A Legacy of Generosity

Every person builds a legacy

Socrates, just before his death, knew that all people with influence over others leave behind legacies. Their actions either directly affect others or set examples of virtuous life. He held this conviction so strongly that he taught on his death bed, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, if people do not grasp a sense of what kind of legacy they build, they must diligently figure that out.

When college students graduate into the next phase of life, they usually trade in all that precious free time on campus for a paycheck in the bank. Twentysomethings stop paying to learn and start getting paid to develop professionally. This transition is not simple to navigate.

Examining long-term repercussions of money allocation is likely not a front burner concern during the transition to 9-to-5 life. “What should I use all this money for? More education? Retirement savings? Video games?”, asks the acclimating young professional. Use of money expresses desires of the heart. Even with hefty bills chipping away at newfound income, young professionals express their heart’s desires with at least some excess.

Two choices present themselves to young professionals: spend excess money on luxury, leisure, and lifestyle-building; or invest money they do not need in long-term legacies of life-giving to others. These choices are not mutually exclusive, but switching between them happens rarely. New college graduates tend to follow one of these two tracks with their high paying jobs.

Young professionals ought to devote their excess money to what matters most to them, what builds the kind of legacy they desire. Instead of only buying the newest iPhone or going out for expensive drinks every weekend, newly salaried twentysomethings could stimulate their local homeless shelter. Instead of only upgrading furniture from the parents’ hand-me-downs, new college graduates could invest in a community garden in their apartment complexes.

“What matters most” could include a wide variety of outlets, of course depending on the person’s background. For a 22-year-old black woman from Atlanta, that could mean donating to historically black colleges’ scholarship funds. For a person who just came to faith in Christ right before graduating, that could mean tithing in the local church and supporting missionaries overseas. For a newlywed couple who want to own a small business someday, that could mean diligently saving a portion of every paycheck towards that goal. These and many more are all sound applications of money for meaningful, earnest causes.

College students and young graduates are more aware of the world’s shortcomings now than people their age have been in a very long time. 24-hour news cycles, social media, and a general expectation to know what is going on all keep people engaged with the issues. But along with that engagement with the issues comes a certain paralyzation. Expectations spread to eat ethically, reverse climate change, end poverty, and fix everything wrong in the world.

Young people feel paralyzed when they are just getting this whole “adulting” thing down and twelve different charitable causes call on them to save the world as well. It is clear that money does not buy happiness, fix problems, or save the world, but giving money to what seems to matter the most is a faithful first step.

Taking the first step

This is a faithful first step because deciding what causes or organizations to give to can often feel like a baby step up from guesswork. And so there will always be an element of trust involved—trust in the actual people in communities or organizations receiving money and trust in God to plant that money like a seed to blossom. Christ knew that faith would remain a significant part of giving money when he warned, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”. Faith and obedience are what make the rich person realize how little their own wealth and prosperity matter in the end.

Plenty of reservations keep people from taking the first step of faith and obedience.

Giving excess money for the first time could feel awkward or shallow. “What difference is this really going to make?” and “Am I just doing this to sleep better at night?” are understandable concerns. Even committing to giving when it feels shallow at first can be transformational over time. Just starting to give early on is the most important thing a new college graduate can do to build a long-living habit of openhandedness.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s wise character Gandalf lowers the pressure to accomplish everything all at once: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” The same idea applies for money. There is a limited amount of time and money in this life. Deciding what to do with both is the basis of every decision. If people estimate giving their money will make no change, they will still use that money for some purpose. A mildly effective donation still makes more good than a highly effective luxury expenditure.

James, an impassioned follower of Jesus, thought it worthwhile to remind fellow believers of their limitations: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

So to edit Gandalf’s statement slightly, all we have to decide is what to do with the mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. When people possess a limited amount of something, they tend to use it wisely on what matters. This life is a vapor about to disappear, so people ought to use it wisely on what matters.

If this life and everything in it are finite, here today and gone tomorrow, building a legacy of generosity ought to start today instead of tomorrow.