For the next four weeks we are going to be looking at what the bible teaches about giving. And I hope that what we discover will be both liberating, and life transforming.
I’m always slightly nervous when I speak about giving, because most people think that the only thing that the church wants is your money.
Story of three men in the trenches. About to go over the top. The sergeant says to one of his men, ‘This is really bad. Tell us a bible verse, say a prayer’. The man replied, ‘I don’t know any bible verses and I don’t know any prayers, but if you want me to do something religious, I’ll pass the plate around’.
We quite like it like that. It makes God and religion manageable. It means that if we give our 50 or 100 roubles, or even our 1000 roubles, we think we’ve done our bit. I’ve put the money in the basket – so its OK and I’m OK.
But if that is our attitude, then we are not giving, but we are paying for a good conscience.
So, let’s look at 2 Corinthians 8.1-15. They teach us about a right motive for giving.
Paul is writing to the early Christian community in Corinth. They’ve said that they are willing to collect money for the church in Jerusalem and Judea, who are experiencing severe financial hardship. And Paul is writing to them to encourage them to do what they have said that they will do.
And the thing that strikes me about these verses is the emphasis on the freedom and the joy of giving.
Paul speaks of the giving of the Macedonian Churches.
Look at the words he uses: “their abundant joy; overflowed in a wealth of generousity; they voluntarily gave; begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry”.
This is about abundant voluntary generous giving.
It reminds me of the woman who took a jar of precious oil, equivalent to the value of a labourer’s wage for a year – about half a million roubles – and she poured it on Jesus.
This is about being voluntary, eager, earnest, willing and joyful givers. This is a million miles away from the guilt inducing campaigns of many charities and, for that matter, churches. And it is a million miles away from the scrabbling around inside our pocket or purse to see what we’ve got left over to put in the collection plate!
So how can we become eager, earnest, willing and joyful givers?
1. We give ourselves first to God
Paul writes of the Macedonian Christians, “They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us” (v5)
This is so important. If we wish to discover the joy of giving, then before we give our money, we need to have first given our life to Jesus Christ. It is about saying to the Lord Jesus, ‘I love you and I trust you, and I commit my life to you. I will go where you want me to go, I will do what you want me to do. I will live for you and I will live with you. I will die for you and I will die with you’.
Jesus is the heavenly highwayman who stops us in our tracks and who doesn’t say, ‘Your money or your life’, but says ‘Your money and your life’.
Of course, we need to constantly surrender ourselves to God.
If you’re anything like me, you have moments of conviction when you hear the call and you respond: Yes. You kneel down before him – literally or metaphorically - and offer everything to Jesus.
I’ve told of how Archbishop Burnett of South Africa speaks of how he went through every part of his body – beginning with the toes on his feet and ending with the hair on his head - dedicating each part to Christ’s service.
But then the circumstances of life overtake us, and temptations overwhelm us – and we need to renew that commitment. That’s why communion is so precious. We come again to receive the love of Jesus, to ask him to fill us with his Holy Spirit, and to offer ourselves afresh to him.
And when we give ourselves to Jesus, he will begin to transform our desires. We discover a new place to put our identity and our security.
Some of the things that we thought it so important to have will become far less important. And there will be new and different motivations.
And of course, if we give ourselves first to Christ, it means that we give all we have.
People sometimes ask, ‘Well how much should I give?’
The answer is, ‘everything’.
I think of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life, and Jesus said to him, ‘Sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me’.
And maybe that is the radical calling for some, to sell all they have and join a monastic community.
But for most of us, we are called to live in this world.
And so God gave his people in the Old Testament the command to tithe – to give a tenth of everything you receive.
It is something that Jesus speaks about (Matthew 23.23), and it is a very good principle to follow. It is one that I have followed all my life: literally the very first thing that comes out of my salary is the tithe that I will give. When I was in the UK it was by standing order. Here we go to Sperbank and take the money out, and put it aside for Sunday.
But I emphasise that in the New Testament, everything we have belongs to God, and so all our money belongs to him – and tithing is only a principle, a suggestion, and it is not a law.
I note that here Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthian Christians to tithe. Instead he tells them of the Macedonian Christians who gave ‘according to their means’ (v3).
He is far more concerned with motive that amount: ‘For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have’ (v12)
And that means that some people should not be tithing, and others should be tithing and then giving far more.
The important point here is that before we give our money, we need to have first given to the Lord Jesus our life.
2. We give because giving is the logic of the gospel
At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the supreme act of giving: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”. (v9)
Everything that we have is a gift. Life is gift. This world is gift. Our place in this world is gift. Our upbringing, talents, opportunities we are given, and the ability to make use of those opportunities is gift. Our possessions are gifts. We did nothing to deserve them.
And how much more is the gift of a relationship with God, of forgiveness, of his word spoken to us, of the Holy Spirit and His presence with us, of membership in his family, of the promise of eternal life, of the kingdom of God and ultimate fulfilment and joy. Not only did we do nothing to deserve that – we actually did everything we could to dis-deserve that.
But because of the love of God, Jesus left heaven and came to earth.
He gave up intimacy and peace with God so that we who were alienated from God could become intimate and have peace with God.
He gave up his life, and died, so that we who will die, might have life.
He gave up heaven for earth, so that we who were destined to go under the earth, might have heaven.
He gave up everything for us, so that we who had nothing, might be eternally united to him and have everything.
It is all gift. The logic of the gospel is gift
And when a person gets gripped by the logic of the gospel, when they realise all that God has given for them, and when they receive the gift, then they will begin to live by the logic of the gospel. They will be eager to give – and they will give.
Why? Because the Spirit of Jesus, who was rich but became poor so that we might become rich, lives in them.
Why? Because we want to become like Jesus, who was rich but became poor so that others might become rich.
Let me put this very simply.
If you are a believer, if the Spirit of God lives in you, and if you are being guided by the Spirit, then you will want to give.
And if you do not have that desire to give, or if when the plate comes round you give simply because you feel you ought to, then I’m going to make the radical suggestion that you do not give, at least to the work of the ministry of the church. God won't love you any the less, and you will feel much happier about it.
I like the story that is told of the mother who wanted her daughter to learn about giving. As they went to church she gave her a R10 coin and a R100 note. She said, 'You can put either into the collection and keep the other'. As they were going home, mum asked her which she had put in. She said, 'Well at first I thought I would put in the R100, but then the preacher said that God loved a cheerful giver, and I thought I would be much more cheerful if I had the R100. So I put in the R10'.
But the astonishing thing is that if you decide not to give, and you then realise that God still loves you, and that you are absolutely welcome here, you might begin to realise a little of what grace actually means. And you might discover that what you really desire to do is to give yourself to him. He really does want your life.
And if you do desire to give:
1. Be wise! Tithing is a great principle, guideline for giving, but nobody should be overburdened.
2. If you want to give, don’t let things come in that stop you from doing what you really want to do, from what you were made to do. Don't let forgetfulness, or laziness, or procrastination, or fear or spiritual drowsiness get in the way. Go home, even today, and put aside the money that you want to give. Do it.
A man called Richard Stearns writes, "In 1987, one of the largest, single-day stock market crashes since 1929 took place. In one day my wife, Renee and I lost more than one-third of our life's savings and the money we had put aside for our kids' university education. I was horrified and became like a man obsessed, each night working past midnight, analysing on spreadsheets all that we had lost, and the next day calling in orders to sell our remaining stocks and mutual funds to prevent further losses. (Of course that turned out to be the absolute worst thing I could have done.)
I was consumed with anguish over our lost money—and it showed. One night when I was burning the midnight oil, Renee came and sat beside me. "Honey," she said, "this thing is consuming you in an unhealthy way. It's only money. We have our marriage, our health, our friends, our children, and a good income—so much to be thankful for. You need to let go of this and trust God." Don't you hate it when someone crashes your pity party? I didn't want to let go of it. I told her I felt responsible for our family and that she didn't understand. It was my job to worry about things like this.
She suggested we pray about it—something that hadn't occurred to me—so we did. At the end of the prayer, to my bewilderment, Renee said, "Now I think we need to get out the chequebook and write some big cheques to our church and ministries we support. We need to show God that we know this is his money and not ours." I was flabbergasted at the audacity of this suggestion, but in my heart I knew she was right. So that night we wrote some sizeable cheques, put them in envelopes addressed to various ministries, and sealed them. And that's when I felt the wave of relief. We had broken the spell that money had cast over me. It freed me from the worries that had consumed me. I actually felt reckless and giddy—"God, please catch us, because we just took a crazy leap of faith."