A Practice of Giving
February 19, 2006
Last Lord’s Day we took the time to reflect on the history of giving. We found out that the history of the people of God in the scriptures is really a long story of giving. We have discovered that there is so much likeness to the heart of our heavenly Father in the idea of giving of our time or our talent or even our treasure in the effort to bless other people as the Lord has done. I suppose it is no surprise when you stop and think about it that the practice of giving, though, has had a good bit of controversy and difficulty attached to it. It is no wonder, is it, that if something is so much like the heart of God, our enemy will do everything he can to distort it. And it is surprise when you think about it that there have been things attached to giving that have been more of an embarrassment to Christianity than anything else. There are a lot of people who have a bad taste about something which is so close to the heart of God because of some of these practices.
Problems With Giving
I thought it might be helpful for us to take the time to investigate, then, some of the problems that have been associated with the practice of giving. I want you to know I will be giving you the statement that summarizes each of these ideas after we have discussed the idea.
Giving must be a real expression of life!
What have been the difficulties of the practice of giving? The first of these is the problem of failing to really attach giving to life. In other words, not having giving as a genuine expression of what really is going on in the life of the giver makes giving a sort of substitute for devoted obedience to God or a substitute for compassion toward people. A part of what I mean by this can be seen in something Isaiah said in the very first chapter of this great book. Beginning at verse 11, God speaking to the people says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” Notice here that all of these are expressions of their giving that God doesn’t accept. Why doesn’t he accept it? He says, “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations (celebrations of the people of Israel at the time associated with the offering of giving) – I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
When I read that, I remember that as hard as giving may be sometimes for us, it is still easier than a lot of other things. Giving something when people assemble on the first day of the week is easier than ceasing to do evil and learning to do good. It is not as difficult as seeking justice or correcting oppression. There is not as much personal involvement in service in it as there would be in bringing justice to the fatherless or pleading the widow’s cause. There seems to be especially two flaws in attaching giving to life that were prominent in the efforts of people in Old Testament days. One of them was wanting to give but not wanting to obey God in every day life. In I Samuel 15:22, there is a reflection of this in the life of King Saul. He had decided that what God said about offering of sacrifices and how it was to be done was not nearly as important as just the doing of it. And so, for convenience sake, he decided to take things in his own hands. God said to him, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” In other words, giving is no substitute for obedience to God.
On the other hand, the same general principle applied to treatment of other people, and especially an expression of steadfast love or a merciful spirit toward other people. In Hosea 6:6 the statement made by the prophet was that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. And so one problem with giving that we have to be careful to avoid is that type of thinking which wants to just put something in the offering basket when it is passed without that really having anything to do with what is going on in our lives. And so the first point is that giving, real giving, Christian giving must be a real expression of life. The song we just sang talked about our giving ourselves, our living our lives. That is supposed to be what giving is all about. It is remarkable to me as I study through this how few of these problems really have to do with the amount. It is really about life.
Giving leaves a high impression of God!
The second principle that I notice in reading through the Old Testament especially is that people who give tend to have the problem of leaving a wrong impression of God while they give – making God into a beggar who is dependent on what we can do for him instead of recognizing him as the great giver who is to be gratefully honored. Sometimes in our zeal to maybe raise the funds for what we would like to do in our work, we make it out that God needs what we bring to him so badly. Wayne Jackson pointed out in something that he wrote that “almighty God, being entirely self-sufficient, requires no gift from frail humanity to sustain him in any way.” That is an important principle to bear in mind. In Psalm 50:7-15, the psalmist strikes this very same note. He says, “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” To translate it into our language he would be saying, “Do I depend upon what is in the basket? Do I have to have that to be God?” And then he says, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
When Paul stood on Mars Hill speaking to the pagan philosophers who were present that day, he found it necessary to make this point, too. In Acts 17:24-25 we read, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Whatever else may be true, then, in our giving it is not because God needs it but because God is God.
Will Campbell in his book, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” told about his grandma Betty. Grandma Betty had a certain infectious, unique spirit about her. Mr. Campbell says that the Christmas of 1933, in Grandma Betty’s estimation, was the best of all. Her prize gift that year was a flannel bathrobe. And Campbell wrote about his grandmother these lines. He said, “And she wore the flannel bathrobe to church the very first Sunday after Christmas because it was the prettiest thing she had ever seen and the Lord deserved the best.” You think about that! What is the best in God’s eyes? It is what places him in the position of which he truly occupies and which he is really worthy. Real giving leaves a high impression of God. It doesn’t belittle him or embarrass him, but it leaves a high impression of God.
Song: “Great is Thy Faithfulness”
Giving is a privilege deserving the best!
The third problem with giving that we read in scripture is the practice of approaching giving as a burdensome duty, in other words, making it a matter of requirement which should be met with a minimum inconvenience to self and thus offering God the leftover, the blemish, the what we didn’t need anyhow type of thing. I noticed something that Jack Harriman wrote when he said, “I do not want any gifts that are not freely given, do you?” Think about that! Probably not. If you have to insist and you have to force someone to do it, you probably don’t. Then Jack observed, “Neither does the Lord.” When you read the prophets especially in the Old Testament, this is the problem about giving that they most often addressed. Malachi, for example, in Malachi 1, beginning at verse 6 says, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? Says the Lord of hosts to you. O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? Says the Lord of hosts.” You might think, “Well, I didn’t bring any blind or lame animals this morning. It doesn’t apply to me.” But you see what he is saying. The lame and the blind is what was no good to you anyhow or what you couldn’t use anyhow, and you didn’t need or want. That is the problem that the prophet is bringing up. In verses 13 and 14 he says, “But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.” There is a little bit of that previous idea of raising the impression of God in this. But there is also the thought that real giving can’t be done by bringing what we didn’t want or have no use for anyhow. Real giving involves a readiness II Cor. 8:12 says. Where the readiness is present, God doesn’t focus so much on what the man has or doesn’t have, but the readiness of that fellow’s heart is precious. In II Cor. 9:7, you will remember that giving doesn’t take place under compulsion. It was not like a tax levied where people are forced to pay it, but it is voluntary and free.
