January 2013 - Vol. 65
Giving the best we have and holding nothing back
By Don Schwager
The crowning virtue
The word “magnanimity” comes from the Latin word, magnanimus, which is derived from the Greek word, mega-lopsuchia, which literally means “great of soul”: magnus in Latin means “great,” large,” and “noble,” and animus in Latin refers to “heart,” mind,” “soul,” or “spirit.”
Magnanimity describes the man or woman who has a “great heart,” a “noble mind,” and a “generous spirit” who takes delight in doing great deeds for the benefit of others. It is especially marked by an attitude of benevolence – freely giving to others and aiding them without any expectation of repayment or reward. Magnanimity not only treats others with fairness and kindness, it is also generous in forgiving insults and injuries, even of one’s enemies, because it refuses to be swayed by petty resentfulness or vindictiveness.
David was magnanimous towards King Saul, even when Saul tried to kill David out of jealousy.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) described the magnanimous person as one who aims at great acts of virtue and who attempts things genuinely worthy of honor. Such a person attempts and achieves great things because they are appropriate expressions of the excellence he or she has, and not because he or she craves affirmation from others or desires glory. The magnanimous person “is more solicitous about truth than about human opinion. Such a person “does not depart from what he ought to do…because of what others think.”
Great heart and
We “magnify” others by expressing to them their true worth when we bestow on them the best we have to offer. God gives generously and always for the benefit of those he wishes to bless and make great. We imitate God when we give to others the best we have. Scripture reminds us that God has created every man and woman in his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27) – that is where their true value and greatness come from and that is why they are worthy to receive the best we can give to them.
How can we be like God? When God revealed himself to Moses, he expressed his character to him:
The LORD passed before him [Moses], and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).We reflect God’s likeness most when we treat others with generous and gracious acts of kindness, compassion, steadfast love, forbearance, patience, and forgiveness. These are the qualities and great character traits which make us truly like God.
All for God
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30; Deuteronomy 6:5; Luke 10:27). The second is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:31; Leviticus 19:18).Love of God and love of neighbor are never to be compromised – they are all-encompassing and meant to permeate everything we do with our lives.
John Wesley (1703-1791), the great founder of the Methodist revival, wrote the following verses as a summary of his rule for Christian living:
Do all the good you can,God gave all for us in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and he desires that we give him our all as well. If we desire to be “all-out” for Christ, then it is fitting that we give him our 100 percent – all that we have, and hold nothing back because he is worthy.
Models of generous
He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had” (Luke 21:3-4).Jesus promised great reward to Peter and to all the disciples who left all to follow him:
Peter said to him [Jesus], “We have left all we had to follow you!” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:28-30).
Jesus praised a woman who poured out all of her very expensive ointment, worth more than a year’s wages, as an expression of gratitude for Jesus’ mercy towards her:
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me... Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:6-10,13).Grateful stewards of God
For the Christian, magnanimity is only truly a virtue when it is rooted in gratitude, humility, and the acknowledgment of our dependence on God. Magnanimity gives freely and generously because it acknowledges that everything we have is a gift from God – our health, strength, wisdom, and talents. God wants us to use our talents and resources for the building up of his kingdom and for the generous service of his people.
Jesus’ parable of the talents (Luke 19:15-24) praises those who wisely
and generously invest the gifts and resources which have been entrusted
to them by their master. And he also warns those who ignore or refuse to
use their talents and resources for the Master’s sake, whether out of personal
fear or self-interest.
Like the good stewards in Jesus’ parables (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:15-24) who freely invest all the resources the Master has placed at their disposal, the magnanimous man and woman of God take delight in investing all of their resources, including their time, strengths, and talents, for the Lord and the people they serve. They trust that God will not only be pleased with their generosity, but will increase and multiply their fruitfulness in doing even greater works. God loves a cheerful giver, and returns many times more than we can give, expecting more generous deeds to follow, and granting more fruitful harvest in return.
