New Testament principles of giving

Our last Taking Root study explored the issue of tithing. We saw that tithing as a mandatory requirement is tied specifically to the Old Covenant Law. Since we aren’t under the Law of Moses, tithing as an obligatory standard doesn’t apply to us any more than dietary laws or laws on the Sabbath. (For more on tithing, see Are Christians supposed to tithe?) So we discussed the obligations that don’t apply to New Covenant believers in Christ, but we didn’t spend any time looking at how we should be giving. This is our focus this week.

Being a steward
To talk about how we give as Christians, we need to begin with the idea of a “steward.” Even if this isn’t a word you commonly use, we’re all familiar with the concept. Let’s say you own a business, and you hire me to run it for you. This doesn’t mean the business is mine to do with whatever I please. You are entrusting it to me so that I’ll run it the same way you would if you were there. It’s not my business, I’m just overseeing it in your place. I’m a steward of what belongs to you.

This is a key concept in the New Testament. Everything we have has been entrusted to us by God. Our gifts and skills come to us from God, and we’re responsible to use them in a way that’s pleasing to him. Our children don’t really belong to us, God entrusts them to us for a period of time. Even our very lives have been entrusted to us by God for a purpose:

You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

To see a good example of financial stewardship we can look at the parable of the three servants in Matthew 25:14-30.

[A man] called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone.

Later, we’re told:

After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money.

Notice the money was still the man’s, and they were responsible for stewarding the money that he had entrusted to them in a way that would be pleasing to their master. To those who did this well, the master said:

Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!

Sometimes, we get the idea that we give 10% of our income to God—and then the rest is ours to do with as we please. But this isn’t a biblical attitude. Everything we have is entrusted to us by God, and we’re responsible to him for how we use all of it. This doesn’t mean we have to donate every cent to some Christian cause. Taking care of our regular needs, investing for the future, and even recreation and entertainment can all be legitimate uses of money according to Scripture. But we should make sure we’re not using the resources God has entrusted to us to do anything that would be displeasing to him. And we need to always remember that everything we have—and we ourselves—belong to him.

Giving voluntarily
In contrast to the Old Covenant law of tithing, the New Testament never gives us a required amount we must contribute. Instead, we’re told:

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”

2 Corinthians 9:7 

How much should you give? This is between you and God. You shouldn’t let anyone else pressure you to give a certain amount or percentage. And we also shouldn’t be applying pressure to anyone so they’ll give—no matter how subtle we try to be. Those of you who were in the adult study this Sunday, heard Clif Armstrong teach on some of these principles. You’ll also recall the story he told about the church leader who called out during a service: “All of you who are going to give $1,000.00, come up front. Now all of you who are going to give $500.00,” etc. We don’t want anyone to give because we pressure them. This is why we make our offering time as low-key as we can, and why we never have things like giant thermometers at the front to show how much the church has given toward a certain project. Just as with other forms of Christian service, financial giving needs to be prompted by the Holy Spirit—not us.

This also means we need to be careful not to establish an extra-biblical standard of giving for others. Just because giving 10% has worked really well for me, and I happen to think it would be beneficial for all Christians, this doesn’t give me the authority to establish another law or standard for other believers. I may feel that getting up at 3:30 am and praying for 3 hours every day is a wonderful thing to do (this is a hypothetical example; I don’t actually do this), and maybe it is a perfect model for me personally. But this doesn’t mean I should be urging everyone else to do the exact same thing. Some practices God leaves up to our individual consciences—between us and God; how much New Testament believers should give is one of these practices. Don’t try to take the place of the Holy Spirit toward your brothers and sisters.

Notice that God especially loves it when we give cheerfully. This makes sense doesn’t it? Would you enjoy receiving a gift if you had to pressure someone to give to you? What if they did give, but they gave grudgingly, wishing they didn’t have to? That ruins the gift for both of you, doesn’t it? You’d just as soon give that kind of “gift” right back! We need to give to God out of a deep sense of gratitude for what he’s given us, and out of love toward those who need our help. But we can’t try to regulate this process; gifts must come voluntarily from a willing heart.

Giving proportionately
While we don’t presume to set a percentage or amount for each other, the New Testament does teach us a general principle that we should give in proportion to what God has given us.

Give in proportion to what you have. Whatever you give is acceptable, if you give it eagerly. And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have.

2 Corinthians 8:11-12 

Did you see that we’re supposed to give according to what we have, not what we don’t have? This should challenge those who pressure other Christians to give even when they don’t have food on the table or gas in the car. It also shows this isn’t a matter of giving to God in order to get even more back from him. God isn’t some kind of Ponzi scheme. He doesn’t promise to give us a certain return on our investment. He blesses us, and we give in response and gratitude to his blessing. This doesn’t mean God may not at times direct us to give even though we don’t have enough money for our obligations—but this kind of extraordinary calling must come directly from God, not us.

At this point, some of you may be thinking, ‘Well, is 10% a good proportion of my income?’ And the answer is, ‘maybe.’ You need to prayerfully consider your own situation and see what God puts on your heart. 10% can be a great place to start for many of us. Some will be able to go on and give a higher percentage if God leads them to do that. RG LeTourneau is well-known for reaching the point that he could give 90% of his income and live off the other 10%. Some can’t give 10% right away, so they begin with $20 a week, or $10, or $5. I can’t tell you what dollar amount or percentage is right for you. You need to pray and see how God directs you.

Don’t forget that, whatever proportion we decide on, we need to give willingly and cheerfully. I heard of a man who was making $200 a week. He figured 10% was $20 and, though it hurt, he could commit to that. As time went by, he moved up the ranks in his company and received pay raises, and he continued to faithfully contribute 10% of his income. The man became very successful, now making closer to $2,500.00 each week. 10% of $2,500.00 was a lot of money, and he began to feel uneasy about giving so much each week. He went to one of his pastors to talk to him about the problem. He explained his whole history of giving, and the pastor said the solution was simple. Since giving his committed 10% was difficult for him now, but was something he was able to do when he was only making $200 a week, they could just pray together that God would reduce his income down to the point where he could give again!

Sometimes the more God blesses us, the more challenging proportional giving can be. This is because the more money we have, the more opportunities we have for acquiring possessions and experiences. And the more we get, usually the more we want. What seemed like an incredible luxury to me yesterday, is now an essential that I think I can’t live without. As the passage reads that Clif taught from Sunday:

Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

Luke 12:34 

Proportional giving provides us with a regular check on the desires of our hearts, to make sure we’re not slipping into greed and hypocrisy (as the Pharisees were in Luke 12).

Giving sacrificially
There is a consistent theme of self-sacrifice running throughout the New Testament. Obviously the perfect example of sacrificing oneself is Jesus. John 3:16 is the classic verse that many of us learned as children:

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

And while this is speaking more of the Father giving the Son, in John 10:18, Jesus said:

No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again.

But while many know John 3:16 by heart, not as many are immediately familiar with
1 John 3:16:

We know what real love is because Jesus laid down his life for us. So we also ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

Scripture calls us to show our love for God and each other by giving our time and energy, and by giving financially. The healthy, biblical Christian life includes both kinds of giving. This doesn’t mean we should make ourselves guilty if we’re not giving away everything we have (either time or money). Notice again the instructions in 2 Corinthians 8:12-14:

And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have. Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.

These are a few biblical principles teaching us how believers should give. But the underlying principle we see everywhere in the New Testament is that we are to be like Christ. Sometimes our giving will cost us something. It will be a sacrifice. It was for Jesus, wasn’t it? Love, generosity and self-sacrifice should characterize our lives. As we freely receive all good things from God, so we should freely give in heartfelt, grateful response.