God is a generous God. We are to be like him. Therefore, we must be generous. Giving is an important act, but it is also complicated. It is not as simple as letting something go out of our hand, not if we want to give in a Christlike manner. We examined this a bit when we looked at secrecy recently. Jesus tells us our giving must be done in secret; otherwise, we are giving to our pride and not to God.
Humility is a necessary component of giving. We fool ourselves if we think we are meeting any need of God by our giving.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Psalm 50:10-12 (ESV)
On the other hand, it’s not possible to be humble and not give. Giving is a way to worship God. Mary’s example in John 12:1-8 reminds us of this and in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells us that as we give to the poor, we are giving to him, and that failure to do so will keep us out of the kingdom. To those raised on a radical “faith alone” view, this is a hard word, but it’s not usually a good idea to argue doctrine with Jesus.
The first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit was chosen because he prayed and gave to the poor (Acts 10:2, 4, 31). God is very concerned about how we treat the poor and he seems to view our giving to them as a key indicator of our attitude toward them. It stands to reason, since we tend to put our money where our heart is.
The scriptures and the church teach that we should give 10% to the church. That’s pretty straightforward—but nowhere does the scripture say that all charitable giving must be confined to that 10%. In fact, the scriptures are pretty clear that we should also give freely to the poor. Almsgiving—translated “stewardship” in some places—was the giving of gifts and resources to the poor above and beyond the tithe that went to the temple.
Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.” If you read the whole chapter, there’s a hint of judgment because he says earlier that if you do what he commands, “there will be no poor among you.” God realizes we’re not going to meet that standard, though, so he gave the command, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” You see, the tithe is not the goal, it’s the point of departure. It’s the minimum. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same incomes as our own, we’re probably giving too little. If our charities do not all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.¹
If we think there’s a demarcation between financial issues and spiritual issues, we’re mistaken. If we’re not obedient with our wallet, we’re not obedient at all. James tells us that anyone who keeps the whole law and yet fails on one point is—what?—guilty of breaking it all.² If we’re obedient on everything but fail to be obedient at that point, we’re not obedient.
The purpose of obedience is to deliver us from the crippling deference we give to the impulses of self-will that enclose us in our own little world and block us from emerging into the full freedom to which we’ve been called.³
Giving is a spiritual discipline and like every other spiritual discipline, it doesn’t really matter to God whether we do it or not. He’s still God. He still owns the cattle on a thousand hills whether I tithe or not. But it matters enormously to us whether or not we’re faithful in those spiritual disciplines. Whether or not we’re allowing ourselves to be formed. C.S. Lewis also wrote, “Our temptation is to look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted.”4 That’s true in all things but probably nowhere more so than giving.
¹ Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, Collier Books, New York, 1952. p. 81-82
² James 2:10, paraphrased. See also James 5:1-6 just in case you’re not feeling guilty yet.
³ Casey, Michael, The Road to Eternal Life: Reflections on the Prologue of Benedict’s Rule, Liturgical Press, 2012, p. 10
4 Lewis, C.S., the Weight of Glory, Harper One, New York, 1980. p. 188