11/01/2013 01:23 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Just Generosity

Do all the good you can.
By all the means you can.
In all the ways you can.
In all the places you can.
At all the times you can.
To all the people you can.
As long as every you can.
( John Wesley)

Some people said that Bill was generous to a fault, an "easy mark" and a "softie." Others knew him as one of the kindest, most forgiving, and "big-hearted" persons they had ever known. Yet even they saw a downside to his generosity, especially when the recipients were persons who they considered undeserving, manipulative, and just plain lazy. His generosity seemed to be completely unconstrained by categories like the "deserving poor" or "undeserving users" who presumed on his kindness again and again. Yet Bill was neither naïve nor unaware of the fact that some people took advantage of his generosity, he simply believed that it was good to help them and that it was not his place to judge their worthiness.

Bill came to mind during the past few days as I've been trying to help a young man who keeps needing help. He's in a difficult place with a dismal future, and while his early childhood was a disaster he is now an adult who keeps making bad choices. To help or not to help; how much to help; do I leverage the help I give by imposing conditions; do I overlook his foibles; do I allow myself to be taken advantage of? These are some of the many questions I've been wrestling with during the past several weeks. So far I have continued helping him because it seems like the right thing to do.

Sometimes being generous comes without a pre-condition of justice or fairness. I might never see my investment of time and resources result in him changing his ways. And there might be those who would point to other needy young people as being more deserving and who would be more responsive if they were helped instead. So is my helping this one young man justified or not?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about justice since beginning this year with the intention of making it a year of living justly ("The Year of Just Living" - Ron Nikkel, Huffington Post; January 20, 2013). Several months ago I read Timothy Keller's book, Generous Justice, in which he makes the point that God's grace and generosity are the foundation for "justice for all." Justice is not a pre-condition to grace but rather, grace is necessary for justice to exist in the first place. And I suppose, looking at it from another perspective, justice is something everyone deserves but grace by its very nature is always undeserved. For generosity to be just it must therefore extend without discrimination to those who are "undeserving."

These big complicated thoughts are more easily and comfortably pondered in my armchair than on the doorsteps of my house when the young man shows up late for our appointment but once again in need of help. As I look into the young man's eyes my concerns about charity becoming toxic and helping becoming hurtful pale into insignificance. I understand that there can be unintended consequences of dependency and undermining responsibility and dignity but he is on my doorstep, poor and without options and unable to fully help himself. His young family is hurting. Do I just help him, and in doing so is the generosity of my actions just?

It seems to me that true generosity is inevitably more about grace than it is about justice or judgment. In one sense generosity becomes just when it is an undeserved loving response to human need made without any "strings attached."

You and I see people in need everyday and it is far easier for us to be generous toward those who seem to be deserving and responsive. It somehow makes us feel good when our generosity is given responsibly and not indiscriminately. And yet a just generosity is an act of undeserved grace -- I think of my late friend Bill and the impact of his generosity among unlikely people in unlikely places -- and I look into the young man's eyes.

Don't pick on people,
jump on their failures,
criticize their faults -
unless, of course, you want the same treatment.
Don't condemn those who are down;
that hardness can boomerang.
Be easy on people;
you'll find life a lot easier.
Give away your life;
you'll find life given back,
not merely given back--given back with bonus and blessing.
Giving, not getting, is the way.
Generosity begets generosity.

(The teaching of Jesus - Luke 6:37, 38 MSG)