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Tax Time Theology
February 21, 2007
I am quite a fan of sports, or certain sports at any rate. One thing that has always attracted me to sports, and baseball in particular, is the numbers. I can take a brief look at a list of players and immediately have a sense as to how they are doing. The sports pages always have these great lists of statistics, showing batting averages, on base percentages, numbers of hits, home runs, singles, doubles and runs batted in. Sorting those lists quickly allows the best players to rise to the top. Statistics has become such an art, such a science, that every aspect of the game can be boiled down to a number or a rating. Even the inevitable intangibles have been boiled down to numbers and percentages. The fact is that success in sports is easily measured, easily tabulated, and easily understood in simple numbers.
But sports is one of the few areas where this actually works. Back when I used to work in the corporate world I would have to undergo the annual process known as a “performance review.” I would be given a form which would guide me in rating myself in various areas. I had to determine if I was poor, below average, average, above average or excellent in my leadership skills, in performing the responsibilities of my job, in participating in teamwork, and on and on. I would then submit this form to my manager and he would walk me through the form he had filled out on my behalf. We would compare notes to see where his impressions of me were different from my impressions of myself. It was sometimes a helpful process, but there was something just a bit humiliating about it. There was something dehumanizing about boiling down a year’s worth of work into a number between one and five. There was little room for the unmeasurable skills, for the contributions that are not mentioned on the form or that are not easily measured. I hated performance reviews and am thankful that, because I am self-employed, I no longer have to endure them.
The success of a Christian life is difficult to measure. Occasionally I receive some kind of a test or assessment that seeks to lead me through my skills, gifting, abilities and so on. This assessment will apparently help me understand how I am doing as a Christian and what areas I need to work on. But, as with a corporate performance review, boiling down the Christian life to a list of numbers and ratings just doesn’t work. I can’t rate myself between one and five in areas like evangelism, personal devotions and church attendance. It just doesn’t work.
And yet there is one time in the year when I receive a numeric rating that helps me gauge my “performance” in at least one area. And at the same time of the year I receive a numeric rating that helps me see just how much God has blessed me. That time of the year is right now—it is tax time.
I dislike tax time almost as much as I dislike performance reviews. As a self-employed guy I know that I will never again experience the wonder of the tax refund. I owe money, and lots of money, to the government every April. Every spring I have to dig deep and come up with a year’s worth of income tax so I can pay the government what I owe. With Canadian taxes being what they are (this “free” health care we enjoy isn’t really anywhere near free as so many Canadians are reminded this time of year) this is never a small amount.
So while the very bottom line on a tax return (the “this is what you owe us” line) is often painful to me, the one immediately above that, the one that shows my income, is always a blessing. I typically cringe to see it because I know that the very bottom number is necessarily influenced by the one right above it. And yet I am always amazed at just how God has blessed us financially in the year that has just passed. Since Aileen and I have been married we have seen that number go up and down. But always it has been enough. Usually it has been more than enough. For just one brief moment I can see God’s providence through another year written plainly in black ink on that little line.
There is another line that is of equal importance. Further up in the form is the spot where I have to list the amount of money I have donated to eligible charitable organizations throughout the year. Through the first two months of the year, these organizations are responsible for sending tax receipts to anyone who has donated money and, as often as not, I am surprised when I receive these forms. I expect one from my church, but often forget other individuals and organizations I have supported through the year. I compile these little numbers and arrive at a bigger number. And then I compare this number to the number mentioned earlier, the one on the second line from the bottom. This may be a moment of humility and a moment of shame, especially if the one number is just the tiniest fraction of the other. Hopefully, however, it will again cause me to marvel at God’s goodness in providing for my family. Hopefully it will be a moment of holy humility as I see the hand of God’s provision. It may be a moment of joy as I see that God has continued to impress upon me the importance of being obedient to Him so that I understand the importance of giving regularly to His work. Not many unbelievers would be willing to give away ten percent of their income; not many would be able to. And yet, as Christians, we know that all we have is God’s and that He rewards faithfulness, consistently providing for those who return to Him the first fruits of their labor.
Of course numbers are not a thorough measure of our giving. They may tell how much we have given, but they cannot tell us about the spirit in which they have been given. God knows and judges our hearts, and He cannot be fooled by mere numbers. He expects that we give joyfully. Numbers look much the same whether they are grudging or joyful. But not to God. He knows.
Tax time is an awful time. It is mostly a thankless time. And yet we would be remiss if we did not use it as an opportunity to examine our hearts, to measure at least the quantity our gifts and offerings to God, and to see at least some measure of His faithfulness to us through another year. It more than offsets the pain of having to empty bank accounts to give to the government what they demand and deserve.