It Is More Blessed to Give Than to Receive

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Do you know who said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”? According to St. Paul, these are words of the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:35).

I think this is a remarkable saying. It is recorded almost as an aside in the Acts of the Apostles. They are not found in any of the Gospels. Upon reflection, however, they are unmistakably Christ-like and a kind of summary of his life and mission. It is also a portrait of the nature of the Blessed Trinity.

Paul’s Context

When Paul records Our Lord’s words about blessed giving, he is about to set out from the port city of Miletus to Jerusalem. He does not know exactly what is in store for him, but the Holy Spirit has been testifying to him that “in every city . . . imprisonment and afflictions await.” And Paul tells the elders of Ephesus, whom he has summoned to him, that they will never see his face again in this life. This distresses them. In fact, Paul will be arrested in Jerusalem and will begin the long ordeal which will culminate in his execution in Rome.

So, Paul warns these elders of the Church in Ephesus—that is, the “overseers” whom “the Holy Spirit has appointed”—that their flocks will be attacked. These attackers will be both “savage wolves” from outside their number and men within their number who will pervert the truth. Paul reminds these elders of his own, both to teach the Gospel and to support himself. He has worked hard and desired no one else’s money. The aim of his own unremitting toil was “to help the weak.” Helping the weak, then, is the most immediate context of Our Lord’s saying. Hence, It is more blessed to give to the weak than to receive.

Who exactly are these weak? I would say from the context, that “the weak” are those who are poor in any innocent way. The weak would be those in the household of faith (to use one figure of speech) or the flock of Christ (to use another) who are vulnerable to physical attack, material exploitation, or corruption of their minds or wills.

The School of Generosity

One evening last week, due to a required end-of-year event, I was stuck in Jacksonville where I teach. So for dinner, I went to the local Wendy’s fast food restaurant. Sitting across from me was a young mother and her adorable kindergarten-age daughter.

I could see that the mother was annoyed—something totally understandable, because adorable kids can be very annoying—and who knows what kind of day the mom had, what kind of evening was in store for her, and what her life, in general, was like.

The little girl, who certainly qualified as one of the weak, was living in the mode that it is more blessed to receive than to give.

I think all of us begin this way and it is hard to let go of that mentality. But the young mom was now enrolled in God’s School of Learning, whose curriculum is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Because she had a child and was accepting the responsibility of caring for her, she was learning another lesson in giving. Whether or not the young mother would agree with Our Lord that she was being blessed, she was practicing self-giving. She might say she had no choice in the matter, but actually, she did, considering how many parents live for themselves, even abandoning their children.

So God has wisely ordained that adults have many, many opportunities to be schooled in self-giving love, which is God’s own way of loving.

What is blessed about giving?

Fr. Robert Spitzer—one of the good Jesuits today—has done us a tremendous service in articulating the four levels of happiness that are available to human beings. They are, in extremely abbreviated words,

  • Level one: Physical pleasure
  • Level two: Ego enhancement
  • Level three: Making a contribution to another’s happiness
  • Level four: God and transcendental goods like goodness, truth, and beauty.

All of these are good in themselves but the first two (the lower) are problematic because they are short-lived and can actually make us and those around us unhappy. It is “blessed” to enjoy a good meal (level one) or to realize one is good at something (level two). To apply Our Lord’s words to them, they are “receiving” forms of happiness.

On the other hand, making a contribution to another’s happiness, that is, helping one receive something truly good for him, is a “giving” form of happiness. And in our case, that of Children of God, we are doing it for a supernatural motive, to please God, so it is a level four activity.

Pieper on Eros

The great Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper considers the question whether human love fundamentally is self-interested or other directed, that is, whether we love in order to fulfill ourselves or to fulfill the beloved. This is relevant to Our Lord’s words because they assume we want or should want what is more blessed and the more blessed might be thought to be harder.

Pieper’s answer is that due to our created human nature, we do both. We love in order to fulfill ourselves and the beloved.

Pieper quotes St. Thomas to explain why. “By nature, the creature endowed with reason wishes to be happy and therefore cannot wish not to be happy.”

Thus, according to Pieper, the most basic kind of love, which is the basis of every other form of love, is “self-love” or eros, that is, the “desire for existential fulfillment, acting in us by virtue of creation.”

In other words, God made us to want to have every happiness for ourselves. This self-love, however, is not in itself selfish love. It is just the way we are. We cherish ourselves by nature.

As St. Thomas puts it, “Everyone loves himself more than others” and the reason for this, in Pieper’s words, is that “in the act of being created we were launched irresistibly toward our own fulfillment, toward our felicity too, toward the full realization of what was intended for us.” When it comes to the desire for happiness, we are like shot arrows.

Why is a proper eros not selfishness? Pieper says that “in loving affirmation of ourselves we always regard ourselves as persons, that is, as beings existing for their own sake.” Consequently, we wish the good for ourselves and act for it, regardless of what we think of ourselves at the time. By “what we think of ourselves,” we could include whether we believe ourselves unloved or unlovable or see ourselves as having done or even being evil. We could say with C.S. Lewis that the one person we have always loved, despite that person’s behavior, is ourself!

But a key point for Pieper—and a hard point for us—is that the most fulfilling and enduring happiness we can seek for ourselves is found in giving to others approval of the true good in them:

If it is true that joy and happiness are our response to partaking of something we love; and if loving, simple approval, is something beloved in itself—then it must likewise be true that our desire for happiness can be satisfied precisely by such affirmation directed toward another, that is, by “unselfish” love.

The reward of happiness, which is the aim of self-love, comes with or is present along with real love, the affirmation of a good we see in another.

These insights shed light on two statements, the one by Christ we have been examining and the other by the Second Vatican Council.

As we have seen, Paul reported the words of Christ that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Thus, generosity is not just morally superior but more fulfilling.

The other statement is from Gaudium et spes, which affirms that “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” While man alone of all earthly creatures is a person and so an end in himself, his end is fulfilled by self-giving.

Sacrifice in Living These Words

At the age of sixty-four, I can say from experience that the worlds of Christ are true. It is more blessed to give than to receive.

However, to get to this point, any person suffering from the effects of original sin—and that includes everyone—has got to get over an awful lot of desire to be blessed by receiving.

After all, we come into life desiring infinite happiness. In addition, all the first satisfaction of this desire come from receiving good things from others.

Happily, God has set up human life so that we all attend a school in which we can learn to give. When we do, we find that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

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