Recently, our family was staying with a family we love when they suffered a miscarriage. The wife had just finished her first trimester. The baby would have been number six for them, their second son, a boy they all loved deeply without meeting him. The family wept for hours.
Now, I could say more about the quiet and common pain of miscarriage (my wife and I suffered one early in our marriage), or about what I learned about grief as I watched this family lose this baby together, as a family. But one of the things that struck me most was how the church showed up and loved them in their loss. Because we happened to be staying with them that week, we saw more than most would ever get to see.
The ears were the first to come, leaning in and listening well. But the feet weren’t far behind, arriving early and ready to run errands. Then came the hands, carrying flowers and Starbucks drinks and donuts for the kids. And with them, the arms that wrapped themselves tight around the family and wouldn’t let go. The noses followed, with some of their favorite meals. The mouths were slower than normal to speak, but came with meaningful words of courage and hope. And sprinkled among the rest were the eyes, attentive and filled with tears.
A Hundred Roads to the Hurting
The tangible love we witnessed exposed a profound oneness in that unusual church, but the expressions of that love were anything but uniform. Some came right away; some the next day; some later in the week. Some could swing by for only a few minutes; others stayed longer. Some just dropped something off with a note, to give the family space to rest. Some brought food; others brought an iced macchiato or a taro milk tea. Most of them cried.
It’s hard to describe how unusual and heartbreaking and beautiful the whole scene was. This church had learned how to grieve together, to carry each other’s burdens, to show up in hard moments. So where does this strange, otherworldly love come from? From a strange and generous kind of people.
The apostle Paul saw a scene not unlike the love my family witnessed. He writes to the church at Corinth,
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Corinthians 8:1–2)
The apostle is calling the believers in Corinth to give to the desperate needs of the embattled church in Jerusalem. He’s asking them to find their way to move toward the hurting, even if, in this case, the hurting are eight hundred miles away. To help inspire their generosity, he shows them just how much God can do when a church leans into suffering.
Unlikely Help and Generosity
The churches in Macedonia were not doing well by worldly standards. They were afflicted themselves, bearing the pain and weight of their own hardships. And not just normal affliction, Paul says, but severe affliction — the kind that cuts deeper, spreads further, and lasts longer.
And in the midst this awful affliction, making their valley even scarier and more upsetting, they were running out of money. Again, this wasn’t typical poverty; it was extreme poverty, some of them perhaps putting hungry kids to bed, their hollow eyes searching for hope that tomorrow might be different. Can you hear their parents pleading, through tears and stomachaches, “Lord, give us this day our daily bread”?
Yet, in the storms of affliction and the shadows of scarcity, we find an outstretched hand, a bright and warm light beating back the darkness, a wealth of generosity. And behind that outstretched hand, an even more surprising smile — an impossible smile, really. An abundant joy. With God, a people without any earthly wealth had found a way to be wealthy toward others. A people burdened with their own needs found more than enough to meet someone else’s.
If even the severely afflicted and seriously needy could move toward the suffering, how about the lightly afflicted and the rarely hungry? How might we find and experience what stirred up such unlikely help and generosity? Before holding out our hand, we first lift up our eyes to God.
The kind of people who are ready to move toward suffering when it comes — even in affliction, even in poverty, even when everyone would understand if they focused on themselves — are the kind of people who are always moving toward God. Paul continues,
They gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints — and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 Corinthians 8:3–5)
The saints in Macedonia were not only willing to give, but begged to give. They had tasted the deeper pleasures of sacrifice (see Acts 20:35), and they wouldn’t surrender that joy without a fight. How did they arrive there? What path took them to such happy selflessness? “They gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” They gave beyond their means, they gave far more than anyone expected, because they had given themselves to God.
“An unusually generous life will always be an unusually Godward one.”
They had not set their hope on the possibility of better, more comfortable circumstances. They weren’t tempted by the uncertainty of riches. No, they had set their hearts on God. And a heart set on God learns to define words like wealth, poverty, risk, sacrifice, and security differently. As they surrendered their claim on their earthly possessions, they stumbled into a treasure that could not be counted (1 Timothy 6:18–19). An unusually generous life will always be an unusually Godward one.
Marriage of Abundance and Need
Faithful Christianity, however, is never merely God or people, but God then people. “They gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” The sweetness of enjoying God drove the Macedonians to bravely step into the sorrows and loss around them (in this case, in the church at Jerusalem).
Some of us need to be reminded to begin with God. Others need to be exhorted to regularly, tangibly emerge from communion with God and meet some real need. Notice how God allows abundance and need to dance in the church:
I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” (2 Corinthians 8:13–15)
In any given church — in your church — God has married real abundance and real need. Just like the needs, the abundance comes in various kinds, at various times, to various people. In some seasons, you’ll be especially needy, and in others, especially supplied. You’ll be needy in ways others aren’t, and rich in ways others lack. And this marriage is a shadow of an even greater love, when the God of infinite abundance took on need to make us truly wealthy: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Love in the local church, Paul says, should look a lot like the manna that sustained God’s people in the wilderness. Except instead of sending it from the clouds, God now delivers and provides through the body of Christ, the local church — more specifically, through you and me.
In Every Good Work
The kind of generosity Paul has in mind isn’t only financial. In fact, most generosity in the church isn’t financial. It’s costly, for sure, but often not in dollars and cents. Listen to the apostle summarize his burden for the church:
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6–8)
“Whoever you are, and whatever you have, God will give you enough to overflow to others, especially those in need.”
In every good work. Not only in coins delivered to Jerusalem, but in home-cooked meals and familiar living rooms, in notes of encouragement and unexpected phone calls, in pots of coffee and thoughtful questions, in visits to the valleys of grief. Whoever you are, and whatever you have, God will give you enough to overflow to others, especially those in need.
So find your way to move toward the hurting. Don’t assume someone else is checking in. Don’t assume someone else will send a meal. Don’t assume they’re overwhelmed with messages and visits. When the trial comes — when sickness falls, when the job disappears, when the marriage collapses, when a loved one dies — assume God plans to meet one of their many needs through you.