For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. ~2 Corinthians 8:9
When you look at the numbers quantifying the generosity and faithfulness of the American church when it comes to tithing, there is a lot to be discouraged about, and a lot to be hopeful about. Recent studies suggest that only 10-25 percent of church members tithe (to “tithe” means to give 10% of your income to God’s kingdom). Overall, American Christians only give about 2.5% of their income to the cause of Christ.
Numbers like that can provoke a lot of guilt and handwringing, but there is also a hopeful side: what would it look like if the American church, the most prosperous people in the history of the world, started giving generously and faithfully? According to Relevant magazine, which crunched these numbers, if every American Christian tithed, there would be an extra $165 billion for churches to use and distribute each year. Break that down into some categories and I start to get excited about the potential:
• $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation, and deaths from preventable diseases in five years.
• $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years.
• $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues for the billion people who live on less than $1 per day.
• $1 billion per year could fully fund all overseas missions work.
That would leave over $100 billion dollars annually to fund additional ministry
I find those numbers heartbreaking and hopeful. Heartbreaking, because the American church is failing to live out even a fraction of what it could be if we would give ourselves and our resources wholeheartedly to advance Jesus’ kingdom. But it’s also hopeful, because look how easy it would be! If giving increased just a few percent across the entire church, the nations could be reached, suffering alleviated, hunger eliminated, poverty massively reduced, and the fame and worth of Jesus would be broadcast at home and around the world. The global impact of a financially faithful American church would be phenomenal and unprecedented.
WHY YOU EXIST
I believe that it is not an overstatement to say that those numbers and those impacts are why America, and the American church, exist. I have a great burden to see my life and the American church as a whole more fully committed to sacrificial generosity, so please permit me a few minutes to elaborate and defend that radical statement. I have three observations about history and world events for you to consider:
First, the overarching purpose and meaning of history is that God is gathering worshippers for his Son from every tribe and language and people and nation. That is why the universe exists, and that is why history, in its seemingly circuitous and meandering form, exists. When every nation and people group has been reached with the gospel, history will have fulfilled its purpose, and the end will come. Jesus himself said so: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). That means that all 12,000 or so ethno-linguistic people groups (that’s what the word “nations” means) will most assuredly be penetrated by the gospel before Jesus returns.
Second, for the first time in world history, we are approaching the completion of that task, the completion of Great Commission. At the current rate of missionary expansion into unreached people groups, the Great Commission could be fulfilled in our lifetimes. This means, really the first time in church history, that we are in the position to fulfill the primary prerequisite for Jesus’ return, and see the King come back for his Bride made ready from every people group on the planet. But the task remaining, while doable within our lifetimes, will be exceptionally costly, both in resources and lives; the remaining unreached people groups are those that are most hostile to the gospel, and it will take a massive investment of resources and missionary and financial martyrs to reach them.
My third and final observation is this: in all of history’s circuitous ramblings, America and the American church stand out as unique and peculiar oddities. Never before in the history of the world has there been a nation with such freedom, and never before has there been a nation with such prosperity. This means that in the entire history of the world, God’s people in one country have never been so wealthy, both politically and materially. Both our freedoms and our prosperity are literally unparalleled and unprecedented in all of world history.
Those three observations– the purpose and goal of world history, the approaching completion of the Great Commission, and the unique place of America and the American church in world history– lead me to what I think is a pretty straightforward conclusion: the reason that God has ordained that America and the American church exist, at this moment in history and in their current prosperity and freedom, is to fund the completion of the Great Commission. It is “for such a time as this” that God has ordained that the prosperous
What are some practical ways that you can increase your giving to the cause of world missions? American church exists. That is why you are here.
If this is true, then this means that your commitment to generosity (the theme of this Cross Connections chapter) and your commitment to the cause of missions (the theme of the next chapter) are not secondary, ancillary, or optional. They are literally why you exist. God has placed you at this moment in history, into the most wealthy and free church in history, to glorify him by your radical, sacrificial, risk-taking participation in seeing the Great Commission funded and completed and Jesus made famous to the ends of the earth. Get on board, or waste your life.
That’s why I think that the whole debate around whether tithing is required for new covenant Christians misses the point. It is a legitimate question to work through: is the requirement in the old covenant to give 10% of your income to God’s purposes still binding now that we have been freed from the law and are living under the new covenant? The biblical evidence is less than clear; the tithing command isn’t explicitly carried over into the New Testament, and so some scholars have suggested that the command is no longer binding.
