October 24, 2010

The Roots of Generosity

Have you ever watched a telethon before?  We are just a bit over a month past the 45th annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.  Did anyone here grow up watching that every year?  Anyone watch it this year?  Anyone ever call in and give money?  When watching that or other telethons, have you ever really paid much attention to the reasons offered for why you should give to their cause?  As I have watched or listened to this or that telethon, the reasoning offered for giving usually focuses on all the good that will be done with the money.  Speaking specifically of the Lewis telethon, they will parade through a variety of people with MD whose lives have genuinely been made much better because of the MDA.  The theme common to these approaches is to offer the following line of reasoning:  We’re providing an invaluable service of some sort and in order for us to keep providing this service in the same amounts and with the same quality you need to give us money.  This reasoning might be draped in appeals to our intellect, our emotions, or our consciences, but the basic thrust is largely the same.  Why, even in churches across the country appeals to give generously to the ministry often come from this same line of reasoning.  Congregants should give because the church is doing good ministry and needs the money to keep it up.  After all, ministry takes money.

Fundraising pitches of these various sorts, however, are not a recent phenomenon. They have been going on for a very long time.  In fact, they are as old as the church itself.  As a further matter of fact, they would probably not even exist without the church because apart from the orthodox Christian worldview people have no reason to give their hard-earned stuff to someone else.  Anyway, in this marvelous gift from God that we call the Bible, there is actually a telethon of sorts.  In 2 Corinthians 8-9 Paul includes a mini-telethon to raise money for a group of famine-stricken believers.  You see, a drought and famine had left the people of Judea in a very hard place.  In particular, the members of the Jerusalem church who were already on the margins of society were struggling mightily to make it.  As a result, as they traveled on their third missionary journey, Paul and his associates decided to take up a collection from Jerusalem’s sister churches in and around Asia Minor to help the suffering believers.  This morning I want to take a look with you at how Paul frames his call for the Corinthian believers to give.  Wrapped around Paul’s request to give generously to the Jerusalem mercy offering is a host of wisdom on the hows and why of generosity.  In fact, as you look closely at these two chapters, there are twelve principles for generosity.  I want to walk you through these this morning to see if together we can’t come to not only a clearer understanding of how and why we should be generous with our stuff, but also how we might find a solution to the problem of dividing our loyalties.  On that note, before we get to these principles, let’s quickly run back through how we have gotten to this point in our journey of developing the proper perspective on our possessions.

On the first Sunday of this month I suggested and I hope proved to you that as humans we have a tendency to divide our heart between the stuff of this world and the God who created the stuff.  We try and have things both ways: we worship God because He’s right; we worship stuff because it feels good more consistently than does worshiping God.   But, this trying to have it all will always leave us with nothing in the end.  With this thus established, we spent the next two weeks unpacking this problem in a bit more detail.  We saw that one of the results of trying to divide our loyalties was that we give God something less than our best and when we do give our heart really isn’t in it.  The next problem with dividing our loyalties which we addressed last week is that we start to view the stuff we have as belonging to us.  In order to avoid these two pitfalls, we need to develop the spiritual disciplines of gladly giving God our best and of being rich toward Him.  Well, with this in place, I want to spend the last couple of weeks of this month sketching for you a solution to the problem.  We are going to explore two solutions which, when pursued with the fullness of our hearts, will put us in a place of trusting God more fully with every single aspect of our lives which itself will result in our being even more able to do great work for the kingdom of God.  The first solution to the problem of dividing our loyalties is one we have heard about already: we must become more intentionally generous with the things God has given us.  Simply saying we should be more generous, however, like asking for money without a compelling reason behind it, won’t do.  It’s not enough for us to go on in terms of giving up our stuff.  So, let me take you back to Paul’s telethon (or rather, letter-a-thon), and his principles of generosity, understanding that in these Spirit-inspired words we will find some of God’s reasons for being generous.  These are going to culminate in a clearer view of the solution to our dividing tendency I am offering you this morning.

The first principle of generosity Paul offers is that while giving is a good thing, sacrificial giving carries with it the highest worth.  At the beginning of chapter 8, in order to encourage the Corinthian believers, Paul talks about the gift of the Macedonian church which went well above and beyond any expectation of reasonableness.  He talks about their being in a severe period of trial and testing themselves and yet they still gave not only according to their ability, but beyond it.  Here’s the thing: giving is nearly always good.  Even if we give from poor motives, someone else can still benefit from our gift.  It may not profit us anything in terms of spiritual wealth, but someone else is still helped by it.  If each and every one of us gave at the level of our ability we would be a very healthy church.  But there would be nothing noteworthy about that.  We would be like the baseball player who hits around .250, only commits a handful of errors, and hits 10-15 homeruns every season.  He would probably keep his job for a good long while, but he wouldn’t get many features on the local sports page.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with his performance, but neither are teams chomping at the bit to snag him for their own bench.  But, if we go above and beyond to be sacrificially generous, to be generous to the extent that we feel it, then we are sending the message to God that we are ready for Him to do big things with us.  We are ready for the big contract and a chance to start the All-Star Game.  So, if we want our generosity to really count, it needs to be sacrificial.

The second principle is that our generosity must have a source, and that source cannot be us.  In 8:5 Paul talks about the Macedonians giving not simply money as was hoped.  “Instead, they gave themselves especially to the Lord, then to us by God’s will.”  The generosity of the Macedonians came forth from their giving themselves to God.  To repeat what I said just a bit ago, apart from an orthodox Christian worldview, we have no reason to be generous.  If we are worshiping our stuff, even a little bit, this life-giving, sacrificial generosity will simply not be possible for us.  We must give ourselves fully to God and dedicate back to Him all of the stuff He has graciously given us.  Then we will be able to pursue the kind of kingdom-advancing generosity that will be something to write home about.  If we are struggling with being generous, perhaps we need to take a step back and examine whether or not our hearts belong fully to God.

Third, generosity demonstrates the genuineness and sincerity of our love for God.  Now, that’s a pretty big statement that might strike some of you as pretty bold to make so let me offer you some proof.  First, remember what love is.  As we learned from John near the end of the summer, love is an intentional decision to work for God’s best for those around you.  Second, in 8:8, Paul remarks that he is not commanding a life of generosity to the Corinthian believers.  Instead, “by means of the diligence of others, I am testing the genuineness of your love.”  If we are going to keep God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves this is going to take our being involved in their lives.  This takes resources on our part.  Getting involved in someone’s life to the extent she is growing into the image of God granted to her takes sacrifice on our part.  It takes personal generosity—of time, talents, and tithes—to see someone become fully who God has created him to be.  We can talk a mean game of the lavishness of our love for others, but in order for these claims to hold much water, we must stop talking and put our stuff where our mouth is.

Let’s be honest, though, sometimes when we hear things like that as well as calls to give generously to this or that organization we feel a bit of resentment.  Why, if we gave generously to every group or person that proverbially knocked on our door, we wouldn’t have anything left for ourselves.  Let me be honest with you: that’s not what God desires.  He calls us to be generous, but not necessarily to give ourselves poor.  In 8:13-14 Paul says this: “It is not that there may be relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality—at the present time your surplus is available for their need, so that their abundance may also become available for your need, that there may be equality.”  Our giving should be proportional to our abundance—the fourth principle for generosity.  Those with a greater abundance should give more.  Remember: equal sacrifice, not equal gift.  The reality of this world is that the division of material goods is neither fair nor equal.  As a matter of fact, this will never be achieved on this side of eternity.  No government of people has or will ever achieve the vaunted ideal of perfect fairness.  We had fairness once, in the Garden, but we gave it up in order to play god.  Instead, in His wisdom, God has given more material goods to some so they can experience the blessings of being generous with others.  To others, God has given less so that they can experience the blessing of having to depend more fully on Him for their physical needs.  Yet both are still called to a life of generosity if they follow Christ.

