Yes, Virginia, there is a generosity gene.

If you’ve sat through years of really bad stewardship sermons, you’ve likely been urged to “give until it hurts.” But now we learn that the adage isn’t just bad theology. It’s also bad biology.

balance_mind_and_heart_10001That’s the conclusion of science writer Elizabeth Svoboda based on her review of the burgeoning research into altruistic behavior.  In an article published in the Wall Street Journal (and in a book titled What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness), she explains

While we often tend to think of altruism as a kind of sophisticated moral capacity we use to squelch our urges to dominate others, new evidence suggests that giving is actually inherently rewarding: The brain churns out a pleasurable response when we engage in it.

In other words, we humans are genetically programmed to be joyful givers – a finding that shouldn’t surprise those of us who understand ourselves as created in God’s image. How can we be anything but naturally generous given the source of our very being?

Easy, it seems, based on the meager annual charitable giving for most Americans.


These days, many folks — including a goodly number who self-identify as Christ followers — aren’t living up to their God-given inclination toward generosity. Svoboda warns that “what we do with our generous thoughts and inclinations is always up to us. While we are hard-wired to ‘do unto others’ in a multitude of ways, we also have power over whether to take advantage of those natural capacities or let them wither away.”

Or maybe it’s that fundraisers – including pastors – do such a lousy job of nurturing in donors the natural impulse to give. Thom Jeavons and I suggested as much in Growing Givers Hearts: Treating Fundraising as Ministry, where we noted that

too much of what happens in the name of resource development for ministry resembles the children’s game of tag. Fundraisers, pressured to meet this year’s too-high goals, race after donors, pausing long enough to hit them with a request for support. It’s not surprising when once-generous individuals chose to play another game.

In contrast, when the aim is to help create channels through which God’s love and joy can flow, we must pay attention to what is happening in donors’ hearts as a result of the way we talk about and ask for money. . . Fundraisers are facilitators, offering the individuals with whom they work opportunities to pursue their dreams and to take part in the work of faith in the world.

So let there be no more talk of giving until it hurts. God loves a cheerful giver and created us genetically disposed in that direction. Now we have the science to prove it.

For more on encouraging joyful generosity, see:

A challenge to pastors: embrace the ministry of fundraising

10 things pastors should remember about giving

The accidental stewardship educator


What's your take on this topic?

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