Generosity is part of the tagline for this blog: "helping you to save diligently, invest wisely, give generously, and live abundantly." Actually, generosity is of great importance during all stages of our lives, but according to the data, we Christians aren't nearly as generous with our money as you might think.
The subject of tithing is one of significant volatility in the Christian world. Some say that tithing is no longer relevant because the New Testament doesn't teach it. Others insist that since the Old Testament standard was never revoked, tithing is still required today. But all this bluster becomes empty noise when one considers that Christians in America give only 2.5 percent of their incomes on average. We need to do better. So without getting caught up in the debate, let's agree that those who aren't tithing (75% of the church at large) would do well to set their sights on ten percent, while those who are already tithing should strive to do better.
Also, the overview of a book titled Passing the Plate describes the situation this way:
Why is it that Christians in the world's most affluent nation give so little of their income to charity? Based on extensive survey data and building on prior studies of Christian philanthropy, this sociological study shows that American Christians typically give away only 1.5% to 2% of their income. Considering that this figure is based on self-reporting, the reality is probably even less. Catholics are the worst, with many Protestant groups in the middle and Mormons (whom this study regards as "non-Christian religious believers") at the top.
These books address the "generosity challenge" of American Christians. The authors claim (and I believe them) that their research shows that if American Christians were more generous, we could more dramatically impact the world for the Gospel and the good of humanity (or certainly our more "immediate" world – our local church and community).
I completely agree that there is a "challenge." Still, it is also my belief (and my experience as a financial counselor and coach) that generally speaking, most Christians want to be generous. Most people want to give to their church and other ministries, help others in need, care for those less fortunate, and generally live as generous individuals.
And I don't think the main reason we don't give more is that we're just a bunch of selfish, greedy, materialistic "jerks." Of course, that could be the case sometimes, but I think, in our heart of hearts, we don't want to be that way. That's because we have the Spirit of God in us, and our hearts have been changed, so most of us long to be more generous.
But, there are challenges; many things are working against us, and many of those things are actually "in us" (remember the doctrine of indwelling sin?). Here are some of my observations, based on my personal experience and financial counseling and coaching others:
Reason #1 – We spend and borrow too much
This is one of the biggest reasons we aren't more generous. We just can't be. We live paycheck to paycheck. (Note that I am NOT talking about people who have a minimal income and can only meet their very modest day-to-day living expenses.) I'm referring to situations where every dollar we make is accounted for, but the margin that we have after we take care of the necessities is taken up in debt payments for things we couldn't afford in the first place.
Some people wish they could give more, but they can't figure out how to because they are paying off so much debt. The biggest issue is that many of us don't know how to get out of the debt trap. We need help to live more frugal and God-honoring financial lives. (This is one of the reasons why our church sponsors the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University seminars and offers financial coaching and counseling to those who want help.)
But we shouldn't live debt-free just because it's a wiser, more reasonable way to live. I think far too often, the call to being "debt free" (and I'm referring primarily to high interest, unsecured credit card debt, but that might also include large car loans or home mortgages that we really can't afford) is couched in reasons that aren't based on Christian mission. Instead, it can be based on a desire for personal security and comfort—more discretionary income to spend on self-indulgence.
That said, we need to move toward a more debt-free lifestyle to more freely support our local church, other Christian ministries, and respond to needs in the local church and our community. If we also have a little extra for ourselves and our families, then all the better.
This boils down to simply living below one's means so that there is something left over after the bills are paid to give. Everything in our culture wars against this, but it is essential to have the financial freedom to give generously.
Reason #2 – We don't take it seriously enough
There is a tendency to make giving all about "grace," and biblically-based giving must be grace-motivated and grace-filled. But we also can't overlook the fact that the Bible does not make giving optional. Giving was commanded under the Mosaic law in the Old Testament, and Christians are expected to give in the New Testament:
Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you. Deuteronomy 16:17
Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, 'How have we robbed you?' In your tithes and contributions. Malachi 3:8
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper so that there will be no collecting when I come. 1 Cor. 16:1-2
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Cor. 9:7
One could reasonably argue that the tithe of 10% is no longer required under the New Testament. However, one cannot assume that Christians are free not to give at all. The tithe could be viewed as a guideline – a starting point for giving. Some will only be able to give less, but some can give much more.
