Giving in the BibleCommon Good
Talking about money, whether your own or someone else’s, makes most people uncomfortable – either you feel you have too little of it and so feel embarrassed having such a conversation, or you may feel you have quite a bit of it and that comes with unique questions and pressures of its own. Money becomes that awkward subject we tend to avoid until the collection plate comes our way on a Sunday morning, someone taps our car window in the parking lot, or tries to get our attention outside our gate, and even then, we do what needs doing and move on swiftly. Given our reticence to talk about money openly, it’s remarkable that the Bible, and Jesus in particular, spoke so often and so freely about money. One reason for this is that money is one of the idols that draws our affections and worship with our eager cooperation. Not talking about money simply shrouds its influence and prevents us from being awake to its subtle effects on us.
This article is focusing on one area that relates to money and wealth – giving. But rather than laying this out as a “How-to” guide to giving, I simply want us to consider one question and two words. The question is this – “Why do we give?” Is it to appear generous in the eyes of others? To ease our consciences? To feel good about ourselves? To get into God’s good books? To wield power over others? To honour the God from whom all blessing flows? We give for many reasons. We come to God just as we are, with our mixed and impure motives. And God is gracious, taking us in. But I believe God wants to do a deeper work in us, to change us and draw our hearts closer to his own.
Why we give
Our giving is rooted in who God is for us. The first giving we do is giving ourselves to God because of God’s mercy and self-giving toward us in Christ. It starts there. It’s not just handing over our goods, but our very selves to God. Like the burnt offerings in the Old Testament, we are dedicated wholly to the Lord, which is the point Romans 12:1-2 is making.
Our generosity towards God’s Kingdom purposes, which includes giving to others, simply indicates our alignment with the reality of God’s kingdom, because we are giving to God what already belongs to God and recognising that life flows from the Lord, and not the things we own (Luke 12:13-34).
So, when the decision arises as to whether or how to give to the person at your car window or at your gate, you are already embedded in this bigger Story about God’s generosity toward us and our appropriate response of whole-hearted, whole-bodied, whole-souled, wholly loved and joyful dedication to God and his purposes.
Wisdom in giving
There are two words God has for us regarding giving. I think we all need to hear and heed both, but I pray the Spirit ministers to you according to your need. The first word is wisdom. Jesus told his disciples that in a hostile environment, they are to be as shrewd as snakes, but as gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16). Paul wrote to believers that our love must abound in knowledge (Phil. 1:9). Money creates and is part of complex human dynamics. We need knowledge not only about ourselves but about the world. For example, thoughtless, untargeted giving can feed into certain cycles of poverty and addiction. Sometimes we can give in ways that allow us to have control over others. The way we give can also maintain inequality and an imbalance of power by creating dependence on our giving instead of creating capacity to break free of the cycle of poverty. Christians need to be savvy about their context, as well as the needs and opportunities around them. Our reality in South Africa is stark, but hopeful. The poverty and inequality baked into our society has deep historical and systemic roots. Even after decades of democracy, inequality is still skewed according to race and gender. The realities of crime make seemingly simple Biblical commands such as showing hospitality to others give us pause. However, God cultivates our love of others made in His image so that we continually expand the borders of who we consider our ‘neighbour’. Loving our neighbour as ourselves draws us to give generously towards them in ways that may at times seem downright foolish. At the same time, God’s love and our own are not sentimental in ways that ignore the hard edges of our world. Our love must be informed; it must grow in knowledge and be wise so that in our giving we lean into God’s mission and do good instead of harming others.
So, we want to be wise with how and to whom we give. We don’t want to inadvertently give in ways that perpetuate poverty, that undermine people’s dignity and that feed into the cycles of addiction. We can be manipulated and taken advantage of. All this and more are true. Wisdom and caution should temper what is an otherwise extravagant spirit toward others. Love should abound more and more with knowledge.
The second word is generosity. Of the many warnings that God gives us about wealth and money, few if any of them are about being wise with how we give it so that we are not taken advantage of. Perhaps we have become so concerned about not being taken advantage of, that we’ve forgotten that it is the Lord’s to repay, and God cannot be mocked (Romans 12:17-21). Have you ever noticed how creative and broad God’s generosity is toward us, and the creativity we’re similarly called to? God is generous toward all humanity, causing the sun to shine and the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust alike. Jesus calls us to imitate that goodness (Matthew 5:43-48). This, I believe, is where the weight of Biblical testimony lies – creative, expansive, open-handed, whole-hearted, joy-filled and bordering-on-reckless generosity toward others. People always take priority over prosperity, and as Craig Blomberg puts it, ‘…generosity and compassion with our material blessings is the principle that emerges from the Bible and applies to everyone – ‘from the grass-roots, rural community level all the way up the social ladder to the king.’ From commands in a rural and agrarian society not to glean the edges of fields so that the poor may have something to eat, to offering hospitality and giving safety, shelter, and clothing to those who need it – we’re taught to embody the kind of generosity that dignifies others and invites those that society marginalises for dinner in our homes, instead of only inviting those who can invite us back (Luke 14). The kind willing to joyfully sell property to provide for others’ needs (Acts 4:32-37), and to give cheerfully even out of meagre resources (2 Cor. 8:1-15). The kind willing to give up position, privilege, power, and life for others (Phil. 2), doing good to all, especially those in God’s household (Gal 6:10).
Passages such as Luke 14 are especially challenging for us regarding our commitment to Jesus, generosity with ourselves and our homes. It’s dignifying to be invited for dinner and get a seat at the table. While it may be practical and safer for us to hand food over to someone at the gate rather than to invite them into our homes for a meal, does it honour and dignify them? If the cup of cold water we give to the ‘least of these’ is like giving it to Jesus, would we not give Jesus the coldest, cleanest and most refreshing cup of water we could find (Matthew 25:31-46)? Can we (as disciples who have been called to surrender our very selves to the Lord), in trying to preserve our lives, find ourselves disobeying the Lord?
To maintain a healthy tension between open-eyed realism and overflowing generosity toward others as we live as God’s Kingdom people in this country, we will need God’s grace, a huge helping of perseverance, creativity, courage, wisdom, and love. Like many other countries in the world, South Africa has an inexhaustible well of sorrows and deeply embedded challenges. Only the gospel and power of God can address the enormity of the situation. Praise the Lord that he has called us into this space as his hands, feet and witnesses.