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Part 3: The Joy of Generosity
November 16, 2022
If Christians are called to give voluntarily, responsively, and sacrificially out of gratitude for and in response to Jesus’ love, then how exactly do we do it? In this final part of a three-part video series, Senior Pastor Jason Harris provides practical advice for where we can begin on our giving journey and encouragement as we seek to grow in the grace of generosity.
We have discussed the “what” and the “why” of Christian giving, and now we turn to the “how.” Christians are called to give: 1) freely, not under compulsion, 2) responsively to specific need, not haphazardly, and 3) in radical proportions, not meagerly. The exact phrases used in the bible are: Everyone must give: 1) “according to one’s ability”, 2) “as any had need”, and 3) “even beyond one’s means”.
And the primary reason why you give is not simply obedience to a command, nor a vain attempt to put God in your debt. The primary motivating factor is not duty, or control, but gratitude. Christians give out of an abundance of joy, as an act of grace, and in response to Jesus’ love.
So how do we do it? Where do we begin? First, you obviously have to assess your financial resources. What do you receive on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis and how much do you currently give away–not to some charity or political cause–but specifically to support your local congregation and the needs of the poor (outside your family)? We said that the Old Testament tithe set a basic minimum requirement of giving away 10% of gross income to support the work of ministry and those in need. How close does your current giving approximate 10%? Since the tithe represents a floor, not a ceiling, how much more can you stretch yourself to give above and beyond 10%?
This is where a number of important principles come in. First, you have to give wisely. You can’t give what you don’t have. Be smart about it. The Apostle Paul himself said: “If the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.”
You should not give to such an extent that it causes you to damage your health or default on your obligations. Christians have a responsibility to pay their debts, so don’t use your giving as an excuse not to pay what you owe. There was a time in my life, for example, when I had to make a geographical move because I transitioned from one job to another. This happened in the midst of an economic downturn, and I was forced to carry the old mortgage and the new rent on two apartments for over a year until I was finally able to sell our prior home. That obviously hindered my ability to give as generously as I would have liked, but that 12-month period simply represented a season in my financial life which eventually came to an end. There will be seasons to our economic life, and God certainly understands that.
So our giving should be wise and prudent. Rarely have I ever had to tell someone they are giving too much money away, but it does happen sometimes so I offer this word of caution to those who may be a little over-eager. But that probably doesn’t describe the majority of us. Most of us probably need to work our way up to giving 10% of our gross income and then beyond to 12%, 15%, 20%... And that is the right way to think about it. We have to work towards this goal. Most people aren’t going to be able to do that right out of the gate, and that brings me to a second principle.
We must give wisely, and, secondly, we must give systematically. You have to start where you are–not where you are not. Personally, this has always been helpful to me as I have tried to grow in the grace of giving. Figure out your starting point. If you are currently only giving 3%, try to increase your total giving each year by 1% or 2%. Challenge yourself to give more. If you receive a raise or a windfall of money, try to keep your expenses flat and use the extra money to give more. If you keep doing that, your giving will represent a greater and greater percentage of your income, and you will experience the satisfaction and the joy–of giving in ever more radical proportions.
The point is that this will not simply happen on its own. That’s why you have to be systematic about it. You have to develop a plan. In our day, people often equate spontaneity with authenticity. We assume that the more spontaneous an action is, the more it expresses our authentic self. But that is not necessarily the case. This may be a false distinction. It is true that giving in the spur of the moment in response to a specific appeal may bring us joy. But spontaneous, unplanned gifts are generally not very sacrificial when added up over time. Why is that?
Here is at least a partial answer. Our natural tendency is to give to God’s work out of our leftovers. We buy and spend–perhaps invest and save if we’re lucky–and after we’ve paid the bills and socked some money away, we look at what we can afford to give to the work of ministry. But we’ve got it completely backwards. The question is not: How much of my money will I give to God, but how much of God’s money will I keep for myself? Rather than giving out of what we consider excess (if we have any at all), we should be giving out of what we consider essential.
That’s why the Old Testament stipulated that God’s people should give the firstfruits. We should give the first and the best of what we receive, rather than the leftovers.
But giving God the firstfruits of our wealth, and giving in radical proportions, requires planning. The Apostle Paul models this for us. He encourages the church in Corinth to put aside a sum of money in accordance with one’s income every time the congregation gathers for worship. That way, Paul says, there will be no need for a collection the next time he sees them because the funds will have already been set aside. Apparently, the Corinthians began to lapse in this practice, and that’s why Paul writes to them again in 2 Corinthians and encourages them to arrange their contribution in advance so that it may be ready as a willing gift and not one grudgingly given.