Is there anything we possess, whether gifts, talents, and resources, which we can claim as simply our own? As Christians we know that we belong to God and everything we have belongs to him as well. We are simply his stewards who have been ransomed from slavery to sin and death “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19), who suffered and died on the cross for our salvation. That is why gratitude is the only proper response to the exceeding grace and mercy which God has lavished upon us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
But our gratitude for what Christ has done for us cannot be complete until we give back to God an offering of thanksgiving. God the Father has given us the best he has through his Son, and he desires that we give him the best we can offer in return. The best act of thanksgiving we can make is the giving over of our entire lives and all that we have to God.
Rooted in gratitude
and depencence on God
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in her excellent dissertation on “Aquinas’s Virtues of Acknowledged Dependence: A New Measure of Greatness”, shows how dependence on God and trust in his help frees us from presumption and faint-heartedness, so we can serve God and others generously with magnanimity.
For God’s power in us to be efficacious, we must be willing to receive God’s gracious assistance, to receive it as a gift, and to trust that what is needful will be given. Precisely because magnanimity depends on God’s power and trusts his goodness, it protects us from smug presumption on the one hand and pusillanimous (small-minded/faint-hearted) despair on the other. Both vices are caused by a view of the self and its accomplishments without the aid of grace. The first takes the form of thinking our own power is sufficient for goodness so that we are independently worthy of honor; the second thinks that since we are absolutely helpless and hopeless on our own there is no reason to even try to be good. Thus to the presumptuous person, God says, “You cannot do this on your own” – and to those overwhelmed by a sense of their own inadequacy, God says, “You don’t have to do this on your own.…The gifts are given, not just for us, but also for God and for others. When the pusillanimous (small-minded/faint-hearted) person shrinks back from using his or her gifts to help others and meet their needs, then his or her neglect will be their loss as well. Pusillanimity makes the world a poorer place.There are many examples throughout Christian history of great men and women of magnanimity who generously served God and their communities. John Wesley is one example of an ordinary Christian who struggled for a long time in trying to serve God on his own strength, before discovering how the gift of faith and the power and working of the Holy Spirit enabled him to pursue great things for advancing the Lord’s work in England.
covenant with God
John began to go from church to church, preaching from the pulpits on the power of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit to make Christ come alive in the hearts of individuals. His message met stiff resistance from most of the clergy. After a number of church doors were closed to John, a new door and field for evangelism and mission opportunities began to open. John began to boldly preach throughout the public town squares of England, and even in the open fields. The response was immediate and electrifying – dozens of people, young and old who had never or rarely set foot in a church, came to hear his preaching. As word of mouth spread, hundreds and then thousands came to hear John Wesley preach.
John’s method of outdoor preaching and forming disciples for Christ began to spread rapidly throughout the British Isles. It quickly spread to the colonies in North America, and in time grew into a worldwide movement through the preaching of Methodist missionaries.
Wesley’s method of preaching and forming disciples for Christ was simple and very effective. He first went directly to the people and spoke the gospel message in the open market places, inns, and countryside, wherever people would gather. He spoke the gospel message in the words the people could understand and he trusted in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit to open the ears and hearts of his listeners to believe and understand what the Lord Jesus had done for them and was offering to them through the work of the Holy Spirit. He followed up his preaching by establishing local societies that met regularly for common prayer and teaching, and cell groups (usually composed of no more than 12 people each) that met weekly for the study of Scripture, prayer support, and personal growth in holiness through mutual care and accountability. The local societies also organized many voluntary works of mercy for those in need, especially for the poor, those in prison, and people struggling with addictions, the slave trade, and prostitution.
John Wesley wrote a Covenant Prayer for the members of the Methodist Societies which grew up as part of his work. The Covenant Prayer beautifully expresses profound gratitude to God and the offering of one’s life in total dedication through a covenant commitment with God.