Norma brought me a little article that I thought might illustrate this point. “Two wealthy Christians, a lawyer and a businessman, joined a group that was traveling the world, and they were in the country of Korea. In Korea, they saw beside a road a boy pulling a crude plow in the field as the old man directed it through the rice paddy. The lawyer was amused and took a snapshot of the scene, and one of the group said, ‘That’s an odd site.’ Then the guide explained to them, ‘That’s the family of Chi Noui. When the church building was built, they were eager to give something, but they had no money. So they sold their only ox and gave the money to the church and this spring they are pulling the plow themselves.’ The lawyer and the businessman were silent for a few moments, and then the businessman said, ‘That must have been a real sacrifice.’ The missionary said, ‘They thought it was fortunate they had an ox to sell.’” It depends, you see, on how you look at things, doesn’t it? Approaching giving as a burdensome duty is not the giving that God is after. The third idea then is that real giving is a privilege deserving of the best. It is not a burden in force but a privilege.
Giving has a tone of humility!
Fourth, there is the problem of not really giving at all but spending in order to promote ourselves. That really is what happens a lot of times when giving gets twisted. It is not giving but spending to promote ourselves, making ourselves stand out or look spiritual through attention gained by what we give -giving not in humility but in pride. In Matthew 6:2-4, Jesus took up the problem of giving alms. Alms, oddly enough, are just things given to help people who were in dire need. Jesus took up the problem of giving alms but doing it so that and doing it in a way where you would gain everybody’s attention, where you had to have the headlines printed in the newspaper, “Bill gives $10 to help Job!” before you would do it. Or you would have to have the trumpet blown to gain attention, “Look what he is doing! Everybody look. Don’t miss this!” Jesus said if you give that way, then the attention of people is your reward. And then in Acts 5:1-4, there is a very serious illustration of this. Other people, notably Barnabas, were giving unselfishly and voluntarily and willingly to be a blessing to the church as it struggled in those days. And so Ananias and Sapphira decided it would be nice to have that kind of admiration. When the apostles had renamed Joseph, Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, the temptation was too great. Ananias and Sapphira sold something that they had and came and told the apostles, “We are giving you the whole proceeds of this sale.” Peter pointed out later that Ananias and Sapphira would have been well within their rights if they had wanted to sell it and bring 5 or 10 percent or half or whatever they wanted to do and give it. It was their choice. It was in their hands. But in order to look a certain way to other people, they brought part of it and said, “This is all of it.” The motive was not to give but to get attention and notoriety and standing for themselves. They had lied to God in the process, and you remember that it costs them. Real giving has a tone of humility to it.
Giving is about serving!
Fifth, there is the problem in giving of not serving, but taking advantage of people through giving. In Mark 12 there is a picture of what I am getting at here. Using the process of giving as a burden which is aimed at taking what people have instead of setting before them an opportunity to be a blessing. Jesus talks to the Pharisees and scribes and others who were with them in Mark 12 and he tells people to “beware of these who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at feast, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Here is using giving to devour widows’ houses. What is interesting about this is that it turns right around in the very next verse and says, “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” What’s the difference between them devouring widows’ houses and Jesus commending this poor widow who put in everything? One used it as a master to put a burden on people. The other one commended humble service when he saw somebody take that opportunity.
There are five points about giving that are important for us. Giving has to be a real expression of life; it has to leave a high impression of God; it needs to be seen as a privilege deserving the best; it has a tone of humility; and real giving is about serving.
Maude Coggin of Montgomery, AL wrote a little piece for “Power for Today.” She said, “Many years ago my husband and I stood on the salt flats of the great Salt Lake in Utah looking out over that lifeless area. We were reminded of another body of water called the Dead Sea. What we saw that day was indeed a picture of death. Three rivers run into it, but none out. It receives but does not give.” Then she observed this, “This is a parable of our own lives when we take but do not give. We attend worship service and listen to the gospel proclaimed but all through the following week we might fail to tell anybody about good news. Jesus himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ Jesus pointed to a great universal law of life; self-love leads to death; self-denial leads to life. The Lord teaches us that we discover life as we lose our lives in the service of others. We receive only as we give, and we may find only as we lose ourselves in some cause greater than ourselves.” That says a lot about the role that giving plays in our lives. It needs to start with surrendering ourselves to the Lord. That is what happens when a person sees that Jesus gave himself for us, and that person comes to depend on that in repentance. He confesses that he believes that what Christ has done is enough. He is buried with Christ in baptism, and God raises him up to walk in newness of life. And then in that person’s life, giving becomes a reality because he believes in one who gave. If you would like to make that beginning this morning, can we help you with it? If so, let it be known right now while we stand and sing together.