Today, as we continue our series on False Ideas that Christians believe, we are fact-checking statements about money and generosity.
- You can’t out-give God.
- Give and you will receive.
- It’s my money; I worked hard for it.
- Money is the root of all evil.
Let’s start with…
On the surface, this one is true. God is infinitely generous.
The primary example of God’s generosity, perhaps, is Jesus. I love how the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8:31-32. There he reminds us that God even gave his son! And if he gave his son, how will he not also graciously give us all things? Think about it. If he already gave us his son, anything else in life that God could possibly give us would be far less valuable. Infinitely less valuable. So in that sense, you can’t out-give God because he already gave us Jesus.
Imagine with me a giving contest, in which it is us versus God, to see who could give the most. He could just make more money appear, and he could give and give and give, even more than all the wealthiest people in the history of the world combined. It’s a no-contest. But that’s a made-up situation.
How does God give? Primarily, God gives through his people!
Let me explain. The phrase “You can’t outgive God” could potentially be used as an excuse for not giving to the church because we could think in our minds, “I don’t need to worry about giving much to the church, because God will provide for the church, even if I don’t give.” But that excuse is incorrect because God’s primary method of providing for the church is through the generosity of his people.
Over the last two and a half years since Faith Church started our Capital Campaign, we have seen this in action. God has provided amazingly, through his people. We like to think of God’s provision as miraculous, like the contest I envisioned above, that God will make money drop out of the sky, out of thin air. He can do that. But know this: it is no less miraculous and astounding to say that God works through his people. It has been incredible to see this through the Capital Campaign. First of all, many individuals in our church family gave generously. That was God providing through them. Then we also received some surprise gifts from Christians who are friends of Faith Church. First was a $40,000 matching gift, and then two gifts from another church, one for $20,000 and then one for $65,000! Just because those unexpected gifts are large amounts, that doesn’t mean they were more miraculous or better than what we all from Faith Church gave together. It all was part of how God provided through his people. You can’t out-give God.
Why, then, are we fact-checking this statement, if it is clear that God is so giving?
Because sometimes there is another side to the story.
I recently came across a true story written by a man who described a situation in his life that happened ten years before he wrote the story. Ten years before, he was a student in seminary. Finances were really tight. Going to school full-time meant that he didn’t have the benefit of a regular income. He and his wife also had children, so she wasn’t bringing in a ton of money either. In other words, their expenses were greater than their income. At one point they were facing $5000 in overdue bills, and they were at their wits end, with no means to pay. Amazingly a $5000 check from one person came in the mail, for them! Fantastic, right?
Well…here’s how the author continues the story.
“Take a detour with me for a moment. I have heard many evangelical sermons on giving. I have listened to testimony after testimony from those who had prioritized the Lord in the tightest financial circumstances. I had read the passage about the ‘widow’s mite.’ You know, the one where the lady was commended by Christ for giving her last two dollars to the Lord. I knew all the clichés: ‘I just keep shoveling out, but God has a bigger shovel!’ Or, my favorite, ‘You can’t out-give God.’ And, yes, how about our evangelical go-to passage in Malachi 3:10: ‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.’ Test the Lord and see if he does not bless you.
“Now, back to my story. I tested the Lord that day. I gave to him of my first fruits. I gave to him before the late electric bill, the car payment, and the bread box. I prioritized Him above my children, wife, financial integrity and all else. I had just enough to catch up on my bills so long as I put his claim on hold. But I gave to him part of what I needed. Why? Because he is faithful. Why? Because you can’t out-give God. Why? Because he called on me to test him.
“However . . . Two weeks later, threats of collection, electricity cut-off, and growling stomachs of my family made me wonder: Did he just fail the test? Did I just out-give God?”
How about that? Here is a man studying in seminary so that his family can enter ministry. They believe “you can’t out-give God”, and so it is the right thing to do to give money to the Lord, and watch God provide. They give to the Lord, perhaps through an offering at their church, and thus they no longer had the money to pay their bills. Then their electric got cut off. The bill collectors start calling. And the man can’t provide enough food for his family. What do you think? Did he out-give God?
I appreciated the author’s conclusion:
He says, “I do believe what I heard a pastor say the other day: ‘There is no greater indication of your spiritual life then your giving habits.’ He went on to say, ‘It is impossible to be a good Christian if you are not giving.’ The old saying, ‘If you want to know where someone’s priorities lie, thumb through their checkbook,’ is true. However, I do not believe that we are to give with some idea that the bank account of heaven is obligated to wire transfer directly to our earthly bank accounts when we give sacrificially. God may or he may not.”
So we Christians should be known for our generous giving to the Kingdom of God. In many places in the New Testament we read about how disciples of Jesus should be living simply so that we can give generously. But when we give, know that God is not obligated to shovel even more financial blessings right back into your life.
Another way to look at this is to ask the question, are there any instances in which people give more than what God has asked? If he asks for 10%, are their people who give 20%? Sure are! This relates to the confusion about tithing. In the Old Covenant that God had with the people of Israel, he did command them to tithe. A tithe is technically a giving of 10%. But in that Old Covenant, there were actually three tithes for the nation of Israel: two annual tithes, and one every three years, amounting to 23% annually. But again, that was God’s agreement with Israel. We are not under that agreement, and we have no covenant binding us to give a certain percentage of our income. Instead we are taught to live simply, so that we can give consistently and generously. Each person needs to decide before the Lord what that will look like for their family. For some people that will be well below 10%. For others it could be way above 10%.
I’ve written about this before, and I think it is so helpful I will repeat it: our evangelical forefather John Wesley had a phrase that we would do well to follow: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Here’s what he meant.
Earn all you can. Work hard. Be diligent in your employment. Use the gifts and abilities God has given you to earn an income. And for some of you, you will find that you are really good at making money.
Next Wesley said, Save all you can. He was not necessarily talking about starting a savings account or an investment portfolio. Those might be good things, though. What Wesley was talking about was living simply. Don’t spend money on yourself beyond your needs. Reign in your wants and your desires. Don’t believe the American consumer system. Don’t spend your money. Why?
So that you can do the third thing Wesley taught: Give all you can.
There are times to celebrate and spend on yourself and your family. But we American Christians need to allow God’s Word and Jesus’ pattern of life and his teaching to guide us, not the spending practices of our culture around us. Is it possible that we American Christians have been co-opted by our society? Who would be willing to take a hard look at it? Rather that make money in order to spend it on ourselves, we should make money to give to the Kingdom of God. How do we give to the Kingdom of God? Give to those groups in line with growing the Kingdom of God, give to your local church, give to a family in need. Remember what I mentioned above, about how God uses individuals to care for those in need. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan, who gave his time and financially to the stranger/the enemy along the side of the road.
And that brings us to our next phrase:
This is a picture of the World’s Largest Shovel. The Garden-Ville shovel, which is made from all recycled materials diverted from the landfill including scrap metal and telephone poles, has some amazing dimensions. Total Length – 40 Feet 8 Inches, Spade Width – 7 Feet 4 Inches, Weight – 5,000 Pounds!
There is a companion phrase to “You can’t out-give God,” which we just fact-checked, and the phrase “Give and you will be blessed,” and that is the idea that “God’s shovel is bigger.” Even bigger than the one in the picture. But that phrase “God’s shovel is bigger” is using figurative language. Some famous Christians like JG LeTourneau used this phrase to describe a situation where he gave 90% of his income and lived on 10%. And the more he gave, the more God blessed him, and so LeTourneau was able to give more and more.
Does God work like that? Does he promise that? There are a couple passages of Scripture we can turn to that seem to say this.
Luke 6:38 – Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
2 Cor 9:6 – Sow generously and you will reap generously.
But what does these phrases mean? Are they guarantees that if we give, we will get? Do we just need to shovel out money and generosity back to God, and since his shovel is bigger, he will give us even more blessing?
Remember the seminary student who miraculously received $5000 to pay his bills, but gave some back to his church and then had his electricity shut off? Here is what he concludes:
“Won’t we experience ‘blessing’ when we give, even if it is not financial? I suppose. But it really depends on how you look at it. When we give sacrificially to the Lord without expectations, we are acting out the blessing that we already have been given: a perspective that is in alignment with reality. The widow gave because she knew that this was not her home. She gave all she had because she was already sold out to God. She knew that the treasures of this earth are nothing to be compared to the glory that is to follow. If you believe this—if you truly believe this—you are already blessed. The belief itself is the blessing. Maybe God’s shovel becomes bigger than yours and maybe it does not. Our blessing is our ability to trust God. Our giving is an expression of that trust. We should expect to suffer in this life. Sometimes that suffering will come in the form of financial suffering. Sometimes it will be other things. But to think and preach that there is some guaranteed way to avoid the cross of financial suffering is not a message that we carry.”
So we disciples of Jesus are people who should be known for a kind of generosity that is so different from the culture around us. The reason why we live that way is because we have a different view of money.
If you have bills, one of the most faithful things you can as a Christian is to pay those bills. If you have loans, pay them off. That is faithful spiritual discipleship work. What was so hard for this seminary student, and what is difficult for many of us is when our income is not enough to pay the bills and give money to God. What do you do? Pay the bills or give money to God? I can’t tell you how to make that choice. The seminary student is right. Just because you give, God is not obligated to pay you back more.
