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Part 2: The Joy of Generosity
November 9, 2022
We read in the New Testament that Christians are called to give voluntarily, responsively, and sacrificially. But the big question is: Why? Why should we give to support the work of the church and the needs of the poor? The moralistic answer is: You give because you have to. The prosperity gospel answer is: You give in order to get. But the Christian answer is altogether different. In this second part of a three-part video series, Senior Pastor Jason Harris addresses the why behind Christian giving and what unlocks the joy of generosity.
We have already considered what the New Testament has to say about giving, especially financial giving. Christians are called to give voluntarily, responsively, and sacrificially. In other words, we should share our economic resources freely, in response to specific needs, and in radical proportions. But the big question is: Why? Why should we give to support the work of the church and the needs of the poor?
There are a number of wrong ways to answer that question. The moralistic answer would be: You give because it is your duty. God commands you to give. Moralists believe that God accepts you based on your obedience, so if you want God to receive you into his eternal kingdom, then you have to fulfill your obligations to him–and that includes your financial duties. The moralist thinks in effect: You have to save yourself by being good and by giving your money to the church. But, that can’t be right. We’re not saved by our good works, we’re saved by Jesus’ finished work on our behalf.
Here’s another wrong reason to give. The prosperity gospel answer would be: You give to get rich. There are some who believe that if you trust God with enough faith to give your money away, then God will bless you with even more money. In their view, God wants you to be prosperous, so they equate religious faith with material, and especially, financial success. But that, of course, ignores everything that the Bible has to say about the reality of suffering and the dangers of greed.
So why give? The moralistic answer is: You give because you have to. The prosperity gospel answer is: You give in order to get. But the Christian answer is altogether different. You do not give out of duty, but delight. And you do not give in order to get, but in response to God’s grace. That is what unlocks the joy of generosity.
There is a moving passage in Acts 20 which describes the scene when the Apostle Paul bids a tearful goodbye to the elders of the church in Ephesus. Paul knew these leaders well. He had lived among them and served alongside them for over two years. It is a solemn moment as Paul warns his friends that they will never see his face again. We all know that the last words you choose to say to someone are the ones you consider to be most important. You don’t waste words when you are offering a final farewell. That’s why it is rather striking that Paul spends so much time talking about money matters. What’s the last thing Paul wants to impress upon the leaders of the church in Ephesus before he says goodbye forever? Generous giving.
Elsewhere Paul argued that ministers of the gospel–like the Levites and the priests of the Old Testament–have a right to financial support. He once wrote: “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” In another place, he writes: “The laborer deserves his wages.”
But here in Ephesus, Paul reminds the elders that he did not insist on his rights as a minister of the gospel. He wasn’t motivated to acquire wealth through his ministry. Nor was he jealous of anyone else’s money or possessions. They all know how he worked hard with his hands to supply his own needs so that he wouldn’t be a financial burden to the church. Then in his final words, he explains that he drew his inspiration from Jesus himself: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
That’s a remarkable verse. You may not have known it, but this is the only saying we have from the lips of Jesus that is not also recorded in the gospels. But furthermore, these are the words that Paul wants to leave with the leaders in Ephesus. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It is better to give than to get–more blessed to be generous towards others than to acquire for oneself. And Jesus, of course, is the model par excellence of a generous giver. He gave everything, including his very own life, for us, and that is what motivates our generosity as his followers.
If we want to better understand the motivation behind Christian generosity, there is no better place to look than Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In this particular instance, Paul is focused on taking up a collection, not to support the work of ministry, but to contribute to the needs of poor Christians living in Jerusalem.
Here’s the context. As Paul spread the message of the gospel and planted new churches throughout the Mediterranean world, he made it his regular practice to encourage the fledgling Christian communities he started to set aside money every time they gathered together for worship. In this way, they would raise more money than by simply relying on a one-time gift. What does that tell you? Taking a collection in Christian worship services is almost as old as Christianity itself!
The purpose of the collection was not only to meet the real financial needs of the church in Jerusalem, but also to demonstrate unity across ethnic and cultural lines. Paul believed that the Greek Christians in the churches he founded owed a debt of gratitude to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Just as Jewish Christians had shared the spiritual blessings of the gospel with the wider world, so Greek Christians should share their material resources with the church in Jerusalem. In Paul’s mind, it was a matter of basic fairness.
By the time Paul writes his second letter to the Corinthians, a year has passed since he had first encouraged this particular community in the south of Greece to start putting money aside for the church in Jerusalem. Apparently the effort moved ahead in fits and starts, and now Paul is encouraging them to finish the work they had begun–even though many of them had little to spare.
I’d like to draw your attention to three words that Paul uses in his appeal to the Christians in the city of Corinth: Joy, Grace, and Love.
First, Christians give as an act of joy. Giving is not a duty that we adopt begrudgingly. We don’t sigh and say: “Well, I’m a Christian now, so I guess this is what I have to do even though I don’t want to.” No, giving is a virtue that we pursue with joy. Paul holds up the example of the Christians to the north of Corinth in Macedonia.
