George Orwell, the famous author of books such as Animal Farm and 1984, once wrote an essay entitled "The Severed Wasp."1 He tells about a wasp that was busy sucking jam from his breakfast plate. Orwell took a knife and cut the wasp in two. Totally unaware, the wasp continued to feed on the jam even as a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when the wasp tried to fly away did it realize its awful fate.
This is a horrible, but powerfully accurate, description of the dreaded disease of consumerism that characterizes so much of North American society. We keep on consuming, totally unaware of the radical injury we're suffering in the process, until it's time to fly away-at the last moments of our life on earth. Then it is usually too late to do anything about our predicament.
In sharp contrast to the severed wasp, the Word of God describes people whose lives demonstrate reverence for their Maker by their generosity to Him. In Malachi 4:2 we read: "But for you who revere my name, the Son of Righteousness will rise with healing in His wings; and you will go forth from your stall like calves that have been set free."
What a contrast-the "severed wasp" and "calves leaping from a stall"! That's precisely the contrast we observed in the previous chapter regarding the "tyranny of things." The tyrant promises but never delivers the goods. He breeds discontentment, resentment, anxiety and leaves behind a trail of damaged relationships. In sharp contrast, by asking us to give, God sets us free from the tyrant and gives us material sufficiency, spiritual abundance and multiplied resources for ministry. That was the first element of countercultural thinking about money.
The second element was to see our giving as an act of worship to God and, therefore, one in which attitude is all important. We are not to give grudgingly, out of compulsion or necessity but hilariously because of the joy that eventually comes from giving. But now, how much and to whom should we give?
A young man in my congregation was asked by a Christian friend, "I wonder whether tithing makes any sense at all in Toronto's economy?" The implication, of course, was that it didn't. Was he right? Are these matters of giving really functions of the prevailing economy? Or what about other questions we hear or ask about tithing? Should I tithe my gross or net income? Should I tithe my income tax return? All of these are culture-bound perspectives. We need to go beyond that to a countercultural perspective on this issue of how much, and to whom to give. The Scriptures answer both questions.
Concerning "how much," consider the Old Testament teaching. The first mention of tithing is when Abraham met the strange individual, Melchizedek, Priest of God Most High. Abraham voluntarily offered to Melchizedek a tenth of all the booty he garnered from his military campaign against the confederation of Babylonian kings who had attacked Sodom and taken its residents captive, including Lot.
The second mention of tithing is in connection with Abraham's grandson, Jacob. When the God of Abraham and Isaac personally confirmed to him the promises of the Abrahamic convenant, he said to God, "If you bless me and do all of these things I will give you a tenth." Note that both these cases of tithing predate the law and were totally voluntary. It suggests that we cannot casually dismiss tithing as an Old Testament law which doesn't apply to those of us under the New Testament.
Later on in the Old Testament, when tithing does become enshrined in law, we find additional provisions for free-will gifts and offerings. In the Old Testament, then, tithing was never a legalistic maximum. It was only a minimum testimony to the fact that God owned everything.
When we come to the New Testament, we're in for a surprise. There are only nine references to tithing. Six are found in the Hebrews 7 and all refer to Abraham's tithing to Melchizedek. However, neither the theme of that chapter, nor the book has anything to do with giving; rather it emphasizes the superiority of Christ's priesthood over that of Aaron. That leaves us only three references to tithing and all were used by Jesus when he rebuked the Pharisees for boasting about tithing and forgetting about justice, mercy and peace. Almost casually, as an afterthought, he added that they should continue to tithe.
In the writings of the early Church fathers, there is apparently no mention of tithing as a command. Yet, strangely, in spite of this relative silence on tithing, the early church abounds with instances of gracious and generous giving. Why is this so?
In the example of Jesus and the widow's two mites, our focus was on the attitude of the woman towards her giving. Here, I want to focus on Jesus' comment: "This woman has put in more than all the rest." In no way does that statement make arithmetical sense in terms of dollars and cents; it was impossible for her two mites to be worth more than all the gifts of the rich in terms of value. Our real question should be, What determines the true value of a gift that is given to God?
