May 20, 2012

Glad Generosity

I don’t know about you, but after talking for three straight weeks about God’s stuff and how we’re doing as stewards of it, I was ready to take a little break last week.  It was a lot of fun dedicating our young parents to the great task of raising up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  There is indeed a sacred duty on the part of the church to encourage and celebrate parents willing to commit themselves to seeing their children become fully who God designed them to be.  The faith won’t be passed on to the next generation unless we radically commit ourselves to seeing it happen by both setting an explicitly clear standard ourselves and calling our children to it with a fine blend of grace and truth.  This duty falls particularly hard on dads…much, perhaps to the chagrin of many who have intoned the cultural message that kids and home life fall more under the auspices of moms.  And while simple church attendance might have been enough to get the job done once, those days are long behind us.  Simply having a young person in church—as some of you know very well—brings no guarantees that the Christian faith will be embraced.  The faith is not learned by this pseudo-osmosis.  Actually, thinking along these lines, all the ideas we’ve been talking about in this series apply laterally to our job as parents with little necessary in the way of translation.  We are to be stewards of our children with the same intensity and discipline as we are to be stewards of what we normally (now anyway) think about when we talk about God’s stuff.

Speaking of all that, this morning we are going to get back to talking about what we should be doing with God’s stuff.  Two weeks ago we started the second part of this conversation.  The first part, if you’ll remember, focused in on our attitude toward God’s stuff.  We have to remember that it is in fact His and we are to strive to live simply so that getting more of it doesn’t cloud our vision of what we should be doing with it.  The second part of our conversation is now focused on the natural question in response to this: what should we be doing with God’s stuff?  As we saw, the answer to this is summed up in a single word: give.  God gives us an abundance of His stuff in order that we can give it away to help meet the needs of others in the name of Christ and by this expand the borders of the kingdom of God.  We need to stand up to the fears we have of letting go of the stuff we’re managing for God, and start investing it as God would have us.  And so we’re clear: God doesn’t want the shrewd money-managing strategies of the world to characterize our efforts; He wants us to follow the rule of radical generosity.

With all of this in mind, this morning I want to focus our attention on the logical next part of the conversation.  Given that we are to be giving to the work of expanding the kingdom; given that we are to be making radical investments in kingdom expansion projects; what should this look like for us personally?  How should we be giving?  Well, the approach to this which has been taken by most churches since the founding of the Church, is the tithe.  But, before you check out because you have heard enough messages about tithing to satisfy your need for being reminded of this, stay with me.  We’re not going to talk about tithing this morning.  Instead, we’re going to take a look at how God desires for His people to be involved in the work of expanding His kingdom.  In particular, there are some helpful words in what Paul wrote in his second letter to the believers in Corinth.  In this regard they were a church not so unlike us.  They were a generous people, but they were finding themselves hung up in a rut as far as their understanding and practice of giving to kingdom work was concerned.  They weren’t getting any worse, but they hadn’t gotten much better recently.  As a result, near the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul gave them some helpful advice.  This advice centered on a love offering he was going to collect upon his next visit.  If you have your Bibles, open them to 2 Corinthians 9, and we’ll dig into this text a bit together.

In order to get the fullest picture of what’s going on here as possible, we need to start back at the beginning of chapter 8.  Historically, in the mid-40s AD, there was a terrible famine in Palestine.  Things got really bad in Jerusalem, especially for the followers of the Way—what the earliest believers called themselves—who were a cultural pariah.  They were not going to make it on their own power.  As a result, when Paul launched out on his second missionary journey, as he visited the various churches he had planted on his first visit, he took up a special love offering for the Jerusalem believers.  Now, these other believers weren’t exactly rolling in dough, but still they gave generously.  In particular, as Paul relates, the Macedonian believers, who were themselves quite poor, gave above and beyond what they could handle in order to help this group of people they had never met in a place they would never see.  Paul tells the Corinthian believers about their incredible gift, consciously holding them out as a model of generous, sacrificial giving.  He encourages the Corinthians to give, not necessarily to the point of poverty as the Macedonian believers did, but in order that they might share fairly with the Jerusalem brothers and sisters.  And this was fairness not in the sense of equality of outcome, but rather, given their comparatively wealthier status over the Macedonians, their gift for the Jerusalem offering ought to be comparatively larger.

