How you can give away lots of money (and be happy about it)
What is a distinctively Christian approach to giving? How should we give, and to what should we give? You will be reading this piece just after the close of the “financial year,” so-called.
In days of yore, in more agricultural societies, they had the harvest festival in autumn to signal an opportunity to give thanks to God for his material blessings.
In Australia, this festival has never taken on because the seasons are topsy-turvy, and our “harvest” season is at about Easter time, when the calendar is already quite crowded. And in any case, we are a highly urban society and we’ve managed to engineer nature to provide us with its produce all year round, pretty much.
So the EOFY is the opportunity presented to us by our bureaucratic, computerised civilisation for thinking about the goodness of God to us and about our own generosity.
Australians gave $12.5 billion to charities in 2015-16.
Now, of course, the not-for-profit sector knows this and has no doubt bombarded you with its materials in the month of June. Not a day goes past without another letter or email from another worthy cause. And it’s no wonder, because the not-for-profit dollar is big business: Australians gave $12.5 billion to charities in 2015-16. But with all that increasingly aggressive and persuasive targeting of the charitable dollar that might be lurking in your wallet or purse, it becomes very difficult to think clearly and positively about specifically Christian giving.
What’s more, in the NFP sector, they know how much we like our generosity to be acknowledged. We wear the red nose/coloured ribbon/gimmick to signal to others that we are virtuous. Corporations sponsor charities and causes not simply because they want to support those charities and causes but because they get the credit in the public eye for doing so.
I am not being cynical about these regimes of giving, but it is interesting to compare them with how Christians are to give as is outlined in the New Testament.
God gives sacrificially. He gives freely and not from compulsion. And he gives cheerfully.
Christians learn how to give from the God who gives. And how does God give? He gives sacrificially. He gives freely and not from compulsion. And he gives cheerfully.
The cross of Jesus Christ is where we see this demonstrated for us. Paul makes this point in his great piece on giving in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a wage that God pays to those who have earnt it. It flows from him with rich and free generosity. In Christ, God pays to excess for us. We are blessed in abundance in Christ.
In Jesus Christ we receive what we need and more. We have become rich. Now, that’s not literally rich in material terms necessarily, but there’s something about the Christian mentality that is governed by this feeling of having been richly blessed. We are those who operate from a philosophy of abundance rather than scarcity. We see our earthly possessions in the context of our abundance in Christ.
It is simply wrong for churches to demand that their members give a certain amount.
That’s why Paul says “God loves a cheerful giver.” Cheerful, and not reluctant, giving comes from the feeling of having been richly blessed by God in every way.
This is why it is simply wrong for churches to demand that their members give a certain amount. Whatever we do in churches to encourage the giving of our members, we should be emphasising the freedom that Christians have to give. Thinking that I’ve met my obligations by contributing a dollar amount or a percentage of my income is contrary to the gospel of free grace.
How then do I figure out how much to give?
Christian giving is actually a spiritual exercise. We need first to reflect on how much we’ve been given in Christ, in material and non-material ways. How blessed we are! How much I give is a reflection then of how much I have received. I think it is a useful practice to be deliberate in thinking about how your material needs have been met each year, and then to adjust your giving on that basis.
When we consider the needs of the world, we need to consider the spiritual need as a priority over the physical need.
Electronic giving allows you to be considered about your giving and also means that you are not restricted to the cash you feel comfortable carrying. It saves you a trip to the ATM! It also enables your church or para-church organisation to plan its budget more accurately; and when you are away from church, you still give. Also, when you receive a windfall from an inheritance or from the sale of a property, why not consider part of the windfall an opportunity to bless others with a windfall?
It’s then a matter of considering the need and the vision that I have opportunity to support. There’s a difference between the blessings that I have in Christ and the needs of the lost and fractured world. What I do with my giving is to address that gap.
And here’s a crucial consideration for Christian givers: when we consider the needs of the world, we need to consider the spiritual need as a priority over the physical need.
What people really, most deeply need is not bread alone but the word of God.
Let me put it this way: what people really, most deeply need is not bread alone but the word of God. And, what is more: the gospel of Jesus Christ will transform communities and societies so that their material needs are met.
There’s a great article by the atheist journalist Matthew Parris from several years ago entitled As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God. Parris could see what was really making a difference, in Malawi, one of the poorest countries on earth. It wasn’t aid. It was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Converted people are nation builders. They are interested in rooting out corruption and in serving their communities. They have a vision of hope and are realistic about the human tendency to sin. If you want to change the world, give to the ministry of the gospel – the ministry that changes hearts by the proclamation of the word of God.
We also have a responsibility as members of local churches to pay for the ministry we receive. Paul makes that clear in a number of passages – even as he sometimes refused to accept financial support and worked to support himself. Of course, ministers are not to be “in it for the money.” Rather, their stipends are there to make sure they can focus on the job they have to do. Some churches think it is a virtue to pay their ministers almost nothing. Others think it is fantastic to have a super-salaried pastor. Neither of these approaches reflects the biblical principle.
Christians punch above their weight in looking after the community’s poor.
Christian givers are more likely than others to give to all kinds of charities and causes, and who could complain about that? But Christians are those who see a particular need that others don’t see – the need for people to hear the saving and healing words of the gospel of free grace. This is why our priority for giving should be to build our local churches, as this is the way in which God changes communities and societies, and to send the gospel around the globe.
This is an act of faith because we are not giving to the tangible physical outcomes of buildings or social programmes but towards the invisible but eternal reality of the kingdom of God. But, as Christians, we believe that this heavenly reality is more lasting even than the solid stones of church buildings.
We should not, of course, neglect the poor and the destitute – and actually, Christians punch above their weight in looking after the community’s poor. But the New Testament tells us that we have a responsibility for the Christian poor. If those in our midst are not cared for, then how truly loving are we? If someone in our community – or a Christian further afield – is crying out for material help and we do not share what we have with them, how is the love of God in us?
I have no doubt, although I don’t have statistics to hand, that the fastest-growing and most mission-hearted and effective churches in Australia are supported by extremely generous financial donations.
That’s not to say that an increase in giving automatically means a more dynamic church. There’s a cycle between the vision that a church has for being a transformed community and the excitement that generates, and the fact that people want to contribute to a ministry that is achieving things, under God. If you are part of a church that has a vision to be used by God for growing authentic disciples of Jesus and reaching the lost, then you tend to give to it joyfully.
Australia could be won again for Christ. The churches of our nation need to be excited about the possibility of what God may do, commit to prayer, and then materially support that vision. This is not an onerous burden for us or an impossible task but a marvellous opportunity to share in the grace of God himself. What are we waiting for?
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books. If you would like to receive a daily devotional from Michael Jensen, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org