Malachi 3:6-12 “Children of the God Who Loves to Give” Pastor Jim Allison
Last month, we heard a message about the part that God wants money to have in our lives. Today, let’s look more specifically at supporting God’s work by giving money. A big part of that is giving to the organized church.
Before we get to the concrete teachings, let’s see them with the background of two larger truths. First, God is generous and wants His people to be generous. He tells us in Deuteronomy 15:10, “So give freely to those who are needy. Open your hearts to them. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all of your work. He will bless you in everything you do.” Second, everything we have already belongs to God. Our lives are in His hands. Even the ability to work is a gift, a sign of His love for us. So our starting point is not “I own this. I am entitled to it.” It is “Thank you, Heavenly Father.”
Beyond those basic ideas, the Lord teaches His people to give back to Him 10% of all He has given us. He says in Leviticus 27:30, “A tenth of everything the land produces belongs to me. That includes grain from the soil and fruit from the trees. It is holy. It is set apart for me.” Over and above that, He leads some people to give more. But His message to all His people is to return a tenth. So strictly speaking, we should say bring the tithe and give the offering. We can’t give what we don’t own, and for God’s people, that 10% is not ours but His. It is an important concrete sign that everything we have belongs to Him, and we trust Him to provide for our needs and do His good work through us. But it’s difficult to always separate tithing from giving offerings, so in today’s message I am going to saying giving to God’s work with both those meanings in mind.
Now we’ve seen some main teachings of God’s word, but what makes it so difficult to give? Syracuse University’s Arthur Brooks researched the attitudes about giving that people in the U.S. had. (Sorry for talking so much about my home country here. If you can find some good information on this topic from Japan, please tell me.) He found that the number one reason people report for why they don’t give is that they can’t. They would like to but aren’t able.
But, interestingly, the “I can’t afford to give” argument is used more by rich people than poor people, Brooks learned. We may think, “I could give more if I had more.” But according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, people who have more give a lower percentage than those who have less (see the chart on the screen).
The writers of a book, Passing the Plate, found another troubling truth in their research of U.S. churches. Some people would give if they could trust the church or other religious group to use the money well. Many churches use the money they receive much the same way that individuals and families use the money they get. That is, they spend almost all of it on themselves. Only about 3 percent of the money given to churches and other Christian groups goes to non-Christians, the researchers discovered. When I lived in Dallas, Texas, in the U.S., there was a church with a big chandelier in the front entrance. Another had an organ or piano that rose up from the floor when a button was pushed. I know there are reasons churches buy items like these, but I have to wonder if they are God’s reasons. How are our churches in Japan doing in this area? If we did a similar study here, how different do you think the results would be? It seems that we Christians don’t just need to get more money. Far more, we need to learn to spend the money we do have on what is most important.
These same researchers found one more key reason people don’t give very much. In many cases, they are not asked to give. Especially in churches organized like ours, with the members in effect paying the salaries of their staff, many pastors do not feel comfortable asking the members to give more. What’s more, pastors themselves often are not great models of tithing from the money they receive, the study found. So there seems to be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” silent agreement in many churches.
That may explain why there is so much money in the hands of Christians in the U.S. and so little of it actually goes to the work of the church. If you only count the Christians who say their faith means a lot to them and attend church at least twice a month, you still have a very rich group. By themselves, they could make up the world’s seventh largest economy. Yet the amount of money the church receives is far, far below the amount that it would be if each Christian gave 10% of his/her income. God does not ask us each to give the same amount of money, but making the same level of sacrifice seems to be a good goal for us. Yet the reality is that about 5% of American Christians provide 60% of the money churches and religious groups use to operate (Moll, p. 2). Again, how different do you think it is here in Japan?
Now we have seen some key teachings God gives us and the reality of difficulties we have in following them. Next let’s look at some questions people often have when thinking about this topic. First, God tells us in Corinthians 9:7, “You should each give what you have decided in your heart to give. You shouldn't give if you don't want to. You shouldn't give because you are forced to. God loves a cheerful giver.” So doesn’t that mean that giving is optional? We should give when we feel led to give, when we want to give, right?
Well, when you look at the whole Bible’s teachings about giving to God’s work, it is clear that He doesn’t put giving in the optional category. He does love a cheerful giver, just as He loves people who cheerfully drive carefully, take care of their children’s health, and pay their taxes. But that does not mean that it is OK with God if we drive carefully, care for our children, and pay taxes only when we feel a special leading to do so. If we don’t feel cheerful about these things, the answer is not to stop doing them until we feel cheerful about them again. In the same way, God knows our human weaknesses too well to teach us to base our obeying Him on the ups and downs of feelings.
Instead, He teaches us to give money in a planned, thoughtful way, in response to His leading. He does not teach us to give in a random way, and a church in the habit of giving regularly will probably not have a budget that swings wildly up and down from month to month.
What God wants for us is in line with the teachings Paul gave the churches in Corinth and Galatia (I Corinthians 16:1-2).
Now I want to deal with the offering of money for God's people. Do what I told the churches in Galatia to do. On the first day of every week, each of you should put some money away. The amount should be in keeping with how much money you make. Save the money so that you won't have to take up an offering when I come.
Another question: isn’t tithing a part of the Old Testament Law, from which grace has set us free? You shouldn’t give because you are required to give, should you? These questions are very important in your spiritual life, your relationship with God. Yes, legalism is a serious danger. It can kill true faith, whether it comes in connection with giving money or any other area of life. Whenever you come to think, “I’m better than others because I do good things like giving to the church (or worse than others because I don’t),” legalism is destroying your faith. Whenever you believe that God loves you more if you give a lot of money to the church (and less if you don’t), you are walking away from faith and walking toward legalistic religion. If you think your giving money to the church gives you a bigger voice than others’ in deciding what the church does, you are living by the Law and not by faith. As Keiji-sensei used to tell us, once you give an offering, it is given. You can’t keep control over it.
But to God tithing was never meant to be done legalistically. It has always been about the heart and His people’s relationship to Him. Tithing began before the Law was given, before the nation of Israel was founded. The principle is there in Genesis 4:2-3 in the story Cain and Abel. As Pastor Sasaki told us recently, God taught us to be like Abel, who gave to God first, not like Cain, who gave God his leftovers.
You may hear someone say that Old Testament tithing was there to support the system of animal sacrifices, paying for all those animals who were constantly killed and burned as offerings. Jesus’ death on the cross was the sacrifice that took the place of the old system, so we do not need to obey the teachings on tithing any longer, according to this idea.
Yet the tithing system was there for far more than animal sacrifices, and Jesus Himself clearly teaches tithing in the New Testament. Think of the story beginning in Matthew 23:23. Christ speaks harshly of people who were very, very careful in tithing—they even gave a tenth of their spices—but they acted like they weren’t interested in justice. Jesus told them they shouldn’t be choosing between tithing and treating people justly. Treating God with respect and people with respect should go together, like hand and glove. So Jesus here is clearly teaching people to tithe. Even more to the heart of Jesus’ message is John 3:16, where He tells us that God so loved the world He gave . . . . This is not legalism but heart-felt love that leads to giving. That is God’s way, and He wants it to be our way.
Next question: I give my time (or work, tools, etc.), so I don’t need to tithe my money, right? Well, there is some wisdom hidden inside this question. Even if we have no money to give, we probably do have a number of valuable things we can give. And they can all be wonderful expressions of faith in God, precious in His sight. But God does tell us to give from whatever money we receive. So exchanging something for the money He teaches us to return to Him is not really an option if our purpose is to obey Him.
You may have wondered before, Should I tithe on my gross income or net income? There’s a big hint inside the words of God’s promise in Malachi 3:10. “Bring the entire tenth to the storerooms in my temple. Then there will be plenty of food. Put me to the test,” says the Lord. “Then you will see that I will throw open the windows of heaven. I will pour out so many blessings that you will not have enough room for them.” That is an amazingly bold promise. But God makes it. Normally, testing God is not a good idea. Jesus told the Devil so when he was tempting the Lord to sin in the desert. But in this one case, God decides to show His people something important, so He tells us to test Him. He will prove His goodness to His people by blessing us. So do you want God to bless your gross income or your net income? That question will guide you to the better answer.
Should I tithe when I am in debt? Honestly, I cannot speak with a lot of confidence to this question. My roommate got into credit card debt once. He told me he was praying for the Lord to help him get out of that situation, and he was giving to the church as a sign of trust in God. I didn’t try to give him advice, but I remember wondering if that was a good idea. When Christians delay repaying the money we promise to give back, the picture of Christian faith that it gives to non-believers can be a poor one. On the other hand, some have said that when you are in debt is the time you need the most to obey God by giving to His work. Making sure that you are in His will is the best way to receive His blessings, and that often can lead you out of debt. So the best guidance I can give is to pray. God may not lead us all to do the same thing in every case in this area. But He will find a way to lead you if you are truly seeking to follow Him.
There is another difficult matter to consider. How much money is enough to give the church? So far we have thought about this mainly as a question for individuals or individual families. But how about the church as a whole? If we are not “in the red,” are we then OK to think that the church doesn’t need any more tithes or offerings? Well, no. On the other extreme, are we giving enough only if no one in the world is poor or in need? Again, no. God is not only looking at what percentage of the plans we made in the past year we are reaching now. He is also looking at how much the people around us need and how much He could do through us if we were willing to trust Him completely. We may often scale down His work and never begin many projects that He would like us to do, then claim a victory if we meet the tiny goals we have set for ourselves. But our God dreams big, and He is neither poor nor stingy. He calls us to join Him in His great work, and He will give us the resources we need to do it, as we trust Him to do so. How might He be leading us now in ways we have never been willing or able to imagine? Let’s each take that question to Bible Discussion, then home to pray and talk about further in the days ahead.
You might be hearing all this and asking, “What happens if I don’t give?” In Malachi 3:9 God uses strong language to people who refuse to give back to Him even a tenth of the things He gives us. He says, “So you are under my curse. In fact, your whole nation is under it. That is because you are robbing me.” The word curse does not mean God is going to put a magic spell on you like Harry Potter might. Much more, it means actions have results. A life of free giving and receiving builds strong relationships which enable people to support each other as God supports us. On the other hand, when we cut off giving, we cut off the flow of support between God, us, and each other.
Last question: what if I understand but feel afraid to obey this teaching? Again, if you don’t, He will never love you less than He does right now, that is, perfectly and completely. Nothing you fail to understand or do can make you less of a prized and loved member of God’s family. That is God’s amazing grace. But we answer this question by looking again to God’s challenge in Malachi 3:10. “Put me to the test,” says the Lord. “Then you will see that I will throw open the windows of heaven.” God knows this is difficult for us. So He goes out of His way to make it clear. He does not ask us to make a blind leap in the dark without knowing His character, His heart, and the stories of many others who have trusted Him to guide their finances. His leading will become clear enough to us as we put His teachings into practice.
Some churches show this by making a promise: if you give 10% of your income for three months and you are not satisfied with the results, just tell us so, and you will receive your money back, no questions asked. Many people have reported this as the beginning of great growth in their life as a whole, especially their relationship with God. Do you think that would be a good idea for us to try at Open Door?
Here is another approach we might be led to take. Many money experts give the advice that you should have money for savings and retirement taken directly out of your salary, not after you have it in your hands. That is because these are very important parts of your financial life and need a special place in it. So why not do the same with your giving to God’s work, which is even more important? How about arranging to have 10% taken directly out of your salary? What plusses or minuses do you see with that? Again, this is our assignment for Bible Discussion