Righteous Giving

dollar dollar coin y'allI feel like we throw a lot of money at church.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. Money and church is a huge, semi-complex issue to wrestle through. Right now, I’m just wondering why we give, why we take part in a weekly offering, why we “tithe”. It is a normative part of the church experience. I can’t think of one church that in some way doesn’t ask members of the congregation to give so that the church gatherings can continue week after week, so that the staff can be compensated for their time and effort, and so that the congregation can in turn be part of missional efforts/social justice causes locally and worldwide.

Again it’s not that giving is it’s self a bad thing… but over all the christian church sucks at talking about giving in a healthy way. When we talk about giving and fail to paint a healthy picture, we end up planting wrong motives in ourselves. Our hands may in fact be doing good, but our hearts… our hearts can be full of pride, greed, and sick with sin even as we fill the offering plate. On the other hand, maybe we have a picture of giving as an obligation, a heavy requirement laid on us that we can hardly fulfill as we struggle to make ends meet. Maybe it’s just an annoyance. Maybe it’s a necessary evil. Maybe even as we give the sickness of sin is rooting deeper into our hearts because we have failed to paint a better picture of giving, a picture with Jesus at the center.

 

Malachi 3.8-10

One of the go to texts people use when talking about giving to the church is Malachi 3.8-10.

Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.

Malachi 3.8-10 (NRSV)

It seems straight forward enough: if you give correctly, God will give back to you and bless your socks off. You know, because god is all about you earning his favor and all about wanting to get you wealthy and comfortable. All it takes is a check every week, a specific percentage of your earnings, and BAM! Your set for the good life.

At least, that’s how we mostly talk about this verse.

Pulling this verse out of context and applying it to our weekly church giving ends up painting a distorted picture of God and our relationship with him. We end up believing the lie that God’s holding a ledger of our activities, and he hold’s back the good stuff until we can prove to him that we are committed enough to faithfully give (or do, or say, or etc…). We paint a picture of God that looks more like a Scientology leader or cult guru than the God who is love.

Ok, so lets just lay this out: this verse is talking about tithing as part of the Jewish law God gave at Mt Sinai (see the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy).  However, the point of the passage isn’t about the importance of people giving to the temple. The point of these verses is contrasting Israels constant unfaithfulness to the covenant (law) and God’s never-failing faithfulness to his promise of salvation through the covenant.

The book of Malachi should be read as a whole, but even if we start back at the beginning of chapter 3 the image that is painted is far different from simply talking about offerings. It is an image of God taking the nation of Israel (the people of God) to task for not believing him and his promise of salvation. When God is talking about them bringing in their tithe, he is talking about them fulfilling the covenant law that gives them both their identity and their mission. The storehouses that were to be full, those were to be nourishment for the priests (who had no land, livestock, or other work and had committed their entire life to serve the people of God by working, sacrificing  and caring for the temple) as well as provisions for the poor, the widows, the orphans,  and the refugees. God talks of Israel being blessed so that they in turn can bless other nations, being a light to the world to show off who God himself actually is and to invite all to come, believe, and take part of his salvation. Israel has given nothing more than lip service to the covenant with God… yet God says he is still faithful to his promise. Therefore, he is going to send a messenger to announce the coming of the Lord. This is fulfilled in John the baptist announcing Jesus’ coming . Jesus (God himself) is God’s fulfillment of the covenant. Jesus is everything Israel couldn’t be: the light of the world to show off who God is that all may believe and find life, salvation, and blessing (as opposed to the curse of sin).

Painting a better picture

The reality of this passage is far different from the usual preaching to encourage faithful, weekly giving in church. While these verses may be misrepresented and abused, they do give us a start to a better picture about giving.

Just in cast it wasn’t clear: I utterly reject the idea that somehow our giving gets us some special blessing from God. That idea is antithetical to the nature of God laid out in the Bible and to the gospel it’s self. I also reject the idea that we give so the church(es) can be big, shiny and a showcase of riches to attract people to its beauty. I also utterly disagree with the idea that we give to church so that the church can care for the poor and destitute.

