"God loves a cheerful giver." (2 Cor. 9:7) So why then does the topic of giving often leave many hearers with such little joy? You would think it would be just the opposite after everything Christ has done to redeem us. Does the problem lie primarily in the hearts of the hearers, or are there things pastors say today on this topic that block the joy of the Lord from reaching most of the people? Maybe it's a little of both.
Like many ministers, I have taught about the benefits of tithing a number of times over the past 23 years as a pastor. But I have recently come to have second thoughts about the wisdom of being that specific on the topic of giving. Does the promotion of "10% giving" today really produce the right outcome for the right reasons and with the right amount of Christian joy?
On one hand, my wife and I and others in our church have seen the Lord provide for His children as we have followed this biblical approach. But was it sermons about tithing that brought us to this point, or something else entirely? And is it possible that this teaching inadvertently keeps some believers from giving significantly more than just 10% of their income?
Isn't it striking how the New Testament says virtually nothing about tithing? The reality of cheerful and generous giving is all over the New Testament, but not tithing. I wonder why?
I am reminded of some large Christian concerts I have attended over the years where the entire 15-minute intermission was spent zealously trying to enlist donors for a year commitment to feed hungry children. It's a noble cause to be sure. A few signed up, maybe 1 out of 100 at best raised their hands and filled out the cards during the passionate appeal.
Is that similar to what often happens today when tithing gets preached? Is it even connecting with 99% of the hearers, or are they just "tuning out" because they don't feel led to begin that practice quite yet? I don't know. There is no easy answer, but I think it bears consideration from a number of angles.
Feeding hungry children and giving financially to the Lord are things that can't really be forced on someone. At least not if people are going to give cheerfully. Some concerts and church services feel like a bit of a "bait and switch" when those appeals get presented too strongly. I am not suggesting those things shouldn't be presented. I am just wondering how best to make the appeal, and how to avoid leaving 99% of the people with a guilt trip over it. Unless of course God wants them leaving the Christian event or worship service feeling guilty about their giving percentage rather than rejoicing in their salvation. But what good does that do anyone?
If I am not giving in faith and joy, then what's the point? And if someone doesn't yet have the faith and the desire to give, will a lecture about giving 10% really turn their heart into one of exuberant faith and cheerful giving? Perhaps this is why Jesus didn't promote a specific percentage when it comes to giving. He invited people to commit their entire lives to Him. Shouldn't our teaching on the topic reflect His teaching on it? And shouldn't we be gracious when approaching a topic that has such potential for harm if not handled carefully?
If it's mainly guilt that "gets you to the 10% mark," what exactly is going to restore the joy you lost along the way as you finally reached the "10% club" with your giving? This presents a challenge for Christian ministers since we are called not only to feed the flock, but also to lead God's people to joyfully become more Christlike in their lives of discipleship.
Tithing was a common theme in the Old Testament. A clear command, with associated blessings for those who obeyed it. And even a curse for those who disobeyed it. But why didn't Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and Peter talk or write about it in the New Testament?
It is clear that Christians are not to have an attitude of "give generously in order to get more to keep for yourself." Rather, the emphasis seems to be "give generously and you will be given more so that you can give more." If you doubt that New Testament teaching, just read 2 Cor. 9:6-11. It's pretty obvious isn't it? The context of that passage deals primarily with finances.
So what's the deal with tithing, especially for believers today? Well, tithing was a command under the Law. Cheerful and generous giving, on the other hand, is a response to the Gospel. Do you see the difference?
If we try to teach about giving from an Old Testament command rather than a New Testament revelation of grace, we end up heavy on the Law and light on the Gospel. It's an easy mistake to make, especially when the strongholds of materialism and overspending are so widespread today even among believers. The natural tendency is to use the Law to correct the problem. But we must remember that giving, or a lack of it, is a heart issue. Only the wellspring of the Holy Spirit can change our hearts and give us an overwhelming love for Christ. Any other approach to "fixing the heart" will be closer to legalism or moralism than to New Testament Christianity.
In the way of comparison, think about how tough it is to raise children these days. As someone has wisely said, parenting involves "taming the will and capturing the heart." Easier said than done to be sure, but definitely doable by the grace of God.
You thought raising kids was challenging. Try shepherding a congregation of people where everyone is at a different level of spiritual maturity, and yet everyone needs "feeding and leading" from the Good Shepherd as He works through His servants, the pastors and teachers. And then try doing that in a graceful way, which is the only approach that enables people to grow and come to a place of fullness in the Holy Spirit. That fullness will be the wellspring of their joy and godly motivation. Without that fullness, a church becomes more of a burden to people than a blessing.
One reason people flock to the cults and to religions that only give them rules to obey is because it gives them a sense of security, and a feeling that they are earning their way. Natural man thinks the law is his way into God's good graces. And it sure makes it easy for the leaders of those groups. Like drill sergeants and police officers, those spiritual leaders have plenty of leverage through the law. They dictate to their followers and the people are expected to obey.
But in the Lord's church, the only true leverage we have is love. At least if we are going to do it God's way. And that is why it is generally tougher to disciple Christians than to manage people in more of a "law-oriented" setting.
The Christian church, at its best, is flowing along in love. And when that happens, people give and give and keep on giving. But it doesn't happen because they were lectured to do so. If people only do noble things because they were "guilted" into it, then you have a big problem in the spiritual atmosphere of that place.
To see how it can be done the right way, check out what happened in Acts 2:45: "Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." Are you kidding me? Really? That sure didn't come about as a result of being lectured to tithe. They went so far above tithing because they were receiving power and love from a much deeper well. Why else would they sell their possessions and give the proceeds to those in need. That's not natural. That is supernatural and it flows from the power of the Holy Spirit within a believer.
Generosity is rampant in the book of Acts. But try to find the teaching of tithing in that book. You won't find it because it isn't there. They were given the Holy Spirit! What can the teaching of tithing do to compete with Him? Do you now see it? Do you see why tithing is so limited in its scope once we entered the era of Christ's cross and empty tomb, and the era of Pentecost?
A number of Christians today practice tithing. And that can be a good thing when it is done for the right reasons. But before we start patting ourselves on the back too hard, let's remember that Jesus never seemed too impressed with tithing. Sacrificial giving, meanwhile, definitely caught His attention.
Do you remember the story of the poor widow? Now she got the Lord's attention!
"As He looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," He said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." (Luke 21:1-4)
The spirit of giving in the New Testament is that of overwhelming gratitude and generosity. It is done from the heart in response for all that God has done to accomplish our salvation.
"God loves a cheerful giver." (2 Cor. 9:7) That's because the Christian life is above all intended to be one of thanksgiving and cheerfulness for all that God has done for us. Our response will never come close to matching the glory and the power of His grace and His "indescribable gift." (2 Cor. 9:15) Jesus didn't teach on tithing per se because His gift is far greater than our response. If we are not completely enthralled with His gift, how in the world is the Old Testament command of tithing going to instill that sense of awe and wonder in our hearts? Instead, it will only produce a spirit of resentment, pride, or self-righteousness.
Sermons which emphasize tithing tend by nature to focus on the Law. Sermons which emphasize Christ's love and sacrifice tend to focus on the Gospel. This results in cheerful living and cheerful giving. We need something more powerful than the Law. We need a spring of living water which will flow within us producing joy, power, and the desire to "love because He first loved us." (1 John 4:19)
The widow in Luke 21 wasn't thinking about tithing. She was living at a much higher level of spiritual experience. There is such a level you know. But only the Holy Spirit can produce it in us through the power of the Gospel.
While the Holy Spirit included this event in Scripture showing how the widow's giving caught the Lord's attention, we don't find instances where Jesus says much to commend those who are tithing. In fact, a number of those who were tithing in Jesus' day did not have a right heart with God.
Jesus said, "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone." (Luke 11:42) That is the closest Jesus ever came to commending the specific practice of tithing. At the same time, He made it clear that it didn't make up for a bad heart and for a life that is lacking in justice and love.
The Law will never fill a heart with God's love. Only the message of forgiveness through Christ will bring that love into the equation.
Those with greater faith in the area of finances cheerfully give a higher percentage than those with less faith in that area of Christian living. You may be someone who has great faith for eternity, but little faith for your finances. That simply reveals an area of your Christian life where your faith has plenty of room to grow. But remember. The Law does not increase faith. Only the Gospel and the Holy Spirit can increase faith. It comes from an infusion of divine power which gets unleashed in our soul through the Word of God, and the grace of Jesus Christ.
The next time you are tempted to wonder why so and so doesn't yet have the faith to tithe, perhaps ask yourself why you don't yet have the faith to go way beyond tithing. Rather than worrying about where that other person is at in their giving, simply examine your own heart and your own level of faith. That will help you to avoid the trap of self-righteousness and a "holier than thou" attitude as it relates to giving.
I think we can start to understand why the New Testament is virtually silent on the topic of tithing. You see, God is up to something bigger and better than "Law-based Old Testament tithing." That command had its purpose and its blessings. But that was then, and this is now. Something, or should I say Someone, far better has arrived on the scene. His name is Jesus. And when you meet Him and get to know Him, you are moved within your soul to do things with the same attitude as that widow in Luke 21.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was giving away 98% his income by the end of his life. Was it the Old Testament teaching on tithing that prompted that level of giving, or something much deeper? What about Pastor Rick Warren today who refers to himself as a "reverse tither" and gives away 90% of his income? What could possibly motivate a Christian to be that extravagant in his giving? You see, the Law has very little power when compared to the Gospel. The Law was given through Moses. Jesus is the author of grace and joy.
Gospel living is gratitude living, and cheerful giving. And finances are just one part of it, but not the largest part by any stretch.
If my financial giving as a believer is not done cheerfully, how could it ever please the Lord? "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." (2 Cor. 9:7)
So if the Law has you weighed down, then it is time for an infusion of power, love, grace, and mercy. The only place to receive those blessings is at the foot of the cross, and through a spirit of humility and appreciation. When that happens, our life begins to get poured out as an offering to God who has given us His only Son.
So let's not cheapen the Gospel by trying to force tithing into the New Testament. Because it isn't there. The revelation of God's love and grace in Christ is so much better, and it produces results in one's heart and life that the Law is powerless to produce.