Lilya Wagner, EdD, CFRE, served most recently as director of Philanthropic Service for Institutions in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists and is continuing her association with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

My family came to the United States as refugees with almost no worldly goods. Growing up for some years in South America, I observed my parents, outfitted by the Seventh- day Adventist Church, sharing what little they had with people in the Andes who had even less. I learned early in life, as a pastor’s daughter, that it really is more blessed to give than to receive.

KPI 6.5

All members and yet-to-be-baptized young people embrace and practice stewardship principles regarding time, spiritual gifts, and tithes and offerings.

In my teen years, life began to improve. But I noticed my parents as selflessly serving immigrants in a notoriously poor and crime-ridden part of Brooklyn, New York. I saw that giving involved the full surrender and joyful stewardship of the whole being: time, talents, and heart. Such an example led me to focus on facilitating acts of asking, giving, and receiving. I have been blessed to have those efforts supported through a multitude of experiences, making me reflect on that most familiar of Bible texts memorized from childhood, one that has taken on the air of an aphorism. Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35, KJV).1

The statement engenders a variety of reactions, ranging from “Of course it’s true—I’ve experienced it” to “You can’t be serious!” Therefore, reactions to Doug Lawson’s Give to Live did not completely surprise me.2 While I resonated with the virtues of generosity, Lawson’s admonitions did not receive a warm reception in all quarters, particularly among those who required research proof before they believed. In the ensuing years, such evidence has been forthcoming with head-turning results:

1. Generosity results in better health. Human beings appear to be genetically disposed to be happiest when they are selflessly giving to others. People who emphasize service to others and connection to community show a pattern of gene expression that results in less inflammation and stronger immunity.3 People tend to be unhealthy when they devote themselves to self-gratification. This is not surprising when we depend on God for all that we are, receiving anything we have as a blessing and a gift from God.

2. Generosity rather than acquisition promotes happiness. There is a strong link between the donation of money and happiness. Happy people are more likely than wealthy people to give to charity.4 A survey of 30,000 American households showed that persons who gave were 43 percent more likely to say they were “very happy” about their lives. The authors concluded that giving frees people from the acquisitive treadmill to find new meaning.5

Research demonstrates that sustained generosity—spending money to benefit others—promotes true happiness. “The study showed that generosity changed the activity in people’s brains in ways that increase feelings of happiness.”6

3. Giving time has similar benefits to giving money. A Harvard Business Review study showed that people who contribute time to something feel happier and more effective.7 A longitudinal study from the UK indicated that those who volunteered regularly appeared to experience higher levels of mental well-being than those who did not.8

4. Altruism is a basic human motivation. Neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health scanned the brains of volunteers whom they asked to think about scenarios involving donating money versus keeping it for themselves. They discovered that altruism is not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but is actually fundamental to the brain, hardwired in it and pleasurable.9 Research further revealed that altruism offers some personal perks in terms of happiness and contentment. It does not matter how much money we have but rather what we do with it.10 Russell James, concludes, “In the end, brain science seems to be showing us that fundraising [or charitable giving] is, after all, a matter of the heart.”11

Living in a pastoral household, my heart was touched by the blessings of giving. Pastors, we are looking forward to the second coming of Jesus. But don’t deprive your church, your community, or your children of the experience of full trust in God, with His graceful provisions, and the blessing of sacrifice. Researcher Philippe Tobler, from the University of Zurich, stated, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice.”12 God so loved the world that He gave… Can we give a little more?

  1. A version of this article was published as, Lilya Wagner, “Today’s Major Donors: Preferences and Behaviors,” Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, October 15, 2015.
  2. Douglas M. Lawson, Give to Live: How Giving Can Change Your Life (ALTI Publishing, 1991).
  3. “[A] Genetic Guide to True Happiness,” The Week, Sept. 13, 2013, 24.
  4. “Giving Tied More to Happiness Than Wealth,” Philanthropy Journal, Sept. 13, 2010.
  5. P. Singer, “The Science Behind Our Generosity: How Psychology Affects What We Give Charities,” Newsweek 153, no. 10 (March 9, 2009): 48.
  6. Research News, “Study: Spending Money on Others Makes Us Happy,” All Things Considered, March 20, 2008; Gretchen Reynolds, “Giving Proof,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 14, 2017,
  7. “You’ll Feel Less Rushed If You Give Time Away,” Harvard Business Review, Sept. 2012, 28, 29.
  8. “Benefits of Volunteering,” Northern Devon Healthcare,
  9. S. Vedantam, “If It Feels Good, It Might Only Be Natural,” Washington Post, May 28, 2007, A1, A9.
  10. “Generosity Breeds Contentment.” The Week, July 28, 2017.
  11. Russell N. James III, “Brain Studies and Donor Decision Making: What Do We Know?” Advancing Philanthropy, Winter 2014.
  12. “[A] Genetic Guide to True Happiness,” 24.

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