As it turns out, in the same way Paul was boasting to the Corinthian believers about the radical generosity of the Macedonians, he had been boasting to the Macedonians regarding the Corinthians.  He had been talking some big talk about the Corinthian believers and the kind of gift they were going to give for the Jerusalem offering.  This takes us to v. 1 of chapter 9.  “Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year [to give to the Jerusalem offering].”  In other words, “I’ve been telling the Macedonians all about how ready you are to give generously to this cause.”  Now, if I’m a Corinthian believer, I’m thinking to myself: “Thanks, Paul. I was planning to give and had budgeted accordingly, but now there’s no way my gift is going to be enough to meet the high expectations you’ve set for me in the minds of the Macedonians.  Am I now supposed to stretch beyond what I can handle in order to make us both look good?”  And then almost in answer to this line of thought, stay with me in v. 3: “But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be.  Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident.  So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.”  Once again, in other words, “I set some pretty high expectations for the size of the gift you’re going to give to the offering—fully in line with what you indicated to me, but high nonetheless—so I thought I’d better send a couple of guys on ahead to give you this message so you could go ahead and start working on it.  After all, you don’t want us to show up in a few weeks and catch you with your financial pants down, do you?  I’d hate for you to have to give with a bitter spirit as you try and save face instead of giving with a willing generosity ahead of time.”

I don’t know about you, but I would be pretty irate at Paul if I were part of the Corinthian church.  He totally set them up.  Yes, they had promised to give some large amount to the offering, but this would have felt like a set up.  Now instead of getting by with giving what they were comfortable, they were going to have to step it up and go beyond their comfort zones.  Paul doesn’t suggest that as a possible emotion on their part, but put yourself in their shoes.  It would have been very easy for them to feel a lot of resentment toward Paul.  After all, this was their money he was giving away.  Perhaps this idea forms the baseline assumption of what comes next in the text.  As if he were anticipating such a reaction, Paul next goes on to give some teaching on giving.  In doing so he answers the question of what kind of approach we should take to giving.  As stewards of God’s stuff, how should we approach kingdom investing?

Stay with me in v. 6 “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  Here’s what Paul’s getting at: the reason he shoved the Corinthians up to the giving plate is because he wanted to give them the chance to invest bountifully in the kingdom.  As I was standing at the door two weeks ago someone joked that what I needed when standing on the edge of the cliff in my first year at camp was someone behind me to help me experiencing the rush of life that only came with jumping by shoving me off the edge.  This is essentially what Paul was doing here.  Because of the presence of the Spirit in their midst there is little doubt the Corinthian believers were planning to give at something to the Jerusalem believers.  The question wasn’t whether but how much.  How much should they invest in this particular kingdom cause?  Their choice was: do we invest a little or a lot?  Paul’s answer: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Last year Lisa and I bought and planted six strawberry plants.  After a small produce harvest Noah and I planted them in the backyard.  I suspect you know that strawberries multiply quickly.  When we put our six plants in the ground we had a choice: keep them at a manageable level or let them go crazy.  We decided to sow bountifully.  As a result, instead of eating one strawberry a day for a couple of weeks we picked somewhere in the neighborhood of four gallons of some of the sweetest berries I’ve ever had.

It would seem, then, that Paul’s vision for the people was that they should give generously.  Can you hear the response?  “Well I thought I was giving generously.  I guess Mr. Super Apostle doesn’t think I’m being generous enough.  I guess I’ll just have to up the ante some.  I sure hope I have enough left over to take care of my family…”  Yet before this thought can fully form in the minds of his audience, Paul is already rebutting it: “Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I am not in the business of telling anyone how much they should give.  If you are happy with the amount you’re giving, leave it.  Don’t give more because I made you feel like you should.  If you’re feeling guilty about your amount, though, at least pause and ask the question of why.”  Look at v. 7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Paul’s not interested in setting any specific parameters for giving.  He doesn’t talk about gross versus net.  He doesn’t offer up an ideal percentage of our wealth to give.  He simply says, “Give what you have decided in your heart.”  That’s really inconvenient of Paul, if you think about it.  It would have been so much easier for him to tell people they needed to give ten percent, or fifteen percent, or twenty percent, or maybe just five percent.  Whatever it was, if there was a specified amount, our lives would be simpler.  We could just write off whatever it was like we do with our taxes and be done with it.  But give whatever your heart has decided?  That sets up an internal battle between our head and our heart.  A heart even a little touched by the Spirit says: “Go!” while the head is saying, “whoa!”