Here’s what I hear this passage saying to us in the 21st century: The way we do life, the priorities we have, the investments we make should all be different from the cultural normal. Money isn’t the most important thing, but what we do with it reveals the motivations, priorities, and love of our heart.

So, what is your money saying about you?

Are you expecting God to bless you and make you rich with a good life?

Are you striving to use your resources to give you power and social standing?

Are you too unconcerned with your neighbor to use your money to help them, choosing instead to let an organization do the work for you?

In chapter 4 of Malachi, God says this:

 See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

Malachi 4.1-2

The real blessings of God aren’t about the almighty dollar: it’s about healing. God wants to make us whole, to divorce us from the petty things that we cling to and idolize. God wants our hearts centered on Jesus, because Jesus is the fulfillment of all that God promises in this passage, indeed in  all of scripture. Jesus is our promised healing, and he has risen.

So what if our giving wasn’t about church organizations? What if it wasn’t about guilt or being a good christian? What if giving was simply us using our money, time, resources in loving ways to invite others to believe the promise of salvation that is embodied in Jesus.

Wouldn’t that lead to a better Christianity?

  • Hmm, this post certainly is provocative. I have to give you points for that: I love a provocative piece of writing 🙂

    I love the fact that in wrestling with this passage you did the responsible thing, the wise thing, the right thing, the thing that won’t automatically make you wrong, and the thing most people manage to miss doing: you looked at the context! I can sense how it drove you instinctively away from shallow, consumeristic, legalistic, and misguided understanding to one that incorporates who God is, the nature of his story, and how he reveals himself to and through humanity.

    I think I’m basically on board with everything until “Painting a better picture.” Not that I disagree with everything from that point on, but it makes me say, “Hmm,” as I did at the beginning of this comment.

    This is gold: “The real blessings of God aren’t about the almighty dollar: it’s about healing. God wants to make us whole, to divorce us from the petty things that we cling to and idolize. God wants our hearts centered on Jesus, because Jesus is the fulfillment of all that God promises in this passage, indeed in all of scripture. Jesus is our promised healing, and he has risen.”

    This makes me scratch my head: “I also utterly disagree with the idea that we give to church so that the church can care for the poor and destitute.”

    This too: “So what if our giving wasn’t about church organizations? What if it wasn’t about guilt or being a good christian? What if giving was simply us using our money, time, resources in loving ways to invite others to believe the promise of salvation that is embodied in Jesus.”

    I will start with the first first. Can you clarify/expand? Are you simply saying that is not the primary or essential reason to give to church?

    As for the second, I am not sure how to answer those questions in light of what you have presented. Blessing is about healing and about Jesus. So what does that mean for giving to church? How does it heal? How does it connect us with Jesus? I could, of course, come up with some answers, but they might end up being tied to some of the more traditional lines like, “we need to give to support the continued work of the ministry” or “we give to provide for the missional efforts of the church” and similar tack.

    Again, I don’t think you’re wrong, just that I am not sure I am totally on track even with what you’re thinking. Also, I think fundamentally, your thoughts here are right on. I might benefit from more of them.

    • Brandon, thanks for your input.

      I left some of those questions vague for a reason. My idea behind this post was more about challenging people to think about *why*we give, not necessary if we should give or not. I’m going to be addressing some of these things with other posts along the way. I do want to touch on a few thing you brought up though.

      When I said, “I also utterly disagree with the idea that we give to church so that the church can care for the poor and destitute.” my thinking was this: It’snot the church as an organization or non-profit institution that should be caring for those who need it. It’s the church as a group of people that should be caring for the widow and the orphan, the poor and the destitute. perhaps a better phrasing of the statement would be this: I believe that it’s wrong to claim you are caring for the poor simply because you donate money to an organization that is involved in some programs. In other words, you and me need to get our hands dirty. This may mean that we (even on a congregational level) pool our financial resources together and do something with those funds, but simply “giving” does not replace the actual action of loving your neighbor.

      In that context (personal responsibility to live out the love we are learning), when I said, “So what if our giving wasn’t about church organizations? What if it wasn’t about guilt or being a good christian? What if giving was simply us using our money, time, resources in loving ways to invite others to believe the promise of salvation that is embodied in Jesus.” I was really trying to get at motives, attempting to make people scratch their heads and ponder *why* giving matters.