I am no longer my own but yours.This covenant prayer was solemnly renewed each year in all of the local Methodist Societies. In many of the yearly Covenant Renewal Services the following prayer was also added:
Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honor, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both... Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.The generous witness of Chuck Colson
Chuck Colson (1931-2012), who passed away in April, was a generous, warm-hearted, and magnanimous lay Christian leader who brought the gospel message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and transformation in Christ to prisoners and their families, and to numerous Christian fellowships and communities around the world through the Prison Fellowship ministry which he founded. Like John Wesley’s movement, the Prison Fellowship ministry focused on evangelism and personal conversion, and the formation of small groups that meet regularly for Bible study, prayer support, and personal accountability, as well as outreach service to those in need. In his book, Against the Night, Colson describes how one individual can make a significant contribution and even impact history for better or for worse. He highlights how godly women and men of faith, who strove to give their all to God, were able to accomplish great things for God, amidst tremendous struggles and challenges, and even in some of the darkest places of the world where corruption, slavery, and persecution abounded.
Yet it is men and women, under his [God’s] jurisdiction, who write the pages of history through the sum of their choices. We never know what minor act of hopeless courage, what word spoken in defense of truth, what unintended consequence might swing the balance and change the world. “The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature,” said Edmund Burke.No mere mortals
C.S. Lewis reminds us that there are no ordinary people – no mere mortals. Each person’s destiny will lead to immortal horror or everlasting splendor.
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.Humble trust in God’s strength
Another key virtue which is essential for magnanimity to be properly directed is humility. The virtue of humility is properly grounded in the truth – the truth that we are sinners who can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:5), that is, nothing of spiritual and eternal consequence unless we are united with Jesus Christ and cooperate with his guidance and help. The Lord Jesus Christ entrusts each one of us, as members of his body the church, with spiritual power, authority, and gifts. Many of us fail to recognize and use the gifts God gives us, often because of our own ignorance. We fail to recognize the Lord’s call and the spiritual authority and gifts which come with the call. Sometimes we fail to respond out of false humility. We think we are too weak and unworthy to do great works for God. This false humility is really a form of pride because we refuse to believe that God chooses to work in and through ordinary and “cracked vessels” for his glory. Paul the Apostle reminds us of an important spiritual truth in two of his letters:
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).True humility allows us to place our trust firmly in the Lord Jesus who wills to work in and through us for his glory. The Lord Jesus, at his last supper on the eve of his sacrifice, told his disciples,
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father (John 14:12).A key obstacle that can hold us back from doing great things for the Lord is our refusal to believe and trust in God’s power to work in and through us by his Spirit. That is why Paul the Apostle urged his fellow believers and co-workers in mission to not give into fear or forget God’s presence and power residing within each believer.
God is all-powerful and all-sufficient. He has no need of us, mere men and women, who are weak, ignorant, and subject to sin. But he has chosen through his divine plan to do nothing without us. That is why his Son became a man of mortal flesh who suffered, died, and rose for our sake. The Lord Jesus told his disciples that they would carry on the work which he began – proclaiming the good news of the Gospel, and bringing God’s mercy, healing, and deliverance to a lost generation in search of peace, happiness, and freedom.
Vessels for noble
In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for noble use, some for ignoble. If anyone purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work. (2 Timothy 2:20-21)Our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ is to boldly live and proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God and to act as his ambassadors. When the world looks at Christians – especially those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ, do they see the face of Christ, the heart of Christ, the mind of Christ, his loving gaze, his healing touch, his warm embrace, his mercy and forgiveness? It is the Lord’s desire to transform us into his likeness – if we cooperate with him and allow his Holy Spirit to change and purify us from within. The Lord Jesus himself puts within each of our hearts the burning desire to be light that points others to himself, and to be the hands, feet, and mouth of Christ who bring good news to the poor, the lame, the oppressed, and those blinded by sin and ignorance. In short, to be magnanimous as he is.
Distinguishing “magnanimity / being great of heart” from its extreme opposites:
Being “small-minded / faint-hearted” and “big-headed / self-important”
[Don Schwager is a member of the Servants of the Word and author of the Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations website.]..
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