Guess which part usually wins those battles?  Most of us are realists at heart.  We want to dabble in the “what could be,” but when it comes to divesting ourselves of “our stuff,” it’s hard to see beyond the edge of our vision.  What usually ends up happening in this kind of a situation is that we give just like Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to be giving.  If we give at all we give either out of compulsion or guilt, and often both.  Neither of these modes of giving accomplishes anything positive in us.  Yes, money goes out to do some good work.  But if our heart isn’t in it, we haven’t benefitted at all.  In fact, if anything, it’s probably done us more harm than good.  Instead of eagerly anticipating the next time we get to be involved in kingdom investing projects, we dread the thought of someone guilting us into parting with our hard-earned resources.  Besides, that other person probably isn’t very deserving of it.  If they just worked hard and managed their money well like we’ve done they wouldn’t be in a place where they need our help.  In fact, how dare that person try and goad us into giving in the first place.  I’ll bet they’re not giving as generously as they’re asking us to do.

Do you see where all of this has gone?  Rather than stepping out in faith that God is going to accomplish His purposes through our small gift and that He is further going to make sure we have not only enough left for ourselves, but enough left to give more later, we are embittered and angry that He has impressed on us in this way.  Instead of letting the Spirit move in our hearts in order to shape us more fully into the image of Christ we have shut Him out completely.  What more, we are in this situation where we are carrying many of the external indicators of righteousness and so easily fool both others and ourselves into thinking we’re right with God when on at least this point nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is that we’ve separated ourselves from God and yet we keep living like we haven’t.  Paul completely dismantles this line of thought here.  Andy Stanley observes that “in this statement, Paul eliminates the idea of giving reactively or out of guilt.   In other words, if that’s how you feel about giving, God says, ‘That’s okay, you just keep it.  I’ll use somebody else’s.’”[1] Can you imagine the horror of a moment like that?  I don’t honestly want to even think about it.

What we come to see, then, is that Paul is not merely concerned with our giving generously.  He is angling for something more.  He wants to see us take the next step.  We can be generous with giving sitting firmly in the “have to” category in our minds.  Think about it: if you taught people that their salvation was dependent on how much they gave to the church they are going to give generously.  But it will be a duty, rather than a pleasure.  God doesn’t want duty-bound givers.  Well, He’ll take that at first because at least they’re giving and you have to start somewhere.  But His desire is to see our motivation for giving mature beyond that.  There are two groups of people who are duty-bound givers: kids being forced to give by their parents and adults being forced to give by their consciences.  The first group is young enough to be all potential and God can work with that.  The second group—into which perhaps some of us fall—isn’t going anywhere.  These are the folks to whom God says: “Keep it.   I’ll use somebody else’s.”  No, what God wants and what Paul declares here are cheerful givers.  We should give not merely generously, but with glad generosity.  Every time you drop your offering in the plate it should be an act of worship fully on par with any other part of the worship service.  We should give with glad generosity.

Incidentally, do you know how you can recognize a glad giver?  They keep giving more.  Our growth in faith over the course of our lifetime walk with Christ should be paralleled by a growth in giving.  In fact, for many of us, a growth in faith is preceded by or even caused by a growth in our giving.  We should yearn and stretch ourselves in our giving, always desiring to do more, to give more.  We should never settle for very long in one place.  This is true in the same way as our faith.  We don’t arrive in terms of the exercise of our faith in this life.  We are always straining forward to put even more of our trust on God.  And each time we put all the trust on God we have and can’t imagine giving more, He opens up a new avenue of trust we can give Him.  In fact, someone thinking they’ve arrived and can sit back and relax until the kingdom comes is a sure sign they have a long ways to go.  The same is true of our giving.  Think for a minute about why this is.  What one thing in this world stands in the way of our faith growth more often than anything else?  Our stuff.  As I said a couple of weeks ago: there’s a reason Jesus used our material possessions so often to talk about the things that can keep us from the kingdom.  Complicating this for us is the rampantly materialistic nature of our culture.  Let us not fool ourselves into thinking we can exist in such an environment and not be affected by it.  We can’t.  We must constantly guard ourselves and take measures that prevent the materialistic urges of our culture from being planted in our far too fertile minds and hearts.  And the most effective preventative measure is to give.  Here’s the connection then: it takes faith to walk in the kingdom and the more faith we have the deeper into the kingdom we can walk, but our extra stuff (anything beyond the basics) gets in the way of our walking in the kingdom, so in order to walk in the kingdom in the first place, we have to give it away, and the more we give away, the further into the kingdom we’ll be able to walk.

Thus, just as we are eager to grow our faith, or should be, we should be eager to give away the extra stuff God has given us so that it doesn’t get in our way or slow us down in our quest to make the kingdom of God fully manifest in our lives right here and now.  In this way, the process of growing both in our faith and in our giving is like growing a muscle.  A few months ago Lisa talked me into getting an exercise bike so that I could do something to keep myself in shape so that I can keep up with the boys.  Well, I started riding in the mornings and have really enjoyed it.  I remember the first morning I road.  I set it to go for 15 minutes with a pretty easy blend of resistances.  I barely made it.  I was right on the edge of what my body could handle without falling off the bike.  I think I road just a shade over four miles that morning.  This past week I was still riding for 15 minutes, but I had increased the resistance by several levels and road five and a half miles.  At this point 15 minutes with a low resistance and only riding 4 miles wouldn’t even make my body break a sweat.  As my endurance and strength is slowing increasing I have to work harder and harder to stay on that edge in order for the exercise to accomplish anything positive in me.  See the parallels?  Drawing a couple more insights from Stanley: “Giving should always be an exciting, spiritual, close-encounter-with-God experience.  So if it has become a mundane routine, then maybe it’s time to stretch your financial faith a little.”[2] In other words, if you just blindly write your check and don’t really even miss the money anymore, it’s time to think about upping the number you write down so it actually does something positive for your faith.  The reason for this is that “you can’t grow as a giver if you don’t also increase your giving.  In other words, if you’ve been tithing for twenty years and you’ve never increased your percentage of giving, you haven’t grown.”[3] And as I’ve said before: if you’re not growing, you’re dying.  It’s not breaking a faith-sweat for you anymore and therefore isn’t helping you keep the threat of materialism at bay.  At the point you’ve been giving the same percentage for several years in a row, given the constant input of our culture, you have probably retreated to the ranks of the reactionary, guilt-driven givers.  And yet the call on our lives is clear: we should give with glad generosity.

We can do this freely, just like Noah dropping change generously into God’s bucket, because the amount of stuff we have has no bearing on whether or not our needs and those of our family are going to be met.  We should work as hard as we can to see them met, but we must always keep before us the fact that the stuff we use to meet them is God’s stuff and He’ll make sure it gets to where it needs to go.  He does this with great intentionality in fact.  Look at v. 8: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times [in other words: so that having everything you need when you need it], you may abound in every good work.”  God blesses us with plenty so that we can give with this glad generosity.  We should give with glad generosity.  Now, there is much more to say on this, but you’ll have to come back next week for that.  Indeed, next week we are going to get really practical and dig into some of the nitty-gritty of giving.  We’ll deal with questions of how much we should give and the kind of giving that allows the Spirit to do the most work in our hearts.  For now, though, it is enough to know that we should give with glad generosity.  We should be exceedingly, radically generous with the stuff God has given to us to manage thereby following after His pattern.  And we should do it with gladness because we are not only actively expanding the borders of the kingdom in this world, we are laying up a huge store of treasure which we will get to enjoy in full when the kingdom arrives in full.  Let us then give with a glad generosity.

[1]Andy Stanley, Fields of Gold (Carol Streams, Ill.: Tyndale, 2004), 82-83.

[2]Ibid., 94.

[3]Ibid., 92.