However, I think that the question of whether or not the command is still binding (I tend to think that it is) is beside the point. For one thing, in every other area of morality and holiness, the move from old covenant to new covenant didn’t decrease what God claims from us; rather, the new heights of grace and mercy we have received in Jesus lay new claims of ownership on us. For example, in the Old Testament, one day was set aside for rest as holy to the Lord. In the New Testament, Jesus himself is our rest (Colossians 2:16-17) and our entire lives are to be dedicated to entering the fullness of his rest (Hebrews 4:11) and every day is holy to the Lord (Romans 14:5-7). The old covenant command to rest on one day has been broadened and deepened to encompass every day of our lives.
Another example would be the issue of sacrifices. Jesus fulfilled the old covenant sacrificial system by becoming the final, perfect offering for sin (Hebrews 9:26). Does that mean that all sacrifices have been abolished? No; in fact, it’s the opposite. The idea of sacrifice has been expanded in the new covenant. Sacrifices are no longer singular events; they are to define our entire lives. “Through Jesus let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Hebrews 13:15). “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).
Seeing this pattern throughout the Bible, I have no reason to think that the issue of tithing and generosity is any different. In the Old Testament, God laid claim on 10% of the believer’s goods, and with the other 90%, the believer was free to do whatever he wanted. In the New Testament, God lays claim on our entire lives and all our material possessions; everything we have belongs to God, and we are mere stewards of his resources. The question for the Christian, then, is not, “How much of my money am I supposed to give to God?” but rather, “How much of God’s money should I keep for myself?”
For that reason, whatever you think about the New Testament basis for tithing, I think that 10% is a helpful number, not as a maximum, but as a minimum. Should the new covenant grace of God poured out on us through the blood of his Son really result in less of ourselves and our resources dedicated to his purposes than under the far lesser old covenant? By no means! I love what C.S. Lewis says about this:
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
So for now, let’s put aside questions of, “How much am I supposed to give?” and “Is tithing required?” and “What are other ways, besides financial, that I can use to support the church?” and certainly put aside cynical objections like, “How do I know the church using my money well?” Those are legitimate questions (even the last one is something worth asking if done with the right heart), but until we are giving sacrificially beyond our means, I don’t think we’ve earned the right to raise those questions, and until our lives are transformed into a stream of generosity pouring through us to others, those questions aren’t helpful. God has placed you in your current state of prosperity, not for your benefit, but for the benefit of the nations. He has blessed you, not so that you would be comfortable, but so that you would be a blessing (Genesis 12:2, 1 Peter 3:9). “The only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”
To strengthen that conviction, we’ll now turn our attention to 2 Corinthians 8-9, where Paul, in making a specific appeal for a specific act of charity, lays a gospel-centered, cross-connected foundation for a lifestyle of radical, sacrificial generosity. He starts with a powerful example of generosity, and then connects our generosity to the gospel, and finishes with a powerful promise to motivate our generosity today and in the future.
AN EXAMPLE OF GENEROSITY: GRACE IN ACTION
In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to give generously and sacrificially toward an offering that he is collecting to bring to the poor saints in Jerusalem. This was a cause that was very close to Paul’s heart; several of his letters mention this collection, which he viewed as a vindication of his gospel in demonstrating unity between the primarily Gentile congregations that were donating, and the primarily Jewish congregations that would be receiving. And so, in 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul makes an extended appeal to the Corinthians, with whom he has had a rocky relationship, for them to be faithful to give what they pledged, and commends them for the generosity they’ve already shown. Many modern churches have annual “pledge drives” or seasons of fundraising; what we have in these two chapters is a window into the apostle Paul’s Holy Spirit-inspired pledge drive. The lessons we can glean for our own generosity are powerful.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 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. ~2 Corinthians 8:1-4
Paul starts his appeal by pointing the Corinthians to another church’s example of generosity, and commends them as a model to follow. The church in Macedonia– what we would recognize as the Philippians and Thessalonians– had risen to the occasion and had given tremendously and sacrificially to Paul’s collection. But what we have in these verses is more than just a model meant to motivate; the way Paul explains what they did and why they did it gives us amazing insight into how God intends for generosity to function in our lives.
GENEROSITY = GOD’S GRACE
The first thing to see is that Paul equates this act of generosity to God’s grace at work in the Macedonian churches. “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.” This generosity, in other words, did not originate in the hearts of the Macedonians toward Jewish believers, but in the heart of God toward the Macedonians. Their willingness to give and ability to do so was God’s grace at work in them and through them, Paul says.
I think that gives us a crucial lesson about the nature of God’s grace. God’s grace– his saving, sustaining, empowering undeserved mercy and kindness– is not intended to pour out on us and stop there. God did not sacrifice his Son and open the floodgates of heaven, pouring out a waterfall of grace into our thirsty hearts, so that we could sit back and drink it all in. No, God’s grace has been poured out on us, so that it might pour through us. His grace is not intended to terminate on us, but rather is intended to overflow from our hearts in practical, humble, generous servant-like acts of grace to the world around us. The familiar description of God’s grace in Psalm 23– “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” is a picture of how God’s grace is supposed to function in our lives: overflowing to the enemies surrounding me. Generosity is what God’s grace in action looks like in our lives.
JOY + POVERTY = GENEROSITY
The second thing we can learn from the example of the Macedonians is that the grace that enables generosity does not look like what we’d expect. I would have thought, if I was told that God’s grace had enabled the Macedonians to give generously, that God’s grace would have been expressed through plentiful blessings, enabling them to give freely. But that’s not what Paul said; in fact, it seems that the very opposite is true. “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” God’s grace did not bless the Macedonians with material wealth that overflowed in generosity; rather, God’s grace landed on their poverty, exploding into joy, which resulted in an overflow of giving.
That’s peculiar, isn’t it? “Their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty” worked together to overflow in generosity. By highlighting the fact that their abundance of joy overflowed in the middle of “a severe test of affliction” and “extreme poverty,” Paul is making really clear that the source of joy, and the source of generosity, does not lie in our external circumstances. The Macedonians didn’t rejoice because things were easy for them, and they didn’t give generously because they were prosperous. No, they rejoiced even in suffering, and they gave generously even out of their poverty. Their joy and generosity were not rooted in external circumstances, but in the unchanging God who had poured out his grace on them (more on that later). This means, Paul said, that they didn’t give “according to their means,” but “beyond their means.” Instead of their generosity according with their circumstances, it accorded with God’s grace. That means that since God’s grace is lavish, their generosity was lavish too.
I think there’s a valuable lesson here for us. How often do we turn our external circumstances into excuses that keep us from joy and generosity? “I know I should be more faithful with giving, but they’ve just made cutbacks at work,” sounds reasonable, but examine that statement a little more closely. If your faithfulness in giving is tied to your material success, you are not practicing the same kind of generosity as the Macedonians. Your obedience to God is tied to your changing circumstances, not to his unchanging grace. The example of the Macedonians points us to a better way of joyful, generous living: not reacting to your circumstances, but living based on the grace of God that has overflowed to you.
THE MOTIVATION FOR GENEROSITY
As Paul continues his argument, he wants to draw the Corinthians’ attention, and our attention, to the grace of God in action that fuels our joy and funds our generosity. If our lavish generosity is to accord with God’s lavish grace, we should seek to know more clearly the ways in which God’s grace has been poured out on us. I suspect that a fuzzy, vague grasp on the gospel is the primary reason why the American church’s giving is fuzzy and vague. Clear thinking in this area will lead to clear giving.
I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. ~2 Corinthians 8:8-9
Paul wants to be clear that the impetus to generosity is not supposed to arise from duty, but from delight. “I say this not as a command” (although he could), but rather lays out the example of the Macedonians to spur the Corinthians and us on to greater love. Note that word “love;” that’s crucial. Paul sees generosity ultimately as an act of love, perhaps even the most basic definition of what love is. Love sacrifices for the good of the beloved, and so does generosity. Love that doesn’t sacrifice isn’t really love, and part of what Paul is trying to communicate is that it’s the same with generosity: if your generosity isn’t sacrificial, but simply skimming off the top of your abundance, it’s not really generosity. True gospel-centered generosity doesn’t mean throwing a twenty in the collection plate and calling it a day; it means looking for fresh, creative, helpful ways to give of yourself and your resources until it hurts. Like C.S. Lewis said, “If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say that they are too small.”
