Last week I wrote a little bit about money, trying to point out 4 of the ways that we, as Christians, tend to think about money and possessions in worldly ways. Today I want to follow that up with what the Bible says about giving and tithing. God gives us money and tells us to be careful, faithful stewards of it. Is one component of our stewardship giving at least a part of that money away? Let me answer this question by asking a series of four more: First, Do I have to give? Second, How am I to give? Third, Where am I to give? And fourth, How much should I give?
Let’s acknowledge from the outset that this is an always-difficult subject and one which generates quite a lot of discussion and disagreement. I plan to share the way I have worked it out in my own mind.
Do I Have to Give?
Money is a good gift of God. Even though it can be used for great evil and even though it always threatens to become an idol, money is good. Money is not the root of all evil; rather, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. This means that there is nothing wrong with earning it; there is nothing wrong with bringing home a paycheck. And, in fact, quite the opposite is true. The Lord expects that we will work hard, earn a fair wage and use our money responsibly.
With this in place, and assuming that you will earn money, does God now require you to give at least some of it away? My understanding is that he certainly does. I have come to this conclusion in a couple of different ways.
First, we see this modeled in the Old Testament. Of course we need to be careful with drawing from the Old Testament since we now live after Christ rather than before him. But having said that, many principles of the Old Testament are instructive. One thing God made clear to his people, from the earliest days, is that he required them to give back to him. He asked for the firstfruits of their labor; he wanted the first and the best. These firstfruits were symbolic of God’s claim to all of it. By giving away the first and best, God’s people were acknowledging that all of it was truly his. If they had given the last and worst, it would have been an indication that it truly and actually belonged to them. God asked for the best and that is what the people were to give him as their joyful duty.
God also asked for a tithe. He first announced this law in Leviticus 27 where he says, “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord.” This means that one tenth, ten percent, of the harvest was to be given to the Lord. In that day the people did not deal in currency as much as in produce and goods, so that is what the Lord required them to give. No matter what line of work you were in, you were required to bring a tenth of it to the Lord—the first and best tenth. God did not get the leftovers but the best of the best.
Parenthetically, it is important to note that the tithe is always 10 percent. It is not a word that means giving or donating, but a word that describes that very specific amount of 10 percent.
That gives us a little Old Testament background. Of course we also need to turn to the New Testament. In Matthew 6 Jesus says this: “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…” and so on. It is important to note that he doesn’t say if you give, but when you give. Jesus simply assumes it. In fact, there’s nowhere that Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t give to the Lord’s work. After Jesus’ death, in the early days of the church, we see his people giving generously. There is that amazing passage in chapter 2 of Acts: “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Chapter 4 again talks about the giving and generosity and says that there wasn’t a person in need; everyone gave and those who had need received. Giving is also one of the themes of the New Testament epistles–giving because the Lord has given to us and giving as the Lord has given to us.
All of this to say, the New Testament teaches and models giving. There are lots of other places we could go beyond these few passages. We are to work and then we are to give away at least a part of the money we earn.
This leads us to the second question:
How Am I to Give?
What I mean here, is What is my attitude to be? What should the state of my heart be as I give? We can answer that in a couple of ways.
First, we are to give as an act of worship. Jesus solemnly warned against giving with wrong motives. He spoke to the Pharisees and warned them against giving publicly and with a lot of fanfare. Apparently some of them liked to make a great show of their giving, just as they made a great show of their fasting and other acts of worship. This betrayed the real reason they gave—they wanted to be seen and admired by men. Their giving was really for themselves, for selfish reasons, and not for God. Jesus taught that we are to give in order to glorify God, in order to thank God and ultimately, in order to worship God. This takes our eyes off ourselves and reminds us of what the Old Testament tithing and firstfruits was all about—everything belongs to God and everything we have is a sign of his goodness to us. We give to worship God.
Second, even though we are told to give, we are to give freely and willingly, not only out of obligation. In 2 Corinthians 9 Paul writes about giving and says, “Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” So even though we are commanded to give (“each one must give”), we are still to give freely. In other words, giving grudgingly is not what God is after. He doesn’t want us to give with an angry or selfish heart or even a heart that is resigned to saying, “OK, since you asked, I’ll do it.” He wants us to give freely. And we can do this when we understand, again, that it is all truly his. If it all belongs to him, if he is the owner and we are the steward, we should be grateful and amazed that we can keep any of it! God could easily demand every bit of money we earn; that would be his right as the owner.
So our giving is to be free. Even though we are told to give, we are to give freely and not under compulsion. We are to give cheerfully. That verse wraps up with saying, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Christmas is fast coming and perhaps that gives us the opportunity to think about the way we give. Would you want your friend to bring you a Christmas gift and say, “I felt like I had to get you something, so here it is.” Of course not. If you are given a gift, you want that gift to reflect a cheerful and willing heart. And that is how the Lord expects that we will give to him.
That is the answer to our second question: how are we to give? We are to give willingly and cheerfully and as an act of worship. Tomorrow I’ll ask and answer two more questions: Where am I go to give?, and How much am I to give?