It’s a sweet-sounding tribute to altruism, a tip of the hat to selflessness, a declaration of an other-centered life: it is better to give than to receive. It seems almost too obvious to state that the opposite – it is better to receive than to give – is surely false; beyond that, the clarification that “giving is receiving” almost always attends this well-intentioned phrase. And, of course, it does come straight from Scripture: Acts 20:35 quotes Jesus as saying the phrase. But it, too, is another one of those dangerous half-true lies and it’s not because no Gospel writer records Jesus saying, “It is better to give than to receive.”
First, like any responsible reader of Scripture, we must look at the context. The Apostle Paul is speaking to the Ephesian elders starting in Acts 20:17, reminding them of his humility and whole-hearted dedication to serving the Lord who called him (Acts 20:17-24). He then informs them that they won’t ever see him again, exhorts them to care for one another and warns them of truth twisters from the outside and defectors from within (Acts 20:25-30). After “commending” God and the message of God’s grace to them, Paul then again reminds them of his example: he didn’t ask for provision but worked with his own two hands for himself and his friends. We are to work in this way, Paul says, because it is in self-sufficient work that we can aid the weak (Acts 20:31-34). Paul then either himself remembers the words of Jesus or calls those of us working to support ourselves to remember the words of Jesus: “It is better to give than to receive.”
Given the setting of this statement, there are two possible references in textual proximity to the phrase in question and, given that Paul is notoriously difficult to interpret, both – and more – could apply. The first is the pure, undefiled Gospel and the second is economic status. There is a connection between spiritual poverty and physical poverty and one expression (there are others**) of it is this: while Jesus’ invitation to salvation is open to all, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25) and it is clear that God is on the side of the poor; God has a “preferential option for the poor.” It may be “better” to “give” the Gospel than to receive it (for you are not keeping it to yourself). It may “better” to give material aid than to receive it (because you are able to provide for another). Either way, it’s good to both give and receive. We must remember that “better” is a comparison word. That is, it ranks one thing about another; it does not exclude one or the other. Something can be better than another thing without the second thing being bad.
Ultimately, Paul is speaking to elders here. It’s not to say that his words don’t ever apply to us but I think they first apply to “elders” – those in church leadership or undertaking the care of souls. It is better for elders (who have received the Gospel already) to give than to receive the Gospel precisely because they have received it. It is better for elders to give to the weak than to receive from the weak for obvious reasons. I’m not trying to detract from serving or giving to those in need (spiritually or physically) – I’ve said it before that service is how we are truly human. But I want to push back on the hint I’m seeing crop up more and more when people say, “It is better to give than to receive” that one’s self is not worthy of care and good gifts. Even if the idea that it is better to give than to receive could be applied as a blanket statement to all people in all situations, it still wouldn’t mean that those doing the receiving are not deserving of what the giver gives. Those who have come to Christ were, at some point, “receivers” of the Gospel, whether through a parent, friend or Christ Himself. And many of us have been receivers of material aid as well. In the end, we are all on the receiving end of at least one thing: the boundless, unlimitable grace and goodness of God.
**I don’t agree with everything in this article, but the author’s thoughts on spiritual (what the article might call “moral”) poverty and material poverty are definitely to be considered.