That’s why, in verse 9, Paul points us to the greatest example of love and generosity that there is, the example that makes our love and generosity possible. Paul calls us to genuine love, he says, “because you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What he’s saying is, “Your love should be genuine and generous, because that’s exactly what Jesus’ love for you looks like.” Jesus love for us is costly, sacrificial, and generous– emptying himself of glory, honor, and power, taking the form of a servant, and sacrificing everything– even his life– for our sakes. And in displaying such generosity, Jesus became both the model of generosity and the means of generosity, the One who makes our generosity possible.
THE MODEL OF GENEROSITY
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Stop for a moment and consider the phrase, “he was rich.” Those three words carry a weight of glory that is worth meditating on.
Jesus Christ is the richest Person in the universe. Everything that exists belongs to him. “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it” (Psalm 24:1-2). The world and every person in it belongs to him by virtue of creation. Hebrews 1 calls Jesus “the heir of all things,” which means that not only does he have an ownership claim by virtue of creation, but that because of his reconciling, redeeming death, he has purchased the entire universe for himself again and will make all things new. Because he is the Creator and Redeemer, he exercises absolute authority over the universe that he owns. “All authority in heaven and on earth is mine,” he said. That means that all human and demonic government is under his sovereign rule and sway. He orchestrates history for his own wise purposes (Daniel 4:34-35), and the heart of every ruler is like a stream of water in his hands (Proverbs 21:1). Not only does he have all authority, he also sustains everything that exists. “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3); “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
Prior to the incarnation, Jesus existed eternally in the fellowship of the Father and the Spirit in a perfect relationship of love and joy (John 17:24). He received the glad and full-hearted worship of all heaven’s angels. He lacked nothing; all the service and worship of heaven and earth did not add anything to him, but was merely the overflow and echo of his own excellence. “He is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).
All of this means that Jesus Christ is wealthy beyond all comprehension. The richest kings and businessmen in history pale in comparison. While they worked hard to accumulate possessions, and at best have a fragile, contingent hold on a microscopic fraction of the world’s riches, Jesus Christ eternally and effortlessly owns all things. And while kings and rulers may claim possessions as their own, those possessions are only loaned to them from King Jesus. All our conceptions of “ownership,” then, are nothing more than borrowing life and breath and everything from Jesus.
Stand in wonder, then, at the generosity of King Jesus: “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” The ruler, owner, and author of all things gladly and willingly sacrificed his prestige and position to take the form of a servant. This is generosity beyond anything we are even capable of; all our generosity is merely giving away what wasn’t really ours to begin with. You’ve never actually given away anything that was yours– but Jesus has. He gave up heaven’s glory and praises for the ignominy and humiliation of mankind’s scorn. He traded the throne of the universe for a small-town stable. He exchanged the perfect peace and joy of fellowship with his Father for a life of sorrows and the forsaken agony of the cross. The One who sustained all things humbled himself to survive on the generosity of others (Matthew 27:55). The One who owned heaven and earth became homeless (Matthew 8:20).
THE MEANS OF GENEROSITY
Why? Why would heaven’s King and the universe’s Owner become destitute? “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” It was for your sake. He had come to trade places with you, to take the bankruptcy of your sin and pay the debt that stood against you with its legal demands (Colossians 2:14), so that you could be raised to the position that he enjoyed: ruler and owner of all things.
Yes, it’s true: in Christ, your future is to be ruler and owner of all things. “We are children of God, and if children then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17)– we are co-heirs along with the “heir of all things,” which means that everything that exists will belong to us. “All things are yours, whether… the world or life or death or the present or the future– all are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:22). And not only will we one day soon own all things, but we will rule over them alongside Jesus: “they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).
That’s what Paul means when he says, “so that by his poverty you might become rich.” This isn’t a “name it, claim it” prosperity gospel of worldly health and wealth; this is much, much more than that. Those who hold to a false prosperity gospel are far too easily satisfied. Jesus did not empty himself, become poor, and suffer a sinner’s death so that we could have a fleeting, momentary lifetime of comfort and prosperity. He came to make all of the riches of heaven and earth ours forever. This inheritance is not yet in our hands (that’s where prosperity preachers go wrong), but in the meantime we have been “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:13-14). Though we do not yet have possession of our inheritance, the deed of the universe has our name on it, and it is but a matter of very short time until we come into ownership of all that Jesus purchased for us.
