There are some things it’s considered polite not to talk about. Religion and politics are on the conversational blacklist. Far above the rest, in Britain at least, is money. Mix and match and all kinds of trouble abounds. Alistair Campbell famously said of Prime Minister Tony Blair “We don’t do God”, and likewise the religious want to say “We don’t do money”. Jesus warned us not to shout from the rooftops about our giving, and we appreciate the invite to bury the subject.
When the subject does arise it comes with much fear and trembling. The Annual Church Giving Day. It’s like Armageddon, a day many dread and yet one designed to reveal Jesus. The pastor speaks awkwardly knowing that it looks like he’s begging for his salary. The congregation expects to be chided for under giving.
Charitable giving isn’t unique to the church. We find it on the High Street, the infamous Chugger – “The Charity Mugger” – lurking on our High Street in a fluorescent jacket ready to pounce armed with compelling information and a direct debit agreement. The easiest escape is secured by providing the ransom requirements of an account number and signature. The Chugger’s defence is that they have a good cause and all we lack is the information.
The worldview of our world might suggest we should be pitilessly indifferent to people, yet we can’t help but act to meet need whether after the Boxing Day Tsunami or any other disaster.
Additionally, consumerism, charity and entertainment have become entwined. We’re now used to the concept of Comic Relief – entertaining us as a way of inviting us to give. In 2006 Irish musician Bono launched the brand “Red” associated with American Express, Gap and Apple products among others. The idea was simple. You buy the product with its “Red” brand and a proportion of the price is donated to Global Fund who fight diseases like Aids and Malaria. Things get complicated and charity becomes a conscience for consumerism. Selling to raise money for charity is nothing particularly new (Oxfam book shops have been around for years), but time will tell whether Charity is a brand that can really be marketed.
Meanwhile away from the High Street, charity becomes a new lifestyle choice for the über-rich. Billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet find themselves with more money than they can spend, and so establish Foundations to benefit various causes. Their pots of gold are of course secured from the rest of us, who sleep better knowing that the millions we’ve given to Microsoft don’t just go towards upgrading Bill’s lifestyle. Once more we might be accused of cynicism. Perhaps the giving of the rich is simply a new leisure activity, competing to meet the needs others. But there are other, more directly pleasurable ways to spend excess money than by benefiting the poor and needy. John D. Rockefeller was famously asked “how much is enough” and replied “just a little more”. Gates and Buffet indicate that there are some upper limits.
There are rational reasons for charity, but perhaps there’s something human about being charitable. The human inclination to overflow and generosity makes sense when we look at the world through the lenses of the Bible. Everything begins with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, loving one another from eternity past. That loves overflows to create the world, and at the climax of creation is man in God’s image. Men and women made to relate to one another. Martin Luther defines the effect of sin as man curving in on himself, at which point humanity becomes anti-Trinitarian, anti-generous and self-focused. Not incapable of generosity towards others but more likely to pursue it for our own ends rather than simply as the overflow of a pure heart.
No surprise then that the Christian life of seeing God’s image renewed and restored is ‘one another’-centred rather than self-centred. All that I have I share with you, is not merely a commitment of marriage but a principle for life. What God entrusts to me is my responsibility to use for the good of others.
There are practical questions that arise when you want to create a community where all are welcome, where counter-cultural teaching encourages people to go against the prevailing tide of living richly and not having children. How can the needs be met? How can people afford the kingdom values they’re encouraged to pursue? And of course, if we want to set aside people to teach and lead us, who will pay them?.
The needs of others raise the question of where the money will come from. Some suggest ‘the tithe’. The idea runs along these lines. The Old Testament people of God were required by God to tithe their produce. Therefore we ought to give a percentage of our money to the church and other worthy causes. There are a number of sidesteps made in this that we need to examine. The crucial step here is the jump from Israel to the church today. It’s not an altogether unreasonable leap, but there are considerable differences. The tithe provides for Levites and church employees are in some way equivalent, in their dependence on God’s people. But the tithe was also like an income tax for the community. Our view of tithe tends to sidestep from produce to money. It also disregards that the tithe wasn’t just 10% but three tithes that total around twenty three percent. The principle of a guideline to giving isn’t altogether unhelpful, but neither is it present in the New Testament.
The church is called to “do good” to those within its family, but also to all people. The priority of care is within the church – making it an attractive family to be part of, but true love does not submit well to restrictions, rather overflowing to any in need. Scant information is provided to answer the big question most of us ask. How much should I give? Instead of the answer we want we’re given a much bigger picture, one that goes deeper that flinging coins in a plate or filling out a standing order form.
1. Generous because of grace
One of the plot lines running through the New Testament, as Jesus spreads his gospel through his people, is of Paul’s commitment that the Gentile churches should support struggling believers in Jerusalem. The commitment is recorded in Galatians 2v10 and then we hear of it again as he writes to the Corinthians about his visit to Macedonia, perhaps to Philippi.