According to Jesus, the value of a gift is determined by the cost of the gift to the giver. The cost of a gift to a giver is not determined by how much the gift cost, but what the giver has left after giving the gift. The woman had nothing left over, the rest of them had lots left over; that's why their gift was worth little compared to hers.
To summarize the Bible's teaching on giving, the Old Testament focus was on how much we gave (e.g., 10 percent). The New Testament focus is not on what we give but on what we keep.
To illustrate, say someone makes $1,000 per month and they give 10 percent ($100) to the Lord. That leaves them $900 a month to live on (a challenge in Toronto's economy!). Thus, the $100 may well represent a sacrificial gift. Another person makes $10,000 per month and they give a tenth ($1,000). They are left with $9,000 a month to live on-more than enough for Toronto or any city in this world. According to Jesus, even though the second person gave exactly the same percentage as the first, and 10 times as much, the value of their gift is negligible compared to the value of the gift of the first person. Thus, it is very easy to tithe faithfully and still be in the grip of the tyrant if we look at the remaining 90 percent as ours to feed our reckless consumerism.
In turning our attention to what we keep rather than what we give, the New Testament introduces us to a concept called proportional giving rather than percentage giving. This is reflected in statements such as: "Let each man give according to what he has." Or: "Let each one put aside an amount in keeping with their income." It is proportional, not percentage, giving that is the key.
You may say, "It would be so much easier if we were just given a percentage figure!" Perhaps, but the New Testament doesn't oblige us for the simple reason that percentage giving would not set you free from the tyrant. "Well then," you say, "How much should I give to give proportionally?" I can't tell you that either, because the New Testament doesn't give me the right to. Each one of us has both the right and the responsibility before God to determine how much we give. It says so very clearly-"Each person must decide in their own heart."
However, the New Testament does give us principles to enable a shift from percentage to proportional giving. But first we need to understand what the New Testament means by the word "steward." This is relevant because sermons on "giving" are often referred to as sermons on "stewardship." Our picture of a "steward" is one of a gentleman with a fixed grin on his face as he walks up and down the corridors in a plane balancing coffee mugs and tea cups without spilling anything in the process!
The New Testament concept of a steward is somewhat different. He is more like a man hired by a wealthy estate owner to manage his whole estate for him. This steward was given total access to all of the owner's wealth. He had authority to hire and fire. There was only one thing he had to be careful of. The owner could come at any time and say "Let me see the books!" At that time, every legitimate expense would be checked. Questionable expenses would be challenged and whatever was leftover belonged to the owner.
That's the way God wants us to look at the issue of stewardship. It's all His and He gives it to us with freedom and authority to make decisions on how to spend it. Every legitimate expense is an allowed deduction, if you will, from this expense account; but the rest of it goes back to Him. So proportional giving really becomes a more basic question. What is a legitimate expense in terms of our spending? The New Testament answers by drawing our attention to three key balances we must strike.
a) The first key balance is in needs versus wants. The only way I know how to strike this balance is to keep asking myself tough questions, certainly of every major expenditure, and occasionally of every expenditure.
Herbert Kane, in his book, Wanted: World Christians, presents some of these tough questions before us:
The world Christian will ask himself or herself some hard questions often. Must I turn in my car every year or two to get a brand new one. Must I remain in a large house after my children have gone to college. Must I buy a new suit of clothes simply because the lapels are a bit narrow on the old one. Must I take both a winter vacation and a summer vacation. If he's serious about the matter the world Christian will find ways to simplify his or her lifestyle.2
This challenge to simplify our lifestyle is hard because the culture around us is not interested in simplifying lifestyle. It requires countercultural thinking, and I don't think we can do it on our own. We need the support of other people within the Body of Christ, people who are committed to this process. How we answer Kane's question, how we balance needs and wants, therefore, has everything to do with the kind of people we hang around with-those committed to a simple countercultural lifestyle or those who are committed to a consumer-oriented lifestyle.
Even after we've made a commitment to simplifying our lifestyle, very few of us can switch overnight from a consumer orientation to a simplified lifestyle. It needs to happen gradually. Here are some suggestions.
Some may have lots of money left over for luxury items that are not really needs at all. Here's a challenge for you: Every time you spend something on yourself that is purely a luxury item, why not take an equal amount of money and commit it over and above your regular giving for the Lord's work. Others may say, "I don't have that much!" Then take what you're going to spend on yourself and split it in half. Spend half on yourself and give the other half away.
Since generosity is as much a matter of using as giving, here's another question to ask when you make purchases. Am I willing to use this house, this car, this tool, this book, and to share it with others if needed? If you find yourself hesitating and saying "No," you need to ask yourself a few more questions. One author put it well when he said, "If it's too expensive to lend, it's probably too expensive to own." That's a good criteria to keep in mind.
b) The second balance is in the area of "future needs," whether it's provision for our children's future or our own. The balance here is between a reasonable provision for the future and what I call fearful or indulgent protection against every possible thing that could go wrong or every possible luxury you might want to have for yourself in the last years of your life.
Scripture tells us that reasonable provision for the future is necessary. Proverbs says, "In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil but a foolish man devours all he has." 2 Corinthians 12:14 says, "After all, children should not have to save up for their parents but parents have to save up for their children." So some kind of provision for the future is legitimate; but at the same time, let's not forget Jesus' parable of the rich man who, though his barns were overflowing with grain, said, "I'm going to pull them down and build even bigger barns." Why? So he could sit down and say to his soul, "You've got everything taken care of! Now coast on from here until eternity." Jesus called that man "a fool." Thus the balance we must find is between unwarranted protectionism and reasonable provision.
But what's reasonable when it comes to provision for the future? Here's a principle I have tried to use: Any provision I make for the future that will allow either me or my family to continue to exercise our God-given gifts to make a maximum impact for the kingdom of God for the maximum amount of time, is probably a reasonable provision. But any provision I make for the future that is driven either by fear of not having enough, or so I can "cool my heels in the Atlantic" for the last 15 years of my life, is likely to invite from Jesus the same kind of evaluation, "Are you simply building bigger barns for yourself?"
c) The third balance concerns the whole matter of investments. How much money should we put into investments (for those of us who have money left over for them)? People rightly point to the parable of the talents to justify investments. The parable speaks to the issue of investments as well as to spiritual talents. But let's not forget one key element in that whole parable. Whose talents were they to begin with? They were the master's, given to the servant so they could multiply it for the master's use. So when you invest surplus money, ask yourself, "Who am I multiplying these talents for? When my ventures succeed, what am I going to do with the money?" Needs versus wants; reasonable provision or fearful protection; whose investments? Those are the three critical balances we must strike.
When you have struggled through and answered these questions (and only you can answer them), take your budget into your prayer closet, ask God to discern the motives of your heart that led you to make these balances, respond to the Spirit, change some of those balances if you have to; then, whatever is leftover (whether it is 10, 15, 20, or 30 percent) give it to God. That is proportional giving.
Some may say, "If I apply this approach, I won't even have 10 percent left. What do I do in that case?" First, go back and check those three key balances again. Second, I have yet to meet one individual who has decided to make tithing a minimum testimony to God and who has ever suffered because of it. But, in all honesty, after all of these considerations, if you feel totally free in your spirit to just give whatever is leftover and it's less than 10 percent, on the authority of the New Testament, then I can't question it; it's between you and God. The New Testament refuses to prescribe a percentage because that does not free us from the tyrant. But anguishing before God, seriously attempting to strike these balances, focusing on what we keep and giving proportionally rather than according to a fixed percentage, will set us free from the tyrant.
Once we have done that, we face the next equally important question: To whom or what should I give the amount I have decided to give?
That's a very pertinent question in these days, with the P.T.L. fiasco and Jimmy Swaggart's confessions fresh in our minds. We have to ask some tough questions. Our job isn't finished when we've decided to give liberally; to whom we give is critically important. Some church leaders wouldn't like my saying that! Some may be aware of the problem the United Church is facing because of the division over the homosexuality issue. Some United Church pastors who were opposed to the hierarchy's recommendations have threatened to withhold contributions from the General Fund. In response to this, a very "high up" denominational leader accused such pastors of blackmailing the church. Blackmail or no blackmail, we have a responsibility to be discerning when it comes to determining whom we give money to!
Again we must go to the Bible for a countercultural perspective and guidelines. The Old Testament gives two primary reasons or uses for donated money:
(a) for the support of the Levites and the priests who looked after all the worship affairs of Israel and were the intermediaries between God and His people and
(b) for the ministry to the poor in Israel.
In the New Testament, these two reasons for giving are reinforced. 1 Corinthians 9:13, 14 makes an explicit connection between the Levites and the priests in the Old Testament and pastors and other full-time workers in the New Testament:
Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered at the altar. In the same way the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
The New Testament reinforces ministry to the poor. When Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet Peter, James and John, they said, in effect, to him, "We recognize your mission to the Gentiles but, please Paul, don't forget the poor." Paul replied, "I was eager not to forget the poor."
So the New Testament affirms what was already the stated purpose of giving in the Old Testament. But it adds a third reason for giving-the support of the whole missionary enterprise. In the Old Testament, Israel didn't have a formal missions program. They tended to attract the people of the nations around them by their life and worship of Jehovah. But in the New Testament, Paul repeatedly and regularly not only accepted but solicited support from the local churches in order to carry on the missionary task.
These, then, are the three New Testament reasons or purposes towards which we have to channel our giving. Having said that, let me remark on each of those areas.
As far as taking care of one's pastors, I can only express gratitude for the faithfulness and generosity of the congregation I am fortunate to serve. I would also challenge those who serve in leadership positions in your local churches and who have input into determination of your pastors' salaries. You have a God-given responsibility to ensure that their basic needs are well taken care of. That will free them to do the work of the ministry which is what you have called them for in the first place. I also trust that as you understand the biblical perspective we've discussed here, you will continue to do so cheerfully and gladly, rather than with even the slightest trace of reluctance, negligence or compulsion.
As for giving to the poor, I recently received a letter from the head of a large relief organization. He said to me, "Sunder, you wouldn't believe how hard it is to get evangelical pastors and church people to grasp the fact that relief and development ministries are a key part of the proclamation of the gospel." I know what he's driving at. It's very easy to get Christians to give to tear-jerking emergency situations, like those in Ethiopia, Mozambique, or Bangladesh. But it seems almost impossible to get the same Christians to commit themselves as a group to long-term support of relief and development. Yet this is going to become increasingly important. Yamamori, president of Food for the Hungry, says that by 2000 AD, over 90 percent of the people of this world are going to be living in yet-to-be-developed countries, whose leaders are going to be clamoring for relief and development aid, primarily from those in the west. Where such relief and development aid can be expressed through the local church, it significantly enhances the credibility and testimony of the local church, and therefore, of Jesus Christ.
The following is a testimony of a pastor from Mali where World Relief has been involved in a "water well" digging project:
When you [World Relief] said you would come and help us, and you did what you promised, you did it in the name of Jesus Christ. It was God's answer to our prayers. The whole village now realizes that. The credibility of the Christian Church was at stake and now the testimony of the Church and of Christians has been strengthened here. All the people now know that a Christian's word can be trusted and believed. We thank God for the work that has been done here.3
All it took was one well to produce that kind of testimony.
I urge you, find worthy projects and commit yourself to support them for as long as it takes to complete the project.
What determines whether or not a project is worthy? Ask yourself whether it's a "holistic project." A Chinese proverb says "Give a man a fish and you feed him only one meal; teach him how to catch fish and you feed him for the rest of his life." This is a holistic approach to relief. We need to support projects that are holistically-oriented, like the "wells" program in Mali. The "life loans" program that allowed rickshaw pullers in Bangladesh to build and own their rickshaws is another example.
Finally, consider giving to missions. I am fortunate to belong to a denomination where missions is not just a part of our program; it's our fundamental purpose for existence. Donald McGavran, a retired missionary, veteran church growth specialist and a former professor of missions at Fuller School of Theology and World Missions (and who doesn't belong to the Alliance), said recently that he knows of no other organization whose mission plans are so clearly laid out as that of the Alliance. I am able to encourage members in my denomination to confidently support Alliance missions, knowing that their money is being spent well. I know that this can be said of many other denominations as well.
But at the same time, we must continue to give to missions projects aimed at closing the gap at the widest end of the spectrum. Unreached peoples, and the efforts being made to reach these peoples, must become a priority. (In the Alliance, the unreached people groups has become a stated priority for our second century.) However, occasionally you may come across nationals working among certain unreached groups, and God may burden your heart for that specific people group. Feel free to respond, for when the Spirit of God talks, you have a responsibility to act.
Regarding nationals, reliable missionary statistics show us that, on average, it takes $40-48,000 a year to support one missionary family overseas (including salary, travel and health care). In contrast, it typically takes $1,500 a year to keep a national working. In many cases that national is able to cross the cultural and theological barriers more effectively than a Western missionary. The number of third-world missionaries is increasing steadily. Many want to go, but they don't have the finances. We, both as denominations and as individuals, must increasingly pay attention to the role of the national. It isn't an either/or situation. The nationals, in many cases, need desperately to be trained. In Latin America and in Africa, where the churches are growing rapidly, there are not enough pastors to care for these churches. Training is essential and we will continue to need traditional missionaries to do their work. But we need to broaden our vision to include nationals.
So now you have decided how much to give and you know the three broad categories to which you must give. How do you apportion it? The Scriptures don't give us any hard and fast guidelines. Responsiveness to the tugging of the Spirit is important. At various times, one of the three needs categories will begin to take priority; but, over a long period of time, it is wise to give to all three areas.
Watch out, however, for one attitude that is dangerously wrong when it comes to apportioning. It says, "Let's forget about missions, let's forget about the poor for awhile; let's pay off our buildings, make sure we're alright, then we'll worry about ministry." That's deadly. Peter Wagner illustrates this in an incident when he was on the mission field in Bolivia.4 His church was having trouble even meeting its regular local church budget. The pastor, after much praying, proposed to his congregation, "Brethren, there is only one way we are going to get out of this financial problem. We are going to increase our missions budget [not decrease, but increase], and we are going to increase the fraction that we give." Within one year, that church was not only out of its financial problems, it has never ever looked back.
The missionary mandate is at the heart of our Lord's purposes. If we move away from His priority in our giving, we have begun to take the first steps downward. The best way to ensure that we as churches do not move in that direction is to make sure that we, as individuals, do not move in that direction.
To fix the importance of countercultural giving in your mind, consider the following statement by Philip Yancey:
I don't know what comes to your mind when you hear the word "fat" but I have a good idea. In North America "fat" is nearly always a dirty word. We spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books and exercise machines to help us lose excess fat. I hadn't heard a kind word about "fat" until I met Dr. Paul Brandt. "Fat is absolutely gorgeous, says Brandt, a medical doctor who has worked with lepers in India. "When I perform surgery, I marvel at the shimmering lush layers of fat that spread apart as I open up the body. These cells insulate against cold, provide protection for the valuable organs underneath and give a firm healthy appearance to the whole body. But those are just the side benefits," he continues. "The real value of fat is that it is a storehouse of energy. Locked in those fat cells are the treasures of the human body. When I run or work or expend any energy, fat cells make that possible. They act as banker cells. It's absolutely beautiful to observe the cooperation among those cells.
Dr. Brandt then applies the analogy of fat to the body of Christ. Each individual Christian in a relatively wealthy country like North America is called to be a fat cell for the world. We have a treasure house of wealth and spiritual resources. The challenge to us as Christians here is to wisely use those resources for the rest of the body. "Ever since talking to Paul Brandt," writes Yancey, "I take a sort of whimsical pleasure once each month in thinking of myself as a fat cell on the day that I write out cheques for Christian organizations. No longer do I concentrate on how I could have used that money I'm giving away; rather I contemplate my privilege to funnel those resources back into Christ's body to help accomplish His work around me.5
It's a good thing to keep in mind: We are called to be fat cells!
1. Quoted in Leadership, Summer 1984, Volume 5, Number 3: A publication of Christianity Today, Carol Stream, Illinois.
2. J. Herbert Kane, Wanted: World Christians (Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1986), p. 192.
3. Extract from a personal communication with Reg Reimer, President of World Relief, Canada.
4. C. Peter Wagner, On the Crest of a Wave (California: Regal Books, 1983).
5. Leadership, Winter 1983, Volume 4, Number 1: A publication of Christianity Today, Carol Stream, Illinois.