God intends for this certainty to unleash a flood of generosity in our lives. What need is there to cling to the dust and ash of this world’s treasures with fearful self-protecting selfishness, when all the riches of heaven have our name on it and will soon be fully ours? What need is there to hoard our resources and pad our lifestyles with comfort and prosperity when we will soon be reigning with Jesus in the new heavens and new earth? You don’t need the nice house now; Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you that will make palaces here look like hovels in comparison (John 14:2). You don’t need the trendiest clothes and newest accessories; you will soon be shining like the sun in the kingdom of your Father (Matthew 13:43).
This is the way that the gospel becomes the means our generosity: by securing an everlasting future of unimaginable wealth for all who trust in Jesus. Those riches of our future glory free us from needing to have it all now, so that we can use the resources that God has lent us for the purpose that he intended: blessing others and reaching the nations.
THE PROMISE OF GENEROSITY
As Paul continues building his case to the Corinthians, he lets us in on another massive truth that will sustain sacrifice: generosity doesn’t just look to the promise of our eternal reward to empower giving; it also looks to God’s promises to provide for us tomorrow. In 8:15, Paul points us to an Old Testament story that provides us mighty foundation for practical generosity:
As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”
This is a quote from Exodus 16:18, and when you look at the story he’s referencing, you won’t immediately see any connection to generosity. Exodus 16 is the story of God providing manna from heaven, and giving the people of Israel instructions as to how to collect it. Specifically, God tells them to take only what they need for that day and not to hoard it, trusting that tomorrow God will give them what they need for that day. In addition, God tells them that he wants them to honor the Sabbath by not trying to collect anything on that day; instead, he will provide twice as much food on the day before. When the people of Israel trusted him and did what he said, they found out that God was faithful; every day, he provided exactly what each person needed, and before the Sabbath he provided double so that they could obey him and rest. Thus, each day, “Whoever gathered much had no left over”– that is, God provided exactly the abundance they needed– “and whoever gathered little had no lack.” No matter how much or how little God gave them each day, it was exactly what they needed to obey him. The key was to trust that God really would provide for what they would need the next day. That faith for tomorrow empowered today’s obedience.
Paul takes this lesson and applies it to our generosity; God will provide exactly what we need in order to obey him today. We don’t need to hoard our resources today to “play it safe” for tomorrow; God has given us resources today in order to be generous with them, and tomorrow he will provide again for what we need then. The secret to being generous, then, is to trust God to be faithful to provide for us tomorrow. The fearful question, “If I tithe faithfully today, how will I pay my bills at the end of the month?” is met by God’s assurance that his provision will always accompany his command. God will always be faithful to give us exactly what we need to obey him.
One of the central promises in the Old Testament about tithing– a promise, by the way, that I see repeated extensively in the New Testament– is that God’s faithfulness tomorrow will fund our generosity today. In Malachi 3:10-12, God invites his people to put his faithfulness to the test:
Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you… then all the nations will call you blessed.
Be faithful in your generosity, God says, and I will be faithful in supplying every need that your generosity incurs. And I will go beyond that, God says; heaven’s provision will open up and flood your life so that your generosity can rise and rise and meet the needs of the nations.
My life has been a testament to the reality of God’s faithfulness to this promise. Over and over and over again, my wife and I have seen God’s provision for God’s commands; even though our shoestring budgets never seem to balance, we have seen every need provided for. As we have striven to be faithful in tithing and generosity (not without failing, sadly– but we’re trying), we have only seen God’s provision increase. Money has shown up anonymously in our mailbox; unexpected raises and bonuses have perfectly covered every expense we’ve incurred in trying to be faithful. We have seen him “rebuke the devourer;” cars have held together when they should have broken down, broken things have started working again, and we have survived with a practically non-existent maintenance budget– owing once again, I have no doubt, to God’s gracious provision. The promise in Malachi is an invitation to put him to the test and discover new depths of his faithfulness to you.
This isn’t just an Old Testament promise; Jesus himself promises the same thing. We’re familiar with his promises of God’s provision and exhortation to avoid anxiety; did you know that those promises are meant to fund our generosity?
But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. ~Luke 12:29-33
Did you follow the logic of God’s faithfulness there? After pointing us to how God takes care of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, Jesus tells us not to worry about what we’ll eat and drink and wear, because God will be faithful to provide all of our needs. And then he adds, “Fear not, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In other words, “Not only will God take care of tomorrow’s needs, but he has an unimaginable eternal inheritance waiting for you.” Therefore, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the needy!” God’s faithfulness to provide for our needs is intended to give us the security to be radically and sacrificially generous.