So despite all the biblical evidence to the contrary, I think sometimes the message people get is that giving isn't all that important. Since personal finances aren't usually discussed with others, people assume that how they deal with their money is a private matter that is between them and God and that others (including close friends, small group leaders, and even pastors) have no right to delve into that part of their life.
Now, please don't get me wrong. I am NOT saying that we should all go around sharing our checkbooks (although that may be appropriate at times) or that giving should be out of compulsion based on condemnation to relieve guilt. But we can't overlook the fact that scripture teaches that God expects us to share and that what we do with our money really matters to God and is also important to others, especially those who benefit from our giving.
New Testament giving isn't about obligation and obedience – it's more about glorifying God with what he has so kindly given us. And it's about grace. It begins with the grace that has been given to us through Salvation in Christ and also his daily provision and is then experienced in a greater way in our lives by giving to ministry and to others, as well as grace in the lives of those who are helped by the gifts given.
Therefore, let's be excited – even ecstatically joyful – about the tithe/offering collection time during the Sunday meeting, just as much or more than any other time in the service. It's a wonderful opportunity to express our love and devotion to the One who has given us the greatest of gifts – salvation through Jesus Christ.
It's also an opportunity to acknowledge and declare, "This is a big deal. How I manage and handle my money is a significant part of my life as a disciple as I endeavor to love and serve others, and how I handle my money is a broader church and community issue because others are directly affected by my generosity or lack thereof."
Reason #3 – We don't get that it's all God's and all for His glory
In his book, "Money – God or Gift," Jamie Munson writes this about stewardship:
Everything we have comes from God and belongs to God: life, family, money, resources, time, job, talents… every-thing. We are stewards. All things belong to God, and he gives to us according to his grace and goodness…Many Christians nod their heads in agreement, but we walk around like we own the place for the most part. Rather than cultivating humble appreciation, we covet a higher standard of living. Rather than gratitude for his grace, we exhibit greed for our gain. The difference between the two outlooks influences and directs every aspect of life.
To some degree, this is true of all of us. There have been times I have felt called to do something, respond to a need, or make a change in my life but didn't. Why? Well, honestly, sometimes I think it's just laziness. But other times, I think it's selfishness and greed. If we genuinely believe that God is the ultimate owner of EVERYTHING we have (time, money, possessions, etc.) and EVERYTHING we are (gifts and abilities, etc.), then we must be willing to surrender EVERYTHING to Him (including our money), to be used for His purposes and His glory, as He chooses.
But we tend to "compartmentalize." We say to God, "I'll give my 5 or 10%, but no more." Or, "I'll serve in this area, but not that," or " I'll do it one time, but not more." Or even, "I'll serve that person, but not the other." That is not generously giving of all we have and all we are.
In their excellent new book, similarly titled "God and Money – How We Discovered True Riches at Harvard Business School," John Cortines and Gregory Baumer write:
…actually embracing this attitude is incredibly difficult. While many of us are willing to acknowledge God's sovereignty over natural creation….we are typically loathe to attribute similar sovereignty over our houses, vacation plans, and paychecks. One possible reason for this is [our] natural tendency to attribute our successes to internal factors but to attribute our failures to external factors…a proper understanding of our possessions – indeed our entire existence – is through the lens of God's sovereignty. All things were created by him and for him (Col. 1:16). Therefore, all things belong to him (I Chron. 29:11). This includes ourselves: "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price (I Cor. 6:19-20). Unfortunately, we often fail to recognize this fact.
Therefore, as Cortines and Baumer point out, stewardship is more than just writing a check to the church once in a while in hopes that we have fulfilled our duty. No, it is…
…the active and responsible management of God's creation for God's purposes.
