two coins to live on, and instead of keeping them for herself, she gave them to the temple to be used in the service of God. The widow’s act of generosity shows her selflessness in giving. As Jesus says, she did not give out of her “surplus” but out of her “poverty.” 

It is really easy to give out of a surplus. That’s because the surplus is never something we truly need. A surplus is nothing more than the money left over after you have paid your bills each month. If you are like me and you pay attention to your budget, then you know exactly how much money you will have in surplus at the end of each month. That money isn’t needed to survive; it’s simply the leftovers. This is what Jesus says the rich had given out of, their surplus. For the rich, the leftovers are what they deemed acceptable to give because they first took care of themselves. It’s like our saying to God, “You can have the leftovers of what I have.” For the rich in this story, the surplus wasn’t money they needed, nor was it difficult for them to give. Contrary to this type of giving, selflessness in generosity pursues the care of others over one’s own needs. The amount of the gift doesn’t matter to God, but giving that cares for others is of supreme importance. Or as Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “Our gifts are not to be measured by the amount we contribute, but by the surplus kept in our own hand. The two mites of the widow were, in Christ’s eyes, worth more than all the other money cast into the treasury.” As we practice generosity, our concern should not be whether or not our needs have been met first before we give. But in laying aside our own needs, we see the priority of others and give selflessly. What honors God in giving? A selfless heart that gives out of what one has and not out of one’s abundance.

Excerpted with permission from A Short Guide to Gospel Generosity by Nathan W. Harris. Copyright 2024, B&H Publishing

Nathan W. Harris
Nathan W. Harris

Nathan W. Harris is the vice president of advancement at Grace College & Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana and the author of A Short Guide to Gospel Generosity (B&H).