It’s not as if these were wealthy Christians who could give away large sums of money and never feel the pinch. No, Paul acknowledges this was “a severe test of affliction.” Even though they were facing “extreme poverty” themselves, they literally “begged” Paul for the opportunity to give and to relieve the wants of others. As a result, the Macedonians gave out of an “abundance of joy” which “overflowed in a wealth of generosity” that simply took Paul’s breath away. They understood that they were giving first and foremost to God and only secondarily to Paul’s collection.
Like the Christians described in Acts 4, the Macedonians gave voluntarily, in response to a specific need, and at considerable cost to themselves. Paul explains that the Macedonian Christians gave not only “according to their means” but “beyond their means,” and they did so freely “of their own accord.” I wonder if you could say the same. Have you given away your resources–not out of your excess, but out of your lack–and done so with joy? That’s the standard Paul holds up for us. As he writes in the chapter that immediately follows: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
First, Christians give as an act of joy. Second, Christians give as an act of grace. Paul considers generosity to be one of the most important gifts and graces of the Christian life. That’s why Christians–myself included!–should never be embarrassed about encouraging radical generosity.
Paul explains how his colleague, Titus, had initiated the collection in Corinth, though for some reason it had stalled out. So now he urges Titus to complete this “act of grace” among the Corinthians.
Notice the rationale that Paul provides. Every Christian is called to grow in love, faith, speech, and knowledge. We’re not supposed to remain static. We are supposed to actively pursue these gifts and graces. That applies to generosity as well. This should be one of the greatest distinguishing marks of a Christian. Paul writes: “As you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.”
It’s not as if love and faith are the supremely important characteristics of a Christian, and we can squeak by with a mere touch of generosity. No, Paul says we must “excel in this act of grace also.” To excel in giving means that we strive to become as generous as we possibly can. If I asked you what virtues would immediately come to mind when someone thinks of you, would generosity make its way to the top of the list? Paul suggests it should, but how? That brings me to a third word Paul employs, which is love.
In the end, we do not give in obedience to a command, but as a response of love. That’s why Paul writes: “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. Love–love for Jesus–is the ultimate motivating factor for generous giving.
Believe it or not, I was once asked in an interview for a job: “Do you love money?” The expected answer in that context was: “Yes!” But I said: “I think money is important. It helps the world go round. It’s certainly more efficient than a barter system, but, no, I can’t say that I love money.” That wasn’t the answer they were looking for, but I got the job anyway! I, of course, was being a little brash in my response, but–if you stop and think about it–no one really loves money for itself. We love what money can do for us. So, what can money do? For starters, it offers comfort, status, and power.
For one thing, money provides comfort. It enables us to buy things that make life easier and less stressful. That’s why some people spend their wealth. They spend it on possessions and homes and experiences. They love what money can buy. But some people do the opposite. They save their wealth rather than spending it–although they love it just the same. They love the security that money provides. They think that if they have just a little more money it will offer a hedge of protection against risk and the changing circumstances of life. Do you realize what that means? It suggests, ironically enough, that both the spendthrift and the tightwad can make money their god.
So some love money because it provides comfort, but others love it because it offers status. We all know that those with money enjoy a higher status and social network. If you have money, people want to know you and be part of your circle. For many people, acquiring money is all about elevating your status. You want to want to be invited to all the right parties and become part of the “in-crowd.” You want others to fawn over you or be dependent upon you because of the money that you can dole out. It’s all about status.
Finally, there are still others who love money because it offers power. It takes money to make money, and those with money are in a position to make more. That’s part of the reason why the wealthy wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence within our society. Money opens doors and seals deals.
There’s nothing wrong with money in and of itself. As Paul explains to his protégé Timothy, it’s not money, but the love of money which is the root of all evil.
Paul makes clear this is an issue of love. It’s a matter of the heart. So if you do not feel especially generous, the answer is not to wail on your will, but to work on your heart. You have to remind yourself of the gospel, take it into your heart and life, and keep doing so until it changes your affections and motivations.
That’s what Paul models for us here. “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.” There is simply no other verse in all of Scripture that provides a better rationale for radical generosity.
How did Jesus give up his riches and become poor? And how has he made you rich? Just think.
Jesus gave up his comfort. He “left his father’s throne above,” and was born into a small peasant community on the remote outskirts of the Roman Empire. He lived life on the run and claimed that he had nowhere to lay his head.
Jesus gave up his status. He pursued a path of downward mobility. His story was not one of rags to riches, but riches to rags. He not only became human, he assumed the role of a servant rather than a king.
Jesus gave up his power. Though he was God he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or taken advantage of. Instead he emptied himself and humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, like a common criminal.
Why did he do it? He did it all for you.
He used his power not to acquire more for himself, but to benefit you–to provide you with enduring comfort, permanent status as God’s beloved child, and unparalleled power as a fellow heir of the kingdom of God. Jesus had everything, but he became nothing, in order to turn a nobody like you into somebody. Do you see that? Do you feel that? Do you know how rich you are in Christ? Only the riches of the gospel will loosen the allure that money has over you.
As you experience the depth of Jesus’ love for you, you will prove your love for him is genuine through radical generosity.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker