Zita of Lucca was a thirteenth-century house servant. Patient and responsible, she was given to meditation and heard Mass daily. But she was known and loved most of all for her generosity. Whatever Zita had, she gave away to the poor.

One cold morning, compelled by her master to wear his cloak on her journey to church, she met a beggar and wrapped the cloak around him without a moment’s hesitation. Returning home without it, she was roundly scolded. Later that day, a mysterious stranger appeared at the door, the master’s cloak in hand. Another time, called away from the kitchen while baking bread to attend to a sick woman, her fellow servants were amazed to discover a company of angels tending the ovens.

The lives of the saints abound with stories like these. Saint Brigid gave her father’s prized sword to a leper, and, after being exiled to a work in a dairy in response, she slipped dozens of hampers of butter out the side door. Elizabeth of Hungary was chased from her castle for pawning her jewels to build a hospital during a plague, while Robert Bellarmine scandalized Renaissance Rome by ripping the tapestries from his walls to have them cut up for clothing for the poor. The walls, he assured his fellow clerics, wouldn’t catch cold. Even Martin Luther, for all his hostility to works of supererogation, had to insist that his wife Katie keep the key to the family strongbox. Otherwise, he would be sure to give it all away.

Several recent studies in neuroscience claim to have found a way to explain (or perhaps explain away) this compulsion toward generosity. “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving” is an article by Sam Kean in the May 2015 issue of The Atlantic. It traces the story of Joao, a Brazilian man who, after suffering a stroke, quit his job at a Rio insurance company to sell French fries from a street cart. He gave helpings of fries to whoever asked for them and spent most of the money his profits on buying sweets for street children. Even after the cart went out of business and he was reduced to subsisting on his mother’s pension, Joao still couldn’t help giving away whatever he had. Nothing made him happier.


Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University Medical School, conducted a study a decade ago in which participants were placed in fMRI machines and asked to make decisions about donating to charities. The scans revealed that choosing to give money away was correlated with high levels of activity in the brain’s mesolimbic system. This system is an important part of the brain’s pleasure circuit, producing the happiness-inducing chemical dopamine. Giving money away activated the circuits even more than receiving money. In Kean’s words:

What your mother told you, then, is true: it is better to give than to receive. She probably just didn’t realize that, neurologically, giving is roughly on par with eating fudge or getting laid.

Even though giving is deeply pleasurable, neuroscientists believe that our frontal lobes, which are associated with social reasoning and weighing different alternatives, suppress and regulate our desire to experience that pleasure. Reasoned reflection shows us the downside of emptying our wallets, just as it warns us against that third piece of fudge. But if our brain is damaged, as Joao’s was by his stroke, the ability of the frontal lobes to control the process can be disabled. Without regulating frontal lobes, we lose all impulse control, and can become hopelessly addicted — or, perhaps, magnificently generous saints.

Whether Saint Francis’s paroxysms of joy over Lady Poverty have something to do with poor mesolimbic regulation is probably a question best left to a hagiographer with better neuroscientific credentials. But Kean also alleges that this new research challenges many of our deepest assumptions about why giving is a good thing.

We normally think of generosity as pure and noble, evidence of the soul, not evidence of brain damage. But what if giving is largely a reflex or an instinct or even, sometimes, a sign of mental derangement?

If giving is pleasurable, if it makes us feel good, is it really pure? Shouldn’t all giving be a form of self-sacrifice, something we do for the sake of the other, a duty pursued for its own sake? For a Kantian, perhaps. But the Scriptures are rather more ambivalent about the subject, as is the long trajectory of discussion about almsgiving in ascetical theology.

 * * *

Neurology’s discovery that giving is pleasurable accords with a consistent theme in Scripture. Job, for example, looks back with great fondness upon the days when he was wealthy and able to give freely to all who asked for his help:

When the ear heard, it called me blessed,
and when the eye saw, it approved;
because I delivered the poor who cried,
and the fatherless who had none to help him.
The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me,
and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. (Job 29:11-13)

Saint Paul, in his extended exhortation to the Corinthians about almsgiving, noted that God “loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). All almsgiving, in a deeper sense, gestures toward the joyful abundance of God the Father “who delights to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:35), as well as the self-offering of Christ, who laid down his life, not merely out of duty, but “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2).

The Scriptures are also rather less scrupulous about self-interest as a motivation for giving than some modern moralists. Jesus, to be sure, rebuked the way that the Pharisees gave to draw attention to themselves. He urged an inconspicuous approach, “the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3). But manifold benefits are promised by God to the generous, including an answer in danger (Ps. 41:1), deliverance from death (Tob. 4:10), abundant blessings (Mal. 3:10), and “a harvest of righteousness” (2 Cor. 9:10). Proverbs 16:6 (“By love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for.”) was widely interpreted by Jews and early Christians as an assurance that giving, when accompanied by contrition, expiated sins. The concept was echoed even more directly in Daniel’s advice to repentant Nebuchadnezzar: “Atone for your sins by good deeds, and for your misdeeds by kindness to the poor” (Dan. 4:27). This connection may, in turn, lay behind Jesus’ association of sins and debts in the Lord’s Prayer.

Sirach straightforwardly suggests that giving to the poor is a kind of risk-free investment.

A man’s almsgiving is like a signet with the Lord,
and he will keep a person’s kindness like the apple of his eye.
Afterward he will arise and requite them,
and he will bring their recompense on their heads. (17:22-23)

As Peter Brown has detailed in his recent masterwork Through the Eye of a Needle, Sirach’s reasoning played a central role in the early Christian redirection of Roman civic largesse from pagan “bread and circuses” to Church-sponsored charitable organizations. The theme that almsgiving stored up treasure in heaven was reinforced in patristic sermons and treatises, through elaborate offertory processions and even, in Augustine’s cathedral at Hippo, by a poor-box described as winged chariots, ready to whisk off gifts to the heavenly vault (85-86).

To many of us, all this seems rather crude and extremely tacky. After the scandals of the indulgence controversy and the prosperity preachers, we have good cause to be wary of how this kind of reasoning can be misused.

But what of those recklessly generous saints? Are they, in some important sense, models for the rest of us? The traditional consensus has given much more attention to the perennial problem of stinginess than the danger of giving too much.

In his extensive section on almsgiving in the Summa Theologiae’s treatise on charity, for example, Thomas Aquinas stresses that, like all other virtuous acts, almsgiving must be conducted in due proportion and governed by precept. The frontal lobes must be very active, indeed. We cannot give what does not rightfully belong to us, though a person in extreme need may have a greater claim than the putative owner (2a2ae.32, 7). In keeping with Augustine’s teaching on the order of loves, Thomas stresses that we must also be sure not to impoverish our dependents to relieve the sufferings of those who have no claim on us (2a2ae.32, 9). Thomas’s entire line of thought is governed by the concept that we should normally give from our superfluous income, an idea he derives from a particularly odd Latin translation of Luke 11:24 as “what is over and above give as alms.”

And yet, St. Thomas allows that giving even out of poverty may be appropriate in some cases, especially when entering religious life (2a2ae.32, 6). Similarly, in Holy Living, Jeremy Taylor directly commends the over-zealous giver, noting:

If we do give more than we are able, we have St. Paul for our encouragement; we have Christ for our counsellor; we have God for our rewarder. (4.viii.13)

* * *

But if the neurologists are right and abundant generosity is, as Kean speculates, “a sign of mental derangement,” does that mean it has no value to the rest of us, who occasionally wince when we slip the offering envelope into the plate, all too aware of what generosity costs?

I’m not so sure. Is there not a kind of holy madness in this God of ours, who abandons the ninety-nine to seek the one lost sheep, and sells all that he has to buy the field rich in treasure? In the life of the blessed, when we feast together in God’s abundance, will there be any need to hold ourselves back from sharing what we have received? When love becomes complete, surely our fear of scarcity and our need for self-preservation pass away. Our need to close the purse is a curse of this life only, part of sin’s long shadow over all things.

Surely God has designed us to be generous, fashioned us to rejoice in that which is for our neighbor’s good? In the life of virtue, we come to love that which is good, to do it easily and with pleasure. As the love of God is poured into our hearts, our desires are gradually transformed, the theme of so many of our Collects. Couldn’t neurochemical mechanisms be part of that habituating process — a little dopamine pushing us on to what should be both our duty and our delight?

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt 6:33). Above all, that is the promise on which the extravagantly generous lean. Perhaps theirs is a spiritual gift, a special vocation, the “giving generously” of Romans 12:8. Or perhaps, in that dramatic way of all the saints, they merely show the rest of us just how glorious life can be when we cast ourselves completely upon God’s mercy. In the end, if he who is rich in blessings intends that righteousness brings a reward and if his angels occasionally take a turn at the ovens to make up the difference, who are we to quibble?

The featured image is a stained glass window in St Dominic’s Church, Washington, DC, depicting the charity of St. Antoninus of Florence. It was uploaded to Flickr by Fr Lawrence Lew, OP, and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. A native of rural Western Maryland, he is a graduate of Duke University and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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