That assuredly involves giving, but also much more. It means seeing all that God has given us as things that we can use for accomplishing God's objectives and his mission on the earth.
Reason #4 – We like our "stuff" and our comfort too much
I said before that I don't think the main problem is that we're all a bunch of selfish "jerks" (although we can sometimes be). But I think we all too easily buy into the materialistic values of our culture. The world tells us that it's okay to take care of ourselves and that we "deserve" to enjoy the fruits of our labors (and to some extent it is, right?). Still, we're too quick to justify ourselves when we find that we are putting more effort (and resources) into our own comfort than the Gospel calls us to.
We do this because we want more, bigger, and nicer stuff. I like stuff; you like stuff; we all like stuff. But when we realize that we (and/or others) are making bad financial decisions, being over-indulgent in our lifestyles, or taking on debt to fund our purchases, we don't do much to challenge this cultural status quo. If my central premise is true – that people really do want to be more generous – then we need to be willing to question and challenge ourselves (and even each other, in love, and with grace, of course) so that together we can find a better way forward; a way of Gospel-motivated, grace-filled giving that glorifies God.
To make sure I'm understood, I want to make a comment for clarity here. It is clear from Scripture that God does give us good gifts to enjoy (and the greatest gift is the gift of Himself). And He provides some more gifts than He gives others. So, it isn't "wrong" to have a "nice" house or a "nice" car. But I am reminded of a quote in Paul Tripp's book, "Lost in the Middle." He quotes a friend of his from India who, commenting on the American Christian lifestyle, said, "Because you have much, you want much." The problem, then, is that we're never satisfied; we always want more; and, even when we get it, we're still not content.
Our big problem is dissatisfaction and discontentment and the constant desire for more. We need to learn to be more content and stop wasting our time and money looking for joy and satisfaction that we can only find in Christ Himself, not the good gifts that he so graciously gives.
Reason #5 – We don't fully understand and appreciate the blessings of a generous life
The discontentment I alluded to above causes us to cling to the idea that having more money and possessions will make us happy. These things indeed have a place in our lives and are given to us by God for our enjoyment. But if we hold back in giving, we can forfeit many blessings and benefits that the Bible promises us. Consider these verses:
There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more, and there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want. The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered. Proverbs 11:24-25
He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor. Proverbs 22:9
He who gives to the poor will never want, but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses. Proverbs 28:2
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, 'if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.' Malachi 3:10
Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return. Luke 6:38
Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed. 2 Cor. 9:6-8
I want it to be evident that I am NOT a fan of the so-called "prosperity gospel." I do not believe in a "give so I can get" mentality or motivation in any way. However, the Bible has a lot to say about the blessings of generosity that can't be overlooked.
In "God and Money" referenced earlier, the authors point out that based on a study done by the University of Notre Dame (the Science of Generosity Project), giving is actually good for us – really good for us – and conversely lack of giving can be bad for us. As the authors of the study, "The Paradox of Generosity" point out:
Americans that do not give away 10 percent of their income run the significant risk of ending up less happy than they might have otherwise been. In fact, as a group, they are less happy. So, whatever Americans lose by giving away 10 percent of their income is offset by the greater likelihood of being happier in life….Rather than leaving generous people on the short end of an unequal bargain, practices of generosity are likely instead to provide generous givers with essential goods in life – happiness, health, and purpose – which money and time can't buy. That is an empirical fact well worth knowing.
Generosity can also bring us contentment and joy. Generous people know that stuff won't fully satisfy them or make them happy. They recognize that they have enough for themselves and enough to share. In our chaotic, gotta-have-it world, genuine peace and contentment shine brightly.
On his blog, Dave Ramsey talks about the effects that generosity (and a lack thereof) can have in our lives:
People who are greedy stunt their creativity and their zest for life. Their energy level goes down because they're all about holding on to stuff instead of having an openness from generosity. God can and will use your giving to change the world, and that's great! But the first life that giving will change will be your own.