When we come back to 2 Corinthians 8-9, I know we’re on the right track, because Malachi 3:10 and Luke 12:31-32 are echoed in another promise Paul holds out to us at the end of his exhortation:
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work… He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way. ~2 Corinthians 9:8-11
Do you see the breathtaking sweep of that promise? God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that you will have all sufficiency in all things at all times, so that his all-abounding grace will result in every good work. There are hardly any promises in the Bible bigger than that: God has committed all the infinite resources of his omnipotence to providing all of our needs so that our lives will explode in faith-filled, sacrificial generosity. He will supply and multiply your resources, not so that you can live a “blessed life” of comfort and prosperity, but so that you can “be generous in every way,” and your abundance can flow to the needy and the nations.
The key to generosity, then, is believing God’s promises. Do you believe this? How much are you venturing on the faithfulness of God? Are you obeying him in ways that put you in absolute dependence on him to provide for you? Or are you hedging your bets, hiding behind worldly financial advice, and trusting in your own resources to protect you, instead of stepping out in radical, sacrificial generosity?
As we come to a close, there are two possible misunderstandings that I need to clarify, and then I have one final urgent exhortation to application. The two misunderstands are about the nature of this command, and what it means for our personal financial stewardship.
DUTY, OR DELIGHT?
Is Paul’s exhortation to generosity intended to lay a heavy command on us, a duty to sacrifice your possessions? Is this a command in the same way that tithing was a command in the Old Testament?
Yes and no. I don’t think that generosity is optional for Christians; it is very close to the central reason for why we exist and why God blesses us. The pattern of giving is so ingrained in the minds of the biblical authors that the fact that we even ask these questions show how much we need our own minds renewed with the truth of Scripture. However, Paul’s intention in 2 Corinthians 8-9 is to not to lay a burdensome duty on us, but to show us that God intends for the duty of generosity to be our delight. In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul says that God is much more concerned with our hearts than with percentages:
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Ultimately, the command of generosity is not, “Give 10% of your income!” or “Sell your possessions and give to the poor!” The command is, “Have a heart so changed by Jesus’ grace and so firmly trusting in God’s promises of provision, that giving would be a delight, not a duty.” God wants cheerful givers, whose cheerfulness in generosity is a testament to his life-changing grace. Thus, the call to cheerful generosity will be lived out by us when the gospel truth, “for your sake he became poor so that you by his poverty might become rich” becomes more precious to us than our possessions. Don’t spend your time worrying about how much generosity is enough; instead, fight the fight of faith to make Jesus’ generosity the central joy of your life, and then generosity will be your delight.
WHAT ABOUT FINANCIAL STEWARDSHIP?
The second clarification has to do with a legitimate question that you might have had when, earlier, I said radical things like, “We don’t need to hoard our resources today to ‘play it safe’ for tomorrow; God has given us resources today in order to be generous with them, and tomorrow he will provide again for what we need then.” Statements like that might make you wonder, “What about saving for the future? Isn’t that a good, wise idea? Isn’t it important to take care of my family? Should I just give away my rent money and trust God to provide? How does wise financial stewardship go together with radical generosity?”
Those are really good questions, and I hope you wrestle through them on your knees with an open Bible. I do think that there is a place for saving and investing and other intelligent financial decisions in the Christian life. God doesn’t necessarily mean for us to impoverish ourselves on the road of generosity; in our text Paul himself says, “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened” (2 Corinthians 8:13). 1 Timothy 5:8 says that providing for your family is an essential part of being a faithful Christian. So if your budget has prayerfully set aside x amount of money for groceries, be faithful to that and make sure your kids have food on their plates. If you need a new car, pray for God to provide… and start putting money aside each month to pay for it. By all means, get a 401(k) and start investing… but not so that you can spend the last twenty years of your life playing golf before you meet the King, but so that you will have more resources and freedom to serve God in the final years before you come into possession of your eternal inheritance. Taking care of your family, saving, investing– these are all good, wise things to do.
However, I think the radical and urgent nature of the Bible’s call to generosity exposes a lot of what we call “wise financial stewardship” for what it really is: worldly unbelief. If your budget and your savings and investment strategy would make perfect sense to an unbelieving financial planner, you’re probably walking in disobedience. Take, for example, the prudent suggestion to have an emergency savings fund that can cover six months of expenses in case you lose your job or get sick. A lot of Christian financial planners would encourage you to do that. Christian books have been written to argue that that’s a good idea.
