May 27, 2012

More Than an Exercise

Well this morning we are going to continue working our way through this big idea of managing God’s stuff in a way that honors Him.  So far we have established how we should think about it in the first place.  We did that in the first two parts of the series.  We are to constantly keep before us the fact that it is all God’s stuff.  None of it belongs to us.  There’s an episode of the Cosby Show where Vanessa brings some friends over to the house whom she wants to impress mentions to them that her parents had just paid $11,000 at auction for the picture hanging over their mantle.  Later at school this news has spread and some kids start making fun of her for being rich.  This taunting turns into a fight and she has to go home and tell her parents about it.  Ultimately she blames the problem on their being so rich.  When she makes this comment Cosby’s character looks at her and says: “Let’s get something straight: Your mother and I are rich.  You have nothing.”  Vanessa got herself in trouble when she thought the stuff in her house, which her parents had bought, belonged to her.  Similarly, we get ourselves in trouble when we think the stuff in our possession actually belongs to us.  The antidote to this line of thought, besides being reminded of it often, is making sure that our desire for stuff isn’t ruling the roost.  Our chief desire should be to be the best stewards of the stuff God has given us as we possibly can be.  If that stewardship happens to result in our getting more stuff, great, we’ll have even more to give away, but this isn’t what we want first.

Once we have established in ourselves the proper attitude toward the stuff we are managing for God, we can start to talk about what to do with it.  Indeed, we started this part of the conversation the week before Mother’s Day.  The first step to managing God’s stuff well is to give away as much of it as we can.  Once our needs are met (and we do well to define very carefully what our needs are versus what our wants are), the rest is intended by God to be used to expand His kingdom.  In this way we really can think of ourselves as God’s money managers.  About this author Randy Alcorn observes: “As his money managers, God trusts us to set our own salaries.  We draw needed funds from his wealth to pay our living expenses. . . .The money manager has legitimate needs, and the Owner is generous. . . .[But, i]sn’t there a point where, as stewards, we can cross the line of reasonable expenses?”[1] We, very naturally given our cultural context, want to live a rich life.  And, given our cultural context, we assume the way to do this is to have and enjoy a lot of stuff.  But, as we have seen, that’s not how we live a truly rich life.  This is the way to live a rich life: not to have the most stuff, but to give the most of it away.  All that said, simply giving stuff away is not ultimately going to get us there as good stewards of God’s stuff.  A wealthy miser can give away huge sums of his fortune and still be a miser.  At some point our attitude must come into play.  In this case, giving with a glad heart is the way to go.  In other words, as we have talked about before, we have to move giving from the ‘have to’ column to the ‘want to’ column in our minds.  We should give with a glad generosity.

In spite of all of that, though, the question of how we are to manage God’s stuff remains still unanswered.  I mean, yes, it’s helpful to know that I should be a cheerful giver when I am giving away the stuff I have worked hard to gather for myself and my family, but glad generosity is kind of a basic cultural expectation in this country.  We’re not yet so far gone from our Judeo-Christian foundations to have lost that.  What we really want to know is how to give.  We want to know the mechanics.  We want to know the amounts and percentages so we can budget accordingly.  We want to be able to check generous giving off our “Am I Holy?” list so we can move on to something else.  What I want to do with you this morning, then, is to get really practical.  What should the shape of our stewardship be?  And, what will this actually accomplish in our lives?

In order to do this, we need to understand one more thing.  If you noticed, I said that as God’s money managers, He allows us to draw our living expenses from His wealth.  In other words, God’s plan is not for people to live in poverty, but to supply all their needs.  What this means and what you know from living in the world for any reasonable amount of time is that it takes a certain amount of stuff in order to live with any degree of comfort.  Most of us have enough to live with quite a bit of comfort as far as the world’s population goes, but God does understand that different parts of the world require different amounts of stuff in order to make it.  All of this is to say, I’m not trying to make us feel bad for seeing to it that we have enough stuff so that our family’s needs are met.  I’m not even trying to make us feel bad for wanting to have enough stuff to satisfy a few wants as well.  What we’re talking about and what God is keenly interested in is what we’re doing with our extra stuff.  Does anybody in here have extra stuff?  I know you do because we filled the fellowship hall with our extra stuff a couple of weeks ago for the sixth time.  How about this: does anybody in here have extra money?  Hmm…That’s a little harder to answer.  Let me see if I can put it in these terms.  For those of you who operate with a budget for your family (and that’s a good idea to do if you’re not), how many of you have some kind of a catch-all, miscellaneous category?  That’s extra money.  If once you have saved a bit and paid the bills you still have some leftover, you have extra money.  The choices you make may have committed some amount of the extra money so that it doesn’t feel like extra money, but it is.

Now, most people in this kind of a situation look at extra money like this and think, “What a blessing from God this is!  Now I can get…”  But consider this thought from Alcorn: “When God provides excess income, we often suppose, ‘This is a blessing.’  Yes, but it would be just as biblical to think, This is a test.  Abundance isn’t God’s provision for me to live in luxury.  It’s his provision for me to help others live.  God entrusts me with his money not to build my kingdom on Earth but to build his Kingdom in Heaven.  When thinking clearly, I will see that often he wants me to downsize my temporary kingdom in order to upsize his eternal Kingdom.”[2] In order to get a handle on why this is, we can actually look at the same passage we started into last week in 2 Corinthians, but a couple of verses beyond where we stopped.  Grab your Bibles and open them to 2 Corinthians 9:10.  Check this out: “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread food [in other words, the God who provides for His people to invest and provide for themselves…will what?] will supply and multiply your seed for sowing…”  In other words, that God is not only going to make sure you have enough, but will also go above and beyond that…in order that you may live in the lap of luxury and never have to worry about anything else as long as you live…oh wait, that’s not what it says.  What does it say there?  “…and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”  He’s going to go above and beyond for you in order to give you the opportunity to be more rightly related to Him and the people around you.

Well how do you think the harvest of your righteousness is going to increase if you’re not sowing bountifully?  That’s a metaphor most of you ought to understand pretty well.  In order to plant, you spend a lot of money on seeds.  And what do you do with them?  Do you stick them up on a display shelf so everybody can see how wealthy you are that you could buy that much seed?  Do you stick them in a vault where they’ll be safe for the future?  No.  You stick them in the dirt.  What a waste!  The church recently graciously afforded Tim and me new computers for our offices.  What would you have thought if when the boxes arrived I had dug a hole in our garden and tossed them in?  You’d have probably fired me.  What’s the difference?  You spent a lot of money on seeds.  Because you know that the seeds will grow and you’ll end up with exponentially more than you started with.  And the more you plant, the more you’ll get.  Now, will every seed grow?  No, it probably won’t.  But that’s no reason not to still plant as much as you can.  We need to be thinking about all of our stuff more in terms of seeds than computers. Now look at the next verse: “You will be enriched in every way…”  There it is again!  God wants to make us rich!  Yes, but why?  “…to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”  God desires to enrich us in every way (which means more than just monetarily, although, for this group his monetary blessing has been pretty generous), so that we can be generous in every way.  How many ways are there to be generous?  Saving a count, there are a lot.  But I want to spend some time talking about one: being generous with our money.  Let’s finally answer the practical how question.

If you have been in the church very long you know what the standard churchy answer here is: tithe.  The Bible says clearly in Second Opinions 27: “In order to be a Christian in good standing thou shalt automatically give 10% of thy income to the church.  What you then do with the rest of it is up to you.”  Just out of curiosity, minus the reference, has anyone in here ever heard anything along these lines before?  Now, hopefully by now you see pretty clearly that the second part of my false teaching there doesn’t pass the smell test when held up against what we talked about in the first part of this series.  Everything we have or make belongs to God.  In telling us to give, He’s just asking for a portion of it back.  The first part, though, is trickier.  For example: Do we tithe on our gross income or our net income?  Honestly, a lot of folks don’t even know their gross income because of the way our tax system works, so tithing on it doesn’t it compute for them.  They just see the number on the check and figure they tithe from that.  But that’s not all God provided for them.  Just because you let the government take a little off the top (which you don’t have to do) doesn’t make that portion any less God’s.  So you see, tithing isn’t quite as clear cut as it is sometimes made to seem.  Now, for many years, churches taught tithing, plain and simple.  But in the last twenty years or so, a new teaching has come to the fore: grace giving or sacrificial giving.  This sounds so much more spiritual than tithing with all its rigid legalism.  Grace giving can be spontaneous and can ebb and flow depending on life circumstances and God understands all that.  The proponents of these positions have launched various salvos at each other and the debate has gotten heated on occasion.  So which is it?  Do we tithe?  Do we not tithe?  Can our giving go up and down and still keep us on God’s good side?  What does the Bible actually say?

Well, saving a detailed study of the text, let me touch on a couple of highlights.  First on tithing.  You might be surprised to learn that the Bible never, not even once, commands tithing as it is practiced today for followers of Christ.  And while some of you are ready to jump for joy and shout, “I knew it!  I can finally get rid of this burdensome, legalistic practice and remain on God’s good side,” not so fast.  The Old Testament does talk about tithing, but the cultural context was very different from ours and therefore so was the practice.  The ancient Israelites were expected to give multiple tithes which collectively totaled almost 25% of their income.   But, only part of this tithe went to the “church” of the day.  The other parts roughly amounted to a kind of flat tax used for putting on national religious celebrations and a kind of welfare tax used to help take care of widows and orphans.  Furthermore, they didn’t pay their tax with what we understand as currency.  They paid it mostly in produce.  When they took in their harvest the first 10% of it went to the Temple.  All of this is to say that when you hear someone try and use the Bible to justify tithing as it is often practiced today, you can gently observe to them that it doesn’t.  But, this doesn’t mean we should simply rid ourselves of the practice in favor of the more free form and spiritual-sounding grace giving.  The fact is that when people in the Bible gave back to God from what He had given them, they regularly gave 10% or more.  The tithe was intended to be the ground floor of giving, not the upper limit.  Now, what is so special about 10%?  Why not another percentage?  Honestly, we don’t know.  God asked people to give that much.  The fact is that since it all belongs to Him, He could have kept all of it.  Giving just 10% when compared with what could have been sounds pretty good.

Now, in the New Testament, as the practice of giving to the Church began to develop, tithing is never mentioned.   Instead, the focus shifts to the attitude behind the giving.  What we see, particularly in passages like 2 Corinthians 8-9, is that giving should be cheerful and it should be sacrificial.  Paul praised the Macedonians lavishly for, “they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.”  This is the kind of sacrificial cheerfulness that should characterize our giving.  The picture created here is that our giving should be out of the overflow from our hearts of the joy we feel for what God has done for us.  And the more joyful we are, the more we’ll give; the more we’ll recognize God’s unfettered ability to provide for His people; the more we’ll see how this living on the edge (for sacrificial giving means to give beyond the point that the figures add up) grows and strengthens our faith so that we can walk more fully and more confidently in the kingdom.  Now, a number of folks might protest that they can’t afford to give like this.  They’re on the edge as it is.  And some are.  But not most of us.  Speaking of a baseline tithe Alcorn deflects this protest rather directly: “When people tell me, ‘I can’t afford to tithe,’ I often ask, ‘If your income were reduced by 10 percent, would you die?’  They always admit they wouldn’t.  Somehow, they would manage to get by.  That’s proof that they really can tithe.  The truth is simply that they don’t want to.”[3]

Before this sermon devolves into one of those guilt-inducing “you-should-give-more” speeches, let’s shift gears to how we can get to this point.  The reality is that if we’re not already giving with this Macedonian sacrificial cheerfulness, we’re not going to start tomorrow.  You don’t become a weight-lifter by going to the gym one day and trying to press 200 lbs.  (Incidentally I tried that a couple times in high school, left embarrassed, and spent the next week hurting.)  We have to work up to it.  I could not have ridden five and a half miles in fifteen minutes on my exercise bike four months ago.  In the same way we might approach a fitness goal with a plan in place, we should approach giving goals with a plan in place.

But wait!  Shouldn’t giving be spontaneous?  Shouldn’t we give freely and unhindered by rules and structure?  Doesn’t that make it more spiritual?  To answer flatly: no.  Now don’t get me wrong.  Spontaneously generous giving is a great thing.  It’s not an unwise idea to keep some amount of money set aside for such opportunities—kind of a personal benevolence fund for your family to help others.  There are times when God comes to us unexpectedly and lays something particular to the moment on our hearts.  We should be able and willing to respond to these proddings eagerly and with generosity.  But, let us not delude ourselves into thinking that spontaneous giving is somehow more spiritual than planned, structured giving; that giving as a response to the movement of God in the moment is somehow better than the week-in, week-out giving that so many folks practice.  Put this in the context of stewardship.  I don’t want my money manager to be really good with my money only when he’s really feeling it.  I want him to be good with my money every single day whether he’s feeling it or not.  The truth is that he’s probably not going to be “feeling it” all that much.  In the same way, how often are you really feeling it with regard to parting with a lot of your extra money for the sake of the kingdom?  If you’re anything like me, it’s not very often.  And as Andy Stanley observes: “…giving without a plan leaves you vulnerable to your emotions, and…emotions can be influenced by fear.  So the best strategy for giving is a twofold approach: a basic plan combined with a willingness to consider spontaneous giving when unique opportunities arise.”[4] Thus, a plan is not only necessary, but a positive good.

So what kind of a plan is the best approach?  Stanley actually recommends a three part plan that is alliteratively memorable: priority, percentage, and progressive.  First, giving should be a priority for us.  Whenever we get any money, our first thought should be focused on how much and where we’re going to give from it.  While we’re on the subject, where should your giving go?  There are lots of opinions here, but nothing explicit in Scripture.  Here’s my take: giving to the local church should be the top of the list.  The largest core of your giving should go here.  From there, choose various other parachurch ministries and charitable organizations that ring with your personal Gospel passion and are actively working to advance the kingdom.  Regardless of where it goes, though, giving should come first.  We can draw our living expenses from what remains.  Second, it is a good idea to be a percentage giver.  Between you and God, figure out what this percentage is going to be and stick with it no matter what your financial circumstances look like.  Yes, this means that the dollar amount is going to change, but that’s not God’s chief concern.  What should the percentage be?  That’s between you and God.  If you are in a place where you can give 10%, great.  But, if you’re just starting out as a percentage giver and you need to start lower, that’s okay.  As a bit of guidance, though, the goal here is ultimately sacrificial giving so if you pick a percentage of money that you really aren’t going to miss, you might need to consider a higher percentage and make whatever lifestyle adjustments are necessary.  Find a percentage that is going to keep you on the edge of your seat for a while.  Third, don’t stick with that percentage for very long.  I know, I know, that seems contradictory, but it’s not.  Stay with your percentage for a while but then, when the time is right, increase it.  As you grow comfortable with the percentage you work out with God to give, increase it in order to keep yourself on the edge.  Giving should be an on-the-edge-of-your-seat worship experience in which we divest ourselves of our extra stuff to the point that we have to rely on God to provide enough for our own needs to be met.  Again: this doesn’t necessarily mean we should give until we’re poor.  It means we should work diligently to keep ourselves in a place where we aren’t tempted to rely on the stuff God has given us to meet our needs instead of the God who gave it.

Now, what happens when we do all of this and then we’re out of here.  Find your Bibles one more time and look with me starting at v. 12: “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints [that is, the stuff the money does isn’t the only stuff going on here] but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.”  Because we give, God receives honor and glory.  This is right and proper because it’s really Him providing it through you.  When you give you are being a direct instrument through which God is accomplishing His purposes and He receives the praise for it.  Keep reading: “By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you.”  Got that?  When, as a result of your faithful submission to your confession of the Gospel that Jesus is Lord, you give from the abundance God has given you to see another person’s needs met, they are going to praise God which increases His glory and honor and they are going to pray for you which in turn allows God to work in your heart to enable you to do even more good work for the kingdom which collectively brings about the advancement of the kingdom of God in this world which means you are being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ storing up great treasure in heaven that you rightfully anticipate enjoying when you get there, a confidence you justly bear because your faith has been demonstrated as real by your decision to give from the abundance God has given you.  In this way your glad generosity blesses this world and the kingdom.  Glad generosity blesses this world and the kingdom.  Glad generosity blesses this world and the kingdom.  Let us declare gladly with Paul: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”  Come back next week as I wrap all of this up for us by sharing with you the ultimate why behind all of this.

[1]Randy Alcorn, Managing God’s Money (Carol Streams, Ill.: Tyndale, 2011), 134.

[2]Ibid., 133

[3]Ibid., 123-24.

[4]Andy Stanley, Fields of Gold (Carol Streams, Ill.: Tyndale, 2004), 86.