Last Saturday I helped my grandfather, a retired Baptist minister, go through boxes in his basement. We found this sermon in a dusty old folder, and while my grandfather doesn't think he wrote it, he isn't sure who did. Regardless, it's a thought-provoking message about giving. -Laura
One of the interesting and potentially problematic things about the Bible's teaching about giving, is that giving is almost always associated with a reward. In Malachi 3, God says through the prophet, Test me...see if I do not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down an overflowing blessing. Jesus says that anyone who gives a cup of cold water to one of his little ones will not go unrewarded. And Paul is no exception, the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.... And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that always having enough of everything, you may work abundantly in every good work. (II Cor. 9:8)
What does this mean? Is giving an investment on which I can count on a return? If so, it's better than the stock market. Some Christian ministries have built their empires on this sort of biblical promise. Seed Faith. You believe God to meet some need, financial usually, and then send in the seed money. Someone in our church regularly gets letters from one of these ministries. One letter, computer-generated on yellow legal pad paper with what seemed like honest-to-goodness handwriting, said that the evangelist had suddenly awakened in the middle of the night and, as he wrote, "I thought of you and prayed for you". (I think I would have written back, "I'm sorry to have wakened you.) It went on to say that the miracle she sought would certainly come if she had the faith to plant the seed (meaning, of course, the ministry). And, of course, in a seemingly hand-written P.S., came the appeal for the seed faith gift of $20 or more.
What do we make of this? In one sense, the cheerful generous giving to which Paul invites us seems to be destroyed by this kind of hard-edged reward mentality. Give for what you can get out of it for yourself. There's an almost lottery-like appeal to it. Such a blatant appeal to self-interest in our giving rightly makes us nervous. On the other hand, as I said, the whole Bible is full of talk of rewards, not only for godly living but also for giving. Let's face it, there is an element of self-interest to our faith. It would be a strange thing indeed to follow Christ and make sacrifices involved if it weren't in our own interest to do so. Being a Christian has its benefits. It affords us an eminently plausible and profoundly comforting explanation to our existence. It enables us to live a life of joy and love and meaning. It places us in the midst of a community of faith and caring. And, most of all, it gives us the promise of eternal life, no small reward in this world of sin and death. That's not a bad bargain.
So, we can talk of rewards, but God's rewards are always the gifts of grace, not payment for services rendered. It's not some tit for tat arrangement, a quid pro quo of contributions. We have no claim on God because we paid made our deposit in the Kingdom bank. God loves a cheerful giver because God is a cheerful giver, the giver of every good and perfect gift. And God, being who he is, loves to shower blessings on his people, and not just his people, but all people, and animals, the whole creation teems with the extravagant and gracious gifts of God. But that's not strange to us. Our human love is like that too. It's natural to want to give gifts to those we love. It's not a reward for services, that would cheapen the whole interaction. Because we love our children, we try to give them a good education. We are willing to sacrifice a lot to give them that opportunity, and it isn't because we are looking for personal payback. But they come anyway. It's a great delight to see what education enables them to do with their lives and how it affects the lives of others and the Kingdom of God. Acts of love and commitment create their own reward. That, it seems to me, is what the rewards of the gospel are all about. God loves his people, and the more God sees their love and courage, and faith, hope, and generosity the more he wants to give to them. The image Paul uses here and elsewhere is sowing and reaping. This image occurs so often in the Bible it could be called a law of the Kingdom of God, in fact, it's a law of life. You reap what you sow. You know how it works. If you hoard your love, your compliments, your embraces, your feelings, your resources, the harvest will be proportionately small. Spend your love, lavish your care on others, distribute your hugs generously, let genuine approval and heartfelt compliments flow freely, and it will come back to you as well as enrich those around you. You sow love, you reap love. You sow compassion, you reap compassion. And you sow your money in the Kingdom of God and you will reap.
What exactly do we reap financially. Paul says God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share
abundantly in every good work....You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God....Jesus himself made the same point. When you give alms do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing, and your father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:3,4) This is all quite purposely vague it seems to me. This is no computer-generated letter promising the miracle you desire. We do not place God under some obligation by our giving. Nor does God promise wealth or a trouble-free existence. This is the dance of grace. God sees our good works, our love, our giving, and God graciously and naturally gives back, just like we do for each other. The only difference is that the God to whom we give is the creator and provider of the universe, the Lord of sowing and reaping. "He is able to do this because he is almighty God. He desires to do it because he is a faithful Father." The clearest lesson we learn from all this is that giving is never a loss. It should not be placed in the debit column. John Calvin put it this way. "Whenever fleshly reason calls us back from doing good through fear of loss, we should immediately oppose it with this shield: But the Lord declares that we are sowing."
The money we give is not lost, it's sown. It brings glory and thanksgiving to God. And God is a shrewd steward of his resources. He does not want his money wasted, but is looking for a return. And when God has a cheerful giver who loves him and offers from his or her resources with a glad and generous heart, God blesses that person. Now, again, this is no iron-clad guarantee that we will grow wealthy through giving, or that we will never face hard times when we give. It's a general description of the way the Kingdom works, but an important one, one we can rely on. My parents were tithers as long as I lived in their home. I vividly remember how every week Dad's pay envelope was brought home in cash, with lots of ones and fives, so that on the dining room table Mom could put everything in the proper envelope. And the first one was the tithe. I know that many times this was a sacrifice. They never got rich, not even close. But I can tell you that they always had what they needed, sometimes provided in extraordinary ways, and God blessed them in countless other ways as well. And I'll tell you something else. There was something special about that first envelope and what they could do with it. As people in what I would call genteel poverty, they glowed with satisfaction at what they could give. There was a certain wholesome pride and Christian dignity in that special first envelope. Their giving did not make them poorer in any way, it made them richer of soul. And they believed on the basis of God's promises that God would supply their needs. And he did.
The point is this, don't be afraid of losing when you give, rather be sure that in your giving, whatever it may be, you will reap what you sow. Most important, says Paul, God loves a cheerful giver. In that, I suppose God is not much different from us. Have you ever had something given to you grudgingly? I remember a time I was in need and went to someone for help. I'll tell you, there was a lot of hemming and hawing, and wondering about the payback schedule and whether he really had enough to spare. I finally said, "Thanks, but I don't really think I need it any more", and walked out the door. I knew two things immediately: he didn't really want to do it, and even if he ended up giving what I needed, I would end up being constantly reminded of the gift forever and ever, world without end, Amen. It would be a form of control rather than an act of generosity.
But a cheerful giver, someone who gives gladly, freely, happily. What a pleasure. What a delight. What a contagious virtue that is. The Greek word here is the word from which we get the word hilarious. Hilarious givers. Not long ago there was an offering in church to which I wanted to give, but I had not remembered to plan for it. I reached for my wallet and discovered, to my chagrin, that there was only one bill, a $50. That was not exactly my plan. After a few seconds of exquisite indecision, I just grabbed it and put it in. And to my amazement, I found I had a smile on my face. The sheer spontaneity, the holy foolishness of it made me glad. Giving ought to be fun, and when it's not, there's something wrong with our hearts. We sense the excitement of being meaningfully involved in God's work. When it comes to giving, you just can't lose. God loves it, you benefit, the receiver is blessed, God is thanked, and the seed of an abundant future is planted. It's an offer you can't refuse.