      What if we didn’t give because o? “white guilt” or because of pressure from other Christians to keep the church going? What if sermons about tithing stopped laying a burden on the congregation to support an institution? What if we stopped talking like God is more pleased with our faith, hope, and attempts to love when we give? What if instead, we saw our personal and communal chances to use what we have in reckless ways to care for the needy, encourage the down trodden, and to share the reasons we have for the hope beating in our bones? What would that do to the way we give, the idea of what we give, and (most of all) what kind of picture of the kingdom would the local church become?

      I’ll admit, I framed most of this post to poke at our idea of tithing. Sometimes I think we need to not be told what to think about it, but rather just sit with the “what if’s?”

      As I said, I’ll be returning to this topic soon. i think it’s more important to our hearts and our idea of Christianity that we think.

  • Michelle Woodman

    Some very interesting thoughts here, Aaron, and as Brandon said this is a provocative piece of writing and you went into the context of the passage in Malachi, which not everyone would (or does) take the time to do.

    My husband and I tithe and give offerings. Do we do so expecting to receive some sort of a financial benefit? Yes, we do. But that is not our primary reason. Our main goal in doing so is to keep God first in all things, even our finances. We don’t want to hold tightly to our temporary, material things and tithing and offering helps us to keep a proper hold on these things which are passing in nature.

    We’re not rolling in money like Scrooge McDuck, nor do we expect to be. God’s not our sugar daddy. But He has provided for us in one way or another many times because, we believe, we do tithe and try to do so with the best heart attitude that we can. And we have, in turn, been able to help others. Recently we were able to help our church bring in enough food stuffs for the local food bank to do up 600 food hampers for one month. And we’re not the biggest of churches numerically speaking.

    I know — I’m not backing all this up with Scripture. I’m simply sharing (albeit briefly) from my own experience as someone who has tithed for almost 20 years and seen the benefits of it.

    • Michelle, thank you for sharing your own experience.I really appreciate you adding your story to this conversation.

      I love how clear it is that your motivation for tithing is from obedience to God *and* a desire to serve other people. That is fantastic! My reason for writing this post was to talk more about motivations for giving rather than debate “should we tithe?”

      I’ll be honest, I have seen god take care of my family in crazy ways. However, I’m not convinced it’s due to faithful offerings. I think it has more to do with, well, People like you Michelle. people who make up the congregation who care for others, who see a need and want to help. People who pool their finances together to have resources to get in and do things that are good, things that point to the kingdom of God breaking in to our now even as we wait for the fullness of Jesus’ return.

      600 food hampers in a month?!?!?! Crazy awesome! Seriously, praise god from whom all blessings flow!

      I’m going to be talking about some other things in relation to this topic. I hope you’ll keep sharing your thoughts and stories.

  • I love what you wrote here:

    Here’s what I hear this passage saying to us in the 21st century: The way we do life, the priorities we have, the investments we make should all be different from the cultural normal. Money isn’t the most important thing, but what we do with it reveals the motivations, priorities, and love of our heart.So, what is your money saying about you?Are you expecting God to bless you and make you rich with a good life?Are you striving to use your resources to give you power and social standing?Are you too unconcerned with your neighbor to use your money to help them, choosing instead to let an organization do the work for you?

    So convicting.It is so much easier to just write a check and let someone else serve the needy. I’d rather go shopping.
    Thanks for this post, Aaron, and for the thoughtful study you put into it. I have never heard this passage from Malachi put this way. It seems that every sermon I’ve ever heard on this was the standard offering-plea of give so God can give to you. I think some call this the prosperity gospel and it totally sucks. Imagine giving that kind of message at a refuge camp in the Sudan?


    • Imagine giving that kind of message at a refuge camp in the Sudan?

      Woah. That question.

      Your right though. We do let the idea of prosperity as the blessing of God seep in and twist our gospel until there is nothing left of Jesus in it. The Americian dream must not become our hope, because it’s not the light of the world. Jesus is.

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