The fact is that there will always be people who pull on our purse strings, and worthy causes that tug on our heart strings. But giving simply in response to the moment or as our mood carries us will not always result in generous giving. We will give more when our giving is systematic and regular, rather than impulsive and sporadic.
A number of studies suggest that planned regular giving on a weekly or monthly basis can result in 2 to 4 times more money given. One way to do that, of course, is through automated, online payments to the church, which (you should know) is what I do myself. For one thing, I have a few too many things to prepare on a Sunday morning to remember to bring a check in addition to my sermon notes! But for another, by giving automatically every time I receive a paycheck, I ensure that I am giving the firstfruits rather than the leftovers to God’s work. I have to plan my budget around my giving–and not the other way around.
There are some Christians who believe that something is lost when one does not physically place a check in the plate when it comes by. But I am not overly troubled by this. If that is your preferred way of giving, then by all means continue in it, but I do not think the moment and manner in which we give is nearly as important as what we give and why. Whether you give in person or online, you should always remember, especially during that portion of the service, that your giving is an act of worship–no less real or significant than when you sing a hymn, offer a prayer, or participate in the Lord’s Supper.
We must give wisely in light of our responsibilities, and systematically according to our ability, and finally generously in response to God’s grace. Generosity is ultimately a reflection of the spirit in which the gift is given, and not the dollar amount. That’s why the widow’s gift of two pennies, which Jesus describes in the Gospel of Mark, was far more generous than the others because she gave “all she had.”
If like that widow, we aspire to give out of what we regard essential rather than merely out of our excess, then we should also consider giving illiquid resources, if we have them. The New Testament provides us with illuminating examples of such generosity. Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
And this was not an unusual practice. Luke tells us that on a regular basis: “As many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” As for them, so for you. Generous giving might require selling a property, tapping into your savings, or liquidating an investment. In that way, you may become more like the widow who gave “all she had” rather than merely what she could spare.
The big idea is that we are called to give generously from the heart. The Apostle Paul made it clear that he didn’t want to hound people about their giving–and frankly neither do I! My job as a pastor is not to police people about their giving and make sure they do their duty. Rather, my job is to invite people to give radically and sacrificially to God’s work so they might experience the joy of participating in God’s kingdom movement. That’s why I don’t mind encouraging people to be generous. At the end of the day, I am not asking people for money, I am simply offering an invitation. It’s up to you to decide how you will respond.
I have to say that I have observed over the years that sometimes people write checks in odd increments, like $154.67. Now, to me, that suggests that some people must take their pay stub and multiply their income by a certain percentage and then write out the check in that exact amount–down to the dollar and cent. I would gently suggest that this probably reflects a legalistic spirit. If you are being that precise, it indicates that you are merely doing your duty, and perhaps only through gritted teeth. If that’s the case, then generosity for you might begin by simply adding $0.33 to that check in order to round your gift up to $155.00 even. That might be a small but vital step towards a more generous heart.
Do you see my point? The reason why we give is as important as what we give. God wants you to give with a happy heart. He loves a cheerful giver.
In fact, the word “cheerful” comes from the Greek word “hilaros,” which forms the root of the English word hilarious. We shouldn’t press the connection too far, but it does at least give us something to think about. I like to imagine that the grace of Jesus motivates us to give so radically that others would consider it somewhat comical–or that we derive so much fun from the experience of giving that we can’t wait to be able to do it again. God loves a hilarious giver.
If all of this is true, then when it comes to the question of how you should give, you must not only evaluate your financial condition, you must assess the condition of your heart. Where is your heart with respect to giving? Are you resistant to give more because you are hoarding your money to provide financial security in the future or because you only want to spend it on yourself and your family here and now?
What is holding you back? We all run the risk of the rich, young ruler who was challenged to give away all he had to follow Jesus. We, too, might withdraw from Christ and go away sorrowful because we would rather part with Jesus than part with our money.
The only way to avoid a similar fate is to taste the power of the gospel continually. You have to ask yourself questions: Where are you placing your ultimate treasure: on earth or in heaven? What do you most love: what money can buy, or what Jesus can provide? Do you realize the riches that you have received in and through Jesus? Do 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”?
You must repeatedly work the truths of the gospel into your heart and life until the riches of Jesus become more real and attractive to you than the riches of this world. Then and only then will money and possessions begin to lose their stranglehold over your heart. Then and only then will you learn to become truly generous. Then and only then will you experience the joy that God has in store for you.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker