"Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, willing to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed" (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
When I was growing up, my parents gave me a rectangular plastic bank divided into three sections labeled "Give," "Save" and "Spend" in that order, specifically in that order. Obviously, the subliminal message was to impress upon me the idea that the first priority when earning any income was to designate a portion for my tithe. Every Sunday, after I had earned any amount of cash for miscellaneous projects, I would begrudgingly withdraw my bills from the velcro wallet stashed in the side pocket of my cargo pants (90s kid and proud of it) and hesitantly complete the message from my brain to my hand to place the money in the offering vessel. I realized on some level through my parents' instruction that all money is God's and that I was merely giving a portion of what was already His. However, most of the lessons I heard in church and among those in my Christian community seemed to really focus on this whole ten percent idea.
But what I failed to understand then and am still learning today is that giving isn't just a numbers thing, it's a heart thing. This platitude may sound about as helpful as the list of side effects at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial, so allow me to elaborate.
In his book Plastic Donuts, author Jeff Anderson examines the idea of giving acceptable gifts to God, using Cain and Abel as a primary example. You know the story. Abel offers lamb chops, Cain offers the house salad, and God rejects Cain's gift while favoring Abel's. What does God have against veggie plates? Is there some deep exegesis to explain an inherent disapproval of farmers rather than shepherds in the Old Testament? Of course not. While the passage in Genesis 4 gives little explanation for God's reaction to these gifts, Hebrews 11 tells us Abel's gift was distinguished from Caine's because of faith. Clearly, then, there's more to the story than God's dietary preference.
The Genesis passage doesn't reference specific amounts. It doesn't quantify the "portions" of Abel's flock or the pounds of Cain's crop. It doesn't mention the percentage of each offering from the whole. Nor does it discuss whether each brother offered from their take-home pay or net income. In fact, to anyone who may have been present at the time, both offerings may have seemed perfectly legitimate.
Needless to say, the concept of giving - and specifically tithing - is intricate. Here are three thoughts to help bring clarity to this tricky issue.
1. Tithing vs. Giving
Gritting your teeth while signing away ten percent in your pew is like Siri telling you she's your best friend. It's just not the real deal. While a thorough analysis of all the Old Testament references and parameters to tithing is beyond the scope of this post, perhaps we can agree that Christ paid the price for us to be delivered from the Law and we live freely under a new covenant. Therefore, we can read Paul's words to the New Testament believers in 2 Corinthians and 1 Timothy with this idea in mind. These passages, and many others, express themes of freedom, individual responsibility and an emphasis on the spirit of generosity. No arithmetic, no box checking, no guilt tripping. Rather, our offerings are a natural product of Christ's generosity to us.
So how does this play out in 2015? If giving ten percent of your income to building God's kingdom comes from a joyful spirit as a result of intentional prayer, and improves your relationship with Him, then by all means do that! If you are pulling out your phone calculator and rounding down to get with a pang of reluctance at every digit, you're missing the point. Giving is an opportunity to discover the amazing work happening around us as well as a tangible way to present our faith in God's provision. If tithing is the product of a giving spirit, go forth. If it is a thoughtless habit, a response to guilt or self-focused, consider a reexamination.
2. How much is enough?
Good question. Wouldn't it have been so much easier if Jesus had said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God 13.75% after taxes"? Easier, yes. Effective, probably not. There are two underlying assumptions, which make up this question of 'enough.'
The first is the idea that numbers are really at the center of giving rather than our heart. If you find yourself asking this question, ask also if you feel you're in line with God's will for your giving. Have you consulted the One who gave you your finances in the first place?
The second is the belief that our money is what God is after. Essentially, this view reduces our gifts to the same level as paying utilities. We get the paycheck, carve out the balance, wince a little and send off the payment. In return, He keeps the lights on and we can remain in good standing for another pay period. Wonderful, now we have less money and more resentment towards our abundantly gracious Savior.
Remember, it's a heart thing, not a numbers thing. Perhaps instead of seeking a magical percentage, we should intentionally pray about the amount God is calling us to offer and to what causes. Seek out ways to be generous with your resources. Attune your heart to the needs of your community and our world. Thankfully, Jesus took care of any question pertaining to us doing 'enough' of anything.
3. Sacrificial giving is our answer
For some, ten percent may not even register as a tremor on their financial richter scale. For others, it may shake their financial foundation to its core. Do you see the ambiguity in reducing generosity to a mere percentage? If money is of no object to you, consider what sacrificial giving might mean for your situation. Is God challenging you to increase your consistent giving amount? Is he calling you to make a single large gift to a project? Or are you already sacrificially generous with your money, but you hoard your time (house, boat, vacations, car, etc.) instead?
If money is tight for you, are all your worries and anxieties wrapped up in your bank account? Do you trust God to provide for you as you faithfully surrender your finances to Him? Obviously giving is not something we should take lightly as believers. If we are unsure about how each of us should give sacrificially, perhaps it is because we have not asked. Abel gave generously from his best in faith, may we learn to do the same.
Full disclosure, being generous with money is a challenge for me (as noted in my previous post, here). Do not despair if you feel a little lost, confused or stuck on this issue. I'm right there with you. Our society puts a price on everything, and it can be an extreme paradigm shift to understand that not only can't our salvation be earned, neither can God's favor. Our gifts to God don't get us tokens to cash in when we mess up, nor grant us access to a certain level of prizes based on how generous we are. God isn't Chuck E Cheese. Likewise, Cain may very well have presented the "correct" amount of his fruits, they may have even been the best of what he had, yet they were still unfavorable. The attitude and motivations with which we give are at the heart of this issue.
I still have that bank from when I was a kid. And it still has the labels in order, in specific order. Only now the first section is no longer a symbol of reluctance, but rather a reminder of the abundant blessings God has given to me. What's your reminder?