The story is worth telling. It’s a story of a great work of God’s grace in his people. Grace that enabled God’s people to give not from riches but from poverty. This is the power of God in the life of his people, transforming not just their thinking but the way they handled what money and resources they had available. The manner of this grace is surprising, even shocking. They have been afflicted, suffering under some kind of severe circumstances. This is hardly a good introduction on the subject of giving. Surely you start with the rich. The Macedonians are candidates to receive rather than give. Yet, in suffering, they overflow. In extreme poverty they gladly give.
This amazing story is not told to draw attention to the believers of Macedonia. Paul’s eye is on something else. The grace of God in them. There has been a charismatic outpouring in hard times leading to immense financial giving to another struggling church family. This is not Paul’s CV for how good a fundraiser he is that he managed to wring a few more pounds out of the poverty- stricken of Macedonia. Paul did nothing. They heard of the need. God intervened. And they begged to be able to give.
In Macedonia any substantial giving was going to take them well beyond their means. That is to say, to give in the way they did would leave them lacking in some way – and not just lacking in the foreign holiday or new kitchen appliance they wanted, but lack in some of the basic essentials of life, like food, clothing or shelter. Such giving was not to make them a burden upon others (God’s people are instructed to wisely provide for themselves), but it must have left them without many of the things they may previously have considered as essentials. Living in want, as indeed Paul often did as he languished in Roman prison cells.
Our definitions of needs and wants are tested by the Macedonians. All the advertising we watch is designed to inflate our consideration of what we need. We’re ‘worth it’ and we deserve certain basics. To have a house, car, foreign holiday and luxurious foods are mere basics to the western world. When our bloated stomachs rumble mid-morning, we quickly proclaim that ‘we’re starving’. We feel greatly aggrieved if the new tTelevision or other item of technology that we require is temporarily out of stock. In an age of plenty we feel like we deserve riches. Whilst we might not embrace full-blown prosperity doctrines we might well hum along with Janis Joplin – “Oh lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” Wouldn’t such blessing show us God’s love and approval?
Curved in on ourselves we think that what we want is what we deserve. And what we want is what we need. One almost dare not ask whether the people of God can worship corporately without a data projector in the early 21st Century. A talk without a video clip is dry, and the cheap mugs and cheap coffee on offer afterwards are too basic for us. None of this is to say that the good things of life are not to be enjoyed and celebrated. Twenty-first cCentury essentials like iPod’s and filter coffee are gifts from God, invented to be used and enjoyed for his glory with thanksgiving. But we’re pushing our luck when these things start to fall into the category of ‘needs’ or ‘means’. When we hear that the Macedonians gave ‘beyond their means’ and out of their ‘extreme poverty’ it doesn’t mean that they exchanged M&S food for Tesco Value. It means they went without the very basics like food itself. They gave and went without food and shelter.
Clearly this was a gift-day that caught Paul off guard. Perhaps he just expected them to pray for needy Christians, or give a small contribution. But such was their delight in the grace of God their grace abounded. It broke the dams and flooded outwards. We get the impression as he retells the story that he tried to hand the money back to the Macedonian’s but that they refused, begging for the opportunity to give.
The grace of God introduces a new fiscal rule. A new kind of economics. It explodes our rational sense of stewardship. Grace makes generosity possible when it seems impossible. Could this happen anywhere today? Could there be moments where God’s people break the bounds of sensibility and wise budgeting because they are captivated by the grace of God and the needs of his people. Grace outwits our self-preservation.
Pensioners, students and families may well find themselves in situations akin to the Macedonians. How can you give from very limited resources? To do so is to jeopardize the present and the future. In relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is a new economy at work. It looks reckless but God has a bigger plan for it which isn’t hamstrung but present poverty or future need.
What we have isn’t ours, it’s God’s. But it is entrusted to us. We are responsible for what we do with it. The pay rise awarded may be God’s gift to enable me to learn thanksgiving in finer foods for self, or hospitality – but it can just as well be given to me so that I can give it away. The fresh opportunities of children moving out of home may not be an opportunity to upgrade my lifestyle, but rather to downsize and provide for others. What we have isn’t just our money but our time, home, resources, skills, energy and more. How I use this domain God has given to me reveals what I think matters in life. It take the grace of God to re-write the economics of my heart, and it is possible. God alone can transform us from being tight-fisted and self-serving into being charismatic givers.
2. Generous like the gospel
From the poor Paul turns to the rich. Already in the spotlight the light shines on us even brighter. This is not the first occasion on which Paul and the Corinthians have spoken about money. Previously they had committed to set aside money regularly to meet the needs of other Christians, but their good intention and habit had lapsed. This gifted church is not as she should be.
Paul doesn’t however impose tax or tithe upon them. He makes no compulsion. Instead this is an opportunity to test their love. If grace can make the poor give excessively how much more might it do for the rich? If Macedonians are the students and the unemployed, Corinth is Bill Gates. Surprisingly Paul doesn’t focus his attention on their net worth and bank accounts. He doesn’t look to the average wealth of the congregation. Just as in Macedonia the attention is on the grace of God.
“For 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 8v9.