But can I humbly suggest something? A six-month “just in case” emergency fund is in direct opposition to Jesus’ command to rely on God for our daily needs, trust him for tomorrow, and not hoard our resources. There’s nothing faith-filled about putting thousands of dollars between me and dependence on God. There’s nothing wise about the kind of stewardship that would earn the world’s applause. Wisdom says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own financial planning. In all your budgets acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). And in a world where 2.6 million children die every year from hunger-related causes (that’s 7,000 a day!), hoarding six months of resources so that you can sleep at night isn’t just faithless and foolish, it’s evil and wrong. Worldly financial thinking is causing many Christians to rob God (Malachi 3:8) and is throttling the outpouring of generosity that God wants to flow from us to the nations. What we need is not another financial plan; what we need is repentance.
Again, this isn’t to say that saving and investing is wrong. This is about where your heart is, what you are relying on for tomorrow’s provision, and how that is expressed in how you use God’s resources (they’re not yours; every penny in your bank account belongs to God). When my wife and I were expecting our first baby, we had to diligently set aside money for the expected medical costs. We trusted God to provide (and he did!), but we also made sure that our health insurance was squared away and that we had saved enough to cover hospital costs. Trusting God and making sure we had enough money in our account to cover hospital bills are not in opposition to each other. But saving for expected, upcoming expenses (a new car, expected maintainence, an upcoming move, a new baby, etc) is very different than trying to taking the future out of God’s hands to protect yourself from hypothetical bad things. Test yourself on this: does the way you handle money demonstrate that you trust God to provide for you, and that all your resources have been loaned to you by God so that you could be a blessing?
CAP YOUR LIFESTYLE
All this leads to my final plea for application. God has laid a burden on my heart that generosity would more and more come to characterize my life and the life of American Christians. In particular, God has led me and my wife to make a specific commitment about our finances, and I would like to invite you to prayerfully consider making this commitment, or a similar commitment, with me (not reluctantly or under compulsion; God loves a cheerful giver!).
The conviction that God has given me is that my family should “cap” our lifestyle at a certain livable level, and then give away anything over that level to the cause of Christ among the nations. We are freezing our standard of living at its current level, so that, Lord willing, as God’s financial blessing on us grows over time, our giving will grow correspondingly. We are subsisting now on a relatively comfortable shoestring budget, and our commitment is that any future raises or bonuses or new jobs wouldn’t go to increase our standard of living, but would instead increase our standard of giving. Now, at this moment that doesn’t mean a whole lot because our budget barely balances without God’s monthly miraculous provision, but we have made this commitment moving forward, and I’m putting it in writing so that people will hold us accountable to it.
I’m also putting it in writing so that, Lord willing, many more would join in this commitment. Like I said at the beginning of this chapter, I firmly believe that the reason that America and the American church exist is so that our unprecedented prosperity would fund the completion of the Great Commission. That is why you have the job you have. That is why God’s money is in your bank account. Reaching the nations will take radical sacrifice on our part; this is one way to do that. We shouldn’t have the same standard of living as the unbelievers around us; our sacrificial giving to the cause of Christ should preclude that.
If you’re a doctor, perhaps your family doesn’t need a $200,000 lifestyle; perhaps you only need a $50,000 lifestyle, and the nations need the other $150,000. Perhaps you don’t need that new car, or larger house- but unreached people groups in Africa and thousands of others need God’s Word in their language. Perhaps God is calling you to take that promotion– but not so that your family can go on a nicer vacation, but so that missionary teams can be sent around the world year after year with your resources.
So often we talk about God blessing us, and we pray for his blessing, as we should. But have we forgotten the purpose for which God has blessed us, the purpose for which he has given you your job and your family and your resources? You don’t exist for yourself, and your resources don’t exist for you; you exist so that Jesus Christ would be famous to the ends of the earth, and your resources exist to make that a reality. Look at how Psalm 67 connects God’s blessing to God’s mission: God has blessed you so that your resources would fund the worship of the nations.
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, so that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy! ~Psalm 67:1-4
Oh Father, Do this more and more in our lives; bless us and keep us and make your face shine on us, so that your saving power would reach through our resources to all the nations, until they sing for joy to the Savior! Use my career and my bank account and my blessings and my family for this great and glorious purpose: the worship of Jesus Christ among all nations, tribes, and languages. Fulfill the Great Commission through the sacrificial generosity of your people, Lord, and start with me.