Those of us who live in the West are poised at the outset of the greatest wealth transfer in history.
In the United States alone, the “greatest generation”—those born between 1910 and 1940 whose industriousness generated incredible amounts of wealth—are transferring their last $12 trillion to their heirs.
And over the next 25 to 40 years, the baby boomer generation will transfer between $30 trillion and $136 trillion to their heirs—not to mention the additional wealth that will be generated during this time. Some of you reading this article are preparing to pass along, or to inherit, significant wealth.
These numbers are simply gaudy. But where will all this money go?
I was asking myself this question as I read Ray Ortlund’s recent post about how the Christians use of money relates to our prayers for revival:
“If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” Luke 16:11)
We are accustomed to the biblical message that we should trust God. But here is another—smaller and subordinate, but still important—category: that God would trust us. If we are not faithful (pistoi) with money, which is unrighteous and not worth much, who will entrust (pisteusei) to us the true riches of spiritual wealth and power? In other words, if we can’t handle cheap things wisely, why would God put far more precious things into our hands?
His writing made me call into question both my retirement portfolio and my Keurig coffee maker.
Today we pray for revival, but are we living lives of radical generosity in the same manner that our forbears did? Put another way, is true revival stifled by our comfort and affluence?
When I describe radical generosity, I'm talking about joyfully giving all of one’s time, talent, and treasures for the sake of God’s kingdom and a heavenly reward, without expecting any (earthly) return on investment.
Examples of Radical Generosity
While there are countless Christ-like examples of radical generosity in history, three men come quickly to mind—one from each of the last three centuries of revival movements.
In the 20th century, R. G. LeTourneau (1888-1969) committed his life to Christ at a revival in 1904 at the age of 16. He went on to become a successful businessman and the father of the modern earthmoving industry. As his wealth increased, he committed to living on just 10 percent of his income, and he gave away 90 percent of both his personal income and corporate profits to kingdom work. Not only did he found LeTourneau University in Texas, but he also gave generously to mission work in Africa and South America—radical generosity that helped resource the 20th-century explosion of Christianity in the Global South.
When asked about his commitment to give so much away, LeTourneau answered, “The question is not how much of my money I give to God, but rather how much of God’s money I keep for myself.”
In the 19th century, amid America’s Second Great Awakening, Lewis Tappan (1788-1863) offered an example of radical generosity. Along with his brother Arthur, he grew up in a devoutly Calvinistic home. Their faith—and reading the biography of William Wilberforce—nourished a passion for the cause of abolitionism and the growth of the church. Lewis became a wealthy New York merchant and founded The Mercantile Agency—today called Dun & Bradstreet (a Fortune 500 company). He was a key financial backer of evangelist Charles Finney and gave most of his money away to social reforms such as abolitionism and church projects. They gave to the American Bible Society, which provided every family in the United States with a Bible, and to the American Sunday School Union, which helped form Sabbath schools in the newly settled Mississippi Valley.
And in the 18th century, John Wesley (1703-1791) was a towering figure in the Evangelical Awakening in England. His tireless teaching, preaching, writing, organizing, and activism was without parallel in his day. His book sales alone earned him more than £100,000 (about $10 million today) in his lifetime, yet he died penniless—having given nearly all his resources to the poor, Christian causes, and the ministry of others. His time, talent, and treasure were all radically laid on the altar of God’s kingdom-building work.
Radical Generosity Today: Gain, Save, Give
Today, on the cusp of the largest wealth exchange in history, what might it look like to follow in the footsteps of these generous forbears? Interestingly, I think one of the most helpful formulations remains Wesley’s famous sermon, “The Use of Money,” which is an extended examination of Luke 16:9 (just two verses before the one that got Ortlund thinking).
The entire sermon bears reading, and I have been thinking what our world might look like if God gave us courage to live out these words from the sermon’s conclusion:
Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbor, in soul or body, by applying hereto with unintermitted diligence, and with all the understanding which God has given you; save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire; to gratify either the desire of flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life; waste nothing, living or dying, on sin or folly, whether for yourself or your children; and then, give all you can, or, in other words, give all you have to God. Do not stint yourself . . . to this or that proportion. “Render unto God,” not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God's, be it more or less; by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all mankind, in such a manner, that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can be no longer stewards.
While radical generosity in each Christian’s life and context will look different, it will always cause our lives to look radically different from our unbelieving neighbors. C .S. Lewis’s words on Christian giving should strike a chord in all of our affluent hearts. He writes:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they [our expenditures] are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them. (Mere Christianity, 87, emphasis added)
Today we are quick to pray for revival in our land. May we, in this vapor of a life, be joyfully pinched and hampered as we lay up treasure in heaven, our true home purchased for us by Christ at the cross. As we keep our eyes fixed on Christ, God just may use us and the greatest wealth transfer in history to—once again—turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).