One way that Christians deal with this quandary is the next phrase:
We do work hard and earn money. But the Bible teaches the principle of stewardship, meaning that we are God’s stewards. It is his money and he owns it. Every cent of the salary we earn, every cent of the hourly job, every cent of the money we receive from the government, it’s all God’s money.
Yes, you work hard, and as we already heard John Wesley say, we should work hard to make money. But we are still stewards of God’s money. God gave us the ability to work, whether that is brain power or physical ability. God provided all of our ability, and he provided our jobs. How many of you got jobs because you knew someone? Or you knew someone who knew someone? How many of you got your job because you have connections Not one of us got where we are at solely by ourselves. We have all been helped along the way in some way. Therefore we need to remember that the money those jobs provide is not our money. We live in community and we are stewards of God’s earth and the abilities he gives us to make money.
Sure, hard work, living simply and wise spending and investing will almost always result in financial blessing. But, not always. And when it does, it doesn’t mean it is your money. It is all God’s, and we are simply his stewards. We should use his money, therefore, like he wants it to be used.
Where this gets confusing is in evaluating how we should use his money, especially when most everyone in the culture, even Christians, use their money as if it is their money! As if they worked hard so they can spend hard. Yeah, they give a bit here and there, but they spend quite a bit on themselves.
What will it look like when people see themselves as stewards of God’s money? Turn to Acts 2:42-47. We need to see how the earliest Christians handled their money, and we will see that they saw themselves as stewards of God’s money. Go ahead and read that before continuing this post.
Did you see how the people generously shared their resources with one another?
Where did they get this idea? From Jesus! He taught it to them. For example, he told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Jesus taught many parables about money, clearly showing the people that they were God’s stewards, and they should use God’s resources like God wants it to be used.
A few months or maybe years later, after what you just read in Acts 2:42-47, but when the church was still really, really new, we read more about this selfless generosity. Turn to Acts 4:32-5:11, and read that story. Clearly what Ananias and Sapphira did went against the teaching of God. It seems that they sold a property and then gave money to the church saying that it was the full amount of the sale of the property. But they actually held some of the money back. Their sin was selfishness and lying about it. Have we done this? Have we selfishly held back the Lord’s money so we can use it on ourselves? When we already have enough?
This relates to the final phrase we are fact-checking today:
1 Timothy 6:10 is where this phrase comes from, and it is close, but no cigar. The phrase is actually, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” In other words, money is not the issue. The issue is our heart.
And this is where it gets real. Let me illustrate.
On the podcast I recently created, one person, Kevin Ressler had the idea that we Christians should consider opening up our books to one another. He was referring to our checkbooks. Submit your financial choices to the church community! Assault the idea that our finances and expenditures are personal. They should all be laid bare before God. So in our new Faith Church pictorial directory we are going to list everyone’s previous year gross income. Just kidding! But what about you? Would you be willing to have others hold you accountable on your use of your money?
I think the assumption is that opening the books would be harder, or more confrontational, for those of means. I would suggest that this assumption is not true. As much as we would confront the person who dropped $25K on a big vacation, we could also confront the person who can’t pay their bills but buys drinks and snacks at the convenience story every day. After worship at Faith Church we have a sermon discussion class, and the day I preached this sermon, one person noted that for many people, the convenience store is basically their only option. They would love to be able to purchase in bulk, or organics, or other healthy options but their life situation simply doesn’t allow it. We do need to be sensitive to that. That said, I would submit that the larger point remains. We would do well to be people who have healthy, loving, gracious, but truthful and firm accountability for our financial decisions.
Selfish spending and lack of generosity is in all of us. Rich and poor. And everyone in-between. Young people, older people. Teenagers who just got their first job, all the way up to older adults in retirement. We are all swimming in the waters of American capitalism and consumerism, and we have been sold a bill of goods by our culture that lies to us when it says we will feel better if we buy, buy, buy and treat ourselves. It does feel good for a while. But there is within all of us the empty self and it is insatiable, hungering for more and more stuff and experiences and clothing and vacations and coffee and it cannot be filled. You cannot buy happiness. We need to tend to our heart. Out of our heart flows greed. Money is not the issue. Greed is.
This is why Jesus taught, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21. Therefore, he says, store up treasure in heaven. Because our hearts follow our treasure. Invest in God’s Kingdom, Jesus says, or seek first his Kingdom, and our hearts will more and more align with God’s heart
In conclusion, God does not promise you to be wealthy. Some who follow him are wealthy and some who follow him are not. Wealth is not a way to measure if you are loved by him and being obedient to him. He does not promise to give us more wealth when we obey him. He does call us to give generously and to be loving and caring for other brothers and sisters, to our neighbors, and he reminds us that we are simply stewards of what we have. This is not our home. So let us not live lavishly here, but instead store up treasure in heaven, as Jesus taught.