It is more blessed to give than to receive

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Acts 20:13-38

Jesus’ version of it is probably the most famous – but everyone says “it’s better to give than receive.”  All the religions say it.  Even the atheists say it.

Last year, UCLA life scientists released a study showing the health benefits of providing support to others.  There are many such studies around.  They generally find that altruistic behaviour is beneficial, not simply for the recipient but for the giver.

Why might that be?  Well evolutionary psychologists proffer explanations like “reciprocal altruism” – when we perform a good deed we might reasonably expect them to return the favour.  Simply our anticipation of their pay-back feels good.

Evolutionary psychology, for all of its fascinating findings, reminds me of that old adage:  “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Basic selfishness is a brilliant explanation for so much of human life.  But it doesn’t capture everything, and trying to make it capture everything leads to unconvincing explanations, like this one.

If “reciprocal altruism” explained our “blessedness” in giving, Jesus should have said “It is more blessed to receive than to give, but, hey, giving’s a great way of getting!”

Or how about this for an explanation.  One of the UCLA scientists said:

“Because of the importance of support-giving for the survival of our species, it is possible that over the course of our evolutionary history, support-giving may have become psychologically rewarding to ensure that this behaviour persisted.”

If this were the case, Jesus should have said “It is more blessed to receive than to give, but remember to factor in the survival of the species over several millenia when you make your self-interested calculations.”

Once again, we’ve avoided the blessedness of true self-giving.  Self-giving is affirmed close-up, but denied when we zoom back to get the big picture.

Yet in Acts 20:35 Paul recounts a saying of Jesus that was not recorded by the four Evangelists but which was clearly remembered and circulated by the early church:  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Such a sentiment is expressed in virtually every other world-view imaginable.   There’s only one difference with Christ’s saying… the Speaker.  You see “Evolutionary Psychology” may tell you it’s better to give, but Evolution itself is selfishness writ large.  Other gods may urge you to be selfless – but they themselves are self-interested takers.  The difference with Christ’s saying is Christ.

He is ultimate reality and He Himself is self-giving love, the cross proves it.  The universe with Christ at the centre is the one universe in which grace reigns.  He is the one Lord who does not come to be served but to serve and to give His life for us (Mark 10:45).

There are many exemplars of self-giving, but they operate contrary to the selfish universe they claim to inhabit.  There are many that claim to be ultimate powers who tell you to give – but these powers are themselves self-interested.  Christ is the one Power who a) tells you to give, b) is Giver and c) determines ultimate reality.  Jesus tells you to give because He is grace poured out beyond all limits.  And because the Lord is grace, so self-giving is not a means towards ultimate selfishness.  Grace is the essence of the blessed life.  There’s nothing higher, or deeper, or more real.  This is Christ’s universe.  So give.

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