The church doesn't talk about giving very well. Around about the time of the treasurer's financial report, most churches host an optimistically entitled "Giving Sunday": on said Sunday a fresh call is made for the congregation to reach deep into their pockets or, more commonly these days, write a gift-aided direct debit, reassured that God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7) I am probably more cynical than most, but such Sundays often leave me cringing, hoping that these isn't someone new to the church who thinks that all these Christian people do is pester them to pay up.
And yet, we are called to be generous. Christians should be the most generous people on the planet; we are those who know how much we have been given and so we should willingly give. (Matthew 10:8) And some of the Christians I know are like this: they are ridiculously, stupendously generous. With their time and their money, their houses, their resources, their fridges. Everything. But I don't think this is the norm. I know that in my own walk with Jesus I fluctuate between seasons where am able to hold my stuff lightly, and seasons where I grasp onto everything with clenched fists. I like to think of myself as being generous but I put stipulations on that generosity. I am generous when it suits me. I am generous when I deem someone else worthy of my generosity. I am generous because it makes me feel good and stops that nagging feeling that this isn't quite what church is supposed to look like. In our individualised and privatised culture, we Jesus people are no longer a people who hold all things in common (Acts 2:44), not claiming anything as our own (Acts 4:32).
Perhaps to aspire to such a thing is to idolise the early church, to look back with rose-tinted glasses on something which was actually pretty messy. I have often heard the critique that such a way of life is just not practical any more. It would not be a very responsible thing to give to anybody, and everybody, who asked; it would be a very generous one:
"Virtually every Christian public ethic justifying behaviour that runs counter to the example and teaching of Jesus does it on the ground of responsibility.. In many cases, the critics admit that following Jesus would mean something quite different from what they are proposing. But Jesus’ example is deemed irrelevant or irresponsible. If an action is not responsible, then, these critics imply one must of course not do it. If sharing money is not responsible, then Christians should behave economically according to society’s standards. If being non-violent is not always responsible, then Christians should defends themselves with violent power or take up arms whenever the government calls. The best rejoinder to such arguments is, Responsible to whom? Is Christians’ primary responsibility to the dominant society or to the government or cultural expectations? Or is Christians’ primary responsibility to God and to the distinctive mission for which God calls and forms a missionary people?” (Darrell Guder, Missional Church)
Guder's critique is rather painful and I need to say at this point that I don't have this right. Hamish and I wrestle endlessly with finances and with what we should do with our money. We know that we are rich and have been hugely blessed by God by both the provision of our families and by Hamish's career. We are those who have plenty. And I do not think that to have plenty is necessarily a problem (although Jesus would contest that statement - Luke 14:33, Matthew 19:23) What you do with your plenty is. When he advises the Corinthian church about giving, Paul says that we will have times of plenty and times of scarcity; the whole point is to spread the plenty around when you happen to have it so that no one is in need:
"Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need,so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality."(2 Corinthians 8:13-15)
And so, are we spreading our plenty? Are we generous with what we have? Do we supply the needs of those who have less? Do we recognise that, in the kingdom, all money is God's (1 Corinthians 4:7) and we are called simply to steward what we are in possession of?
As I read Corinthians this morning, I was struck by Paul's argument about generosity. He does say that God loves a cheerful giver (and I am sure that God does) but he also gives us instruction about how it is that we might be cheerful in our giving. It is all very well to be reminded that we should smile when we cough up our pennies, but it is quite another thing to be liberated to give joyfully. And so, three thoughts from 2 Corinthians that I'm chewing over to help me me learn to give cheerfully:
Firstly, there is the issue of blessing. Paul is adamant: "God is able to bless you abundantly so that in all things and at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good work...you will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion." (2 Corinthians 9:8, 11) You can't get more emphatic than that. All things. All times. All you need. Every way. Every occasion. It is quite hard to find a loophole in such language. If we want to know the abundant, radical generosity of God than we need to be willing to put ourselves in positions where we need him. Independence, strategic planning and aspirations of self-sufficiency may well be responsible, but they are not necessarily biblical. We miss the opportunity to know the abounding and enriching provision of our heavenly Father if we always spend our money on ourselves making sure that we have everything that we need. And I know that in my own life this is true. The times when Hamish and I have seen God provide in the most extraordinary ways have been when we have taken risks with our money and given away more than we felt comfortable doing. When we have been generous, God have never left us lacking.
Again, I need to reiterate that I do not have this right. I am not naturally generous. I often deliberately avoid opportunities to give because I am anxious about our financial situation. And yet, part of me knows that to live like that is to miss out. I don't want to miss out on what it is to be dependant on God because I am frightened of the consequences of being too generous. For Paul there is no such thing as too much generosity. God is able to bless us abundantly. I do not know why I still find that so hard to believe even when I have seen it time and time again. We have seen God provide us with the money for our mortgage. We have seen God provide us with a free car that was better than our old car. And yet, I am still afraid. I am fearful that perhaps God won't show up if I take a risk. I need to heed the words of Canon Andrew White, working in a perilously difficult and fragile situation in Baghdad: "Don't take care; take risks."
Secondly, Paul says that through our generosity God is given the thanks that he deserves: "Through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God" (2 Corinthians 9:11) When we lose our generous hearts, God is denied the gratitude and thankfulness that is due to his name. It is in our generosity that we create opportunity for others to thank God for what he has given. God allows us to partner with him in showing the world what he is like. When we give, we are enabled to point towards the unfailing goodness and grace of our Father and say, "Not I, but the Lord! God has given to me extravagantly and so I have given to you extravagantly; let us praise him together for his extravagance!" To me, this is a greater motivation than simply being told that God likes it when I give. When I give, something extraordinary happens: through my giving people recognise that God is the ultimate giver.
Finally, there is the matter of obedience: "Others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel" (2 Corinthians 9:13) God's word commands me to be generous. Will I do what the word says?
"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do." (James 1:22-25)
I listened to a Mike Bickle sermon yesterday morning, which reminded me that obedience is optional. God will allow us to be disobedient. God will allow us to read something in the Bible and then pay no attention to it whatsoever, but to do so is to miss the opportunity to be changed. Transformation happens when we are obedient. It is not a passive process. It happens when we choose to trust what God says and to act on it. The question then is not simply will I do what the word says, but will I not do what the word says and thus miss out on knowing more of God and experiencing more of his transforming power at work in my life? Obedience is costly. Disobedience is also costly.
My Corinthian pondering has not automatically made me a cheerful giver. It has given me more of an aspiration to be one, more of an aspiration to stop being cynical and begrudging and to seek opportunity to give because in doing so the extravagant generosity of the Father is shared by the one who gives and by the one who receives.
Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.
(St Ignatius of Loyola)