Moving forward, because of the influence of eastern religions on this culture, when someone experiences something particularly good or bad, they might cite Karma as the force behind it.  The idea is that we reap what we sow.  But let’s face it: in this broken world that idea seems like garbage.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to decidedly undeserving people all the time.  This cynicism seems to be a much truer reflection of reality than does Karma.  Yet in the ethic of the kingdom of God, justice is the rule and people do in fact reap what they sow; just not necessarily with the immediacy of Karma.  In 9:6 Paul says: “Remember this: the person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously.”  This is the fifth principle of generosity.  When we invest heavily in kingdom concerns we will find that our reward will be great.  It will be great in the next life, but even in this life we will begin to experience the abundance of life that comes from such investing, from such a pattern of being rich toward God.  Rejoice, friends!  We serve a God who is just.  As we are generous with Him (which we are when we are generous with the least, last, and lost of this world) He will be generous with us.  And the more generous with Him we are, the more generous with us He will be able to be.  On the flip side, if we are stingy with God (which comes by being stingy with others), then the blessings of generosity will be unfamiliar to us.

The sixth principle of generosity relates back to something we touched on a couple of weeks ago.  After encouraging the Corinthians to give generously and promising that our generosity will be met by God, Paul offers a corrective to those who would take 9:6 out of context and balance.  In v. 7 Paul says: “Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not out of regret or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  You see, there is no set amount that believers should be giving.  Rather, they should give from their heart what they have determined with God’s help is the appropriate amount for their giving.  If someone is giving 10% because they really want those blessings from God, but in honesty they would rather be giving 9%, then they had better start giving 9 %.  Continuing at 10% may actually be harmful for their soul since they are living a lie.  The money may prove to benefit someone but at what cost?  What good is gaining the world yet losing your soul?  Furthermore, Paul’s statement about not giving out of regret or necessity is a warning to those who throw money at something because they feel bad or who give generously because they want to ease their tax burden.  Taking advantage of exemptions like that is fine, but it should have no bearing on the amount we give.  One of the hallmarks of Christian maturity is that we move beyond giving out of some sort of obligation to giving out of the overflow of our gratitude.

Seventh: God is able to provide for us to be as generous as we are willing (and He calls us) to be.  Look at v. 8 with me: “And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work.”  If we so desire and God so calls us to shoot for the moon in terms of our generosity, He will make sure we are able.  I read about a couple who after attending a seminar on stewardship decided to challenge themselves to be more generous.  This resulted in their doubling the amount they were giving.  The next year they invited some friends to go to the same seminar in hopes that the friends would experience similar blessings from an increase in their generosity.  Somewhat unexpectedly the original couple felt challenged once again and increased their giving another two and a half times.  Granting this was a wealthy couple, in the end they were giving away $3 million and living on $150,000.  For those of you who like to keep score, that’s a 95% tithe.  In whatever ways we desire to be generous, God will make sure that we have enough to be generous and still have an abundance to enjoy.

Now, this couple obviously would not have pursued such a life of generosity if it brought them no personal benefit.  Indeed, the eighth principle for a life of generosity is that such a life carries with it an enormous slate of blessings for us personally.  Of these, perhaps the most important is that when we pursue a generous life we become more righteous people.   Paul’s makes this case in vv. 10-11: “Now the One who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your seed [that’s the physical provision again] and increase the harvest of your righteousness, as you are enriched in every way for all generosity.”  When we strive to be as generous with others as we can be we will naturally find ourselves in a place where we are more rightly related to God (which is the substance of righteousness).  We will be more rightly related to Him because His concerns (like care for the least, last, and lost of society) will naturally become our concerns.

This principle of generosity flows very naturally into the next and ninth.  When we have given ourselves over to God fully and are pursuing a generous life we will find ourselves with an insatiable desire to be more generous.  In the church I grew up attending there was a staff member named Loren Goings.  He was one of those guys who always seemed to be about 100 years old.  There were a lot of great things about Dr. Goings, but one that stood out the most to be was that he was a giver.  The more he gave, the more he wanted to give.  He found ways to save money in order to be able to give more.  He even made many of his own clothes so that he could give more.  He got to the point that he was giving away 2/3 of his income and living on the rest.  And let me assure you, this was even more of a sacrifice for him than it was for the couple giving away 95% percent of the income from a moment ago.  Dr. Goings was also one of the single most joy-filled individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Well, not only do we experience personally the blessings of generosity, but others experience these too.  This, by the way, is the focus of most modern calls to give.  When we are generous, the needs of others are met which results in their praising God.  This is Paul’s tenth principle of generosity.  Now, of course this is not a hard and fast rule, but most people, when they experience unexpected provision for physical needs they thought would surely go unmet, offer praise to God.  In other word, our generosity results in God receiving more praise, honor, and glory.  As Paul writes in vv. 12-13: “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to God.  Through the proof of this service, they will glorify God for your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with others.”  In this way, our generosity is a form of worship.  It is one of those many ways we can live a life of worship rather than merely relegating it to an hour on Sunday mornings.  You see, as believers, our highest good comes when God receives more praise, glory, and honor.  Thus, anything which causes God to receive more glory we should do and do a lot of.  Living a life of generosity fits this bill perfectly.

The eleventh principle of generosity is that the unmerited, unconditional generosity of believers is a powerful testament to the efficacy of the message of the kingdom.  This is also what Paul was getting at in v. 13 when he said “they will glorify God for your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ.”  The message of the Gospel is that hope and peace and justice have returned to the world.  We can find the life we have always wanted and we can find it in the person of Jesus Christ thanks to His resurrection from the dead.  God is unmistakably alive and is at work among us as His kingdom advances.  When we pursue a life of generosity, we actively become the means by which God accomplishes His work.  We become God’s hands and feet.  There is no higher honor in the kingdom than to be a faithful servant of God.  This is the life that generosity makes available to us.  No longer does God hand down things from on high like He did in the Old Testament.  No longer does He show up as one person to do it all Himself like He did in the person of Jesus.  Now He is even more intimately present in the person of the Spirit who works through those faithful to the Gospel of Christ.

Well, at last we come to the twelfth and final principle of generosity from Paul’s words to the Corinthian believers.  All of these principles point to something very simple, but very powerful.  We have talked before about our need to depend on God.  Remember: He is the Creator and we are not.  Yet we forget this incredible fact whenever we try and serve our stuff, whenever we try and divide our loyalties between God and our stuff.  Earlier I told you that the first solution to this problem is to be more generous.  I also acknowledged for you that that’s not enough in and of itself.  Well, you now have eleven hows and why filling it out and now let me make it a complete set: Generosity allows us to be more dependent on our glorious God.  When we are generous with others, we are naturally getting rid of the stuff on which we are otherwise tempted to rely.  When we find ourselves without as much stuff to rely upon we can do one of three things: we can rely more heavily on the stuff we still have; we can find new stuff to rely on; or we can allow ourselves to be more dependent on our glorious God.  The first option reveals that we have not yet been generous enough to accomplish anything truly positive in our life.  The second option reveals that our generosity did not come from the right source.  With the third option, however, we find the life that is truly life…but more on that next week.  Generosity allows us to be more dependent on our glorious God.  When our dependency is first and foremost centered on the God who created the stuff then we won’t have to divide our loyalties.  We will find all of our needs met in one place.  Now, is this counter-cultural?  You bet your life it is.  This kind of reasoning: give it away to gain it all, runs counter to every claim of this world.  But it is the clearest definition of reality we will ever find.  Generosity allows us to be more dependent on our glorious God.  This is not the one-dimensional generosity of this world of telethons and fundraisers either.  It is not about simply doing good.  It is about becoming good.  It is about sowing seeds of righteousness everywhere we go.  It is about shining light in dark places so that the truth can be known there.  And it is about revealing the goodness of our great God for all the world to see.  Generosity allows us to be more dependent on our glorious God.