He turns their attention from themselves to Jesus. All the riches of eternal existence in the Trinity belong to Jesus. And yet, Jesus laid aside all that glorious treasure to embrace the poverty of the incarnation. Poor in life, and poor in his death. Jesus’ journey from riches to poverty is not merely a great story to tell to inspire the rich to give. His death was for a purpose. It was to take people like the rich Corinthians out of spiritual poverty and into the infinite riches of reigning in life through Christ. Into the sure hope of pleasures forevermore. Into the possessing of the greatest of all treasures, Jesus himself.
Here is the pattern for Christian giving. The need in Jerusalem is an opportunity to defeat sin in Corinth and bring transformation. It seems irresponsible. They’ve worked hard for their riches. And if not them, then the generations of their family have laboured long hours so that they might have much. Grace invites them to blow the bank. Grace brings power to cause rich people to give up luxuries and pleasures, to enter a new life of humble poverty. A doorway into a world where we look at the things under our dominion, time, money, possessions and say that we choose to use them to meet the need of others.
Generous Christians enact the gospel story, the riches to ragse tale of Jesus who brings his people from rags to riches in him. Generosity brings the gospel into life with radical effects. As it did in the life of Joseph (Acts 4v36-37) who sold his field – future earnings gone, inheritable property, laid aside to serve another. Might grace downsize my home long-term to provide for someone else?
Giving that looks for equality in the church will hit the rich hardest. Equality in the church probably looks like a small rise in circumstance for the poor – simply to meet their needs. However, this may have a substantial impact on the poor, simply because there are fewer rich than poor. Money given to meet a need has to come from somewhere. Being rich is not sinful, but God’s grace can call us to give in ways beyond our imagination. This is a wonderful revelation of God’s grace in the giver and something to celebrate! The giver isn’t the hero, God is.
3. Generous with what we have
“Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly; and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” 2 Corinthians 9v6. That is, you reap what you sow. Give lots, gain lots. Simple and observable in God’s world.
Giving also has a great impact on the heart of God. When it happens rightly, God loves it. He is delighted by it. Why? Because it is documentable, verifiable evidence of his grace at work in his people. The kind of giving that God loves can only be produced by him. No coercion or compulsion can produce it, only the sovereign grace of God in the life of his people. He gets the credit. He is seen.
A Biblically giving church is not just marked by the amount given by its members. The attitude of the givers is the issue. Giving done with reluctance or compulsion (9v7b) is not the goal. This is why Paul would not command giving (8v8). Rather God looks for giving that is done cheerfully. The cheerful giver is a walking testimony of grace. The sinful man can give, evidence abounds of this. The sinful man can be cheerful. And any church can fake cheerfulness. We tThe frothy appearance of Christian joy is not what God ever has in mind when he seeks our joy in Him. True Christian joy is of an altogether different magnitude. It has concrete evidence, in cheerful giving.
A heart that puts gives truly displays its treasure. Not by miserable or miserly giving. But rather by the abundant sacrifice of hard earned (God-given) resources to those in need. The cheerful giver shouts aloud that Jesus is it’s treasure, and therefore goods can be let go with gladness. The all- surpassing value of Jesus is shown in a cheerful giver.
Only grace can cause giving to be a cause of joy in the church. The church that hates her giving day betrays her lack of grace. But, in great contrast a grace-up church will long for the opportunity to give. They will hunger to be able to release the resources they currently have to meet the need of others. Gone is the guilt and heaviness of ‘giving day’, in its place rises the sound of celebration and the broadcasting of grace received.
But what should be given? Since command and compulsion are ruled out then there is no imposing of a 10% or 23% level. Instead it will depend on the decision of the giver ‘giving as he has made up his mind’ (9v7a). In the church of legalism this is a scary prospect. How can we conceive of letting sinful-hearted people decide how much to give! The presumption is that without being compelled by duty that people will give much less, if they give at all. Andy Hickford wrote an article in Christianity magazine in the Spring of 2006, many alarmed letters followed his thesis that the church should not tithe. People were concerned that without the rule pastors would lose their jobs. Hickford suggested that there is liberty, and so some (himself included) could freely give less than a standard figure out of the smallness of their resources, whilst others ought to be giving much more. Ten percent from the rich may pass without notice, ten percent from the poor could leave someone in deep need.
Without a standard figure anything from 0-100% is possible, and not just of money but of relationships, “personal space”, time, home, possessions. The legalist is concerned with the appearance of godliness and he will be dissatisfied by this approach of grace. It’s a question of the heart, not of a rule. God’s economic rule looks risky and unpredictable. What if God doesn’t give grace to give? Perhaps churches will cut back on the budget. Strangely that’s what our minds turn to rather than picturing the brothers and sisters lacking food.
God has so arranged the world that some have plenty and others have need. Grace can find opportunity everywhere to show off treasure. Not silver and gold but Christ, through the decisions of God’s people with regard to what they have. Grace urges us to be ambitious in generosity. “See that you also excel in this grace of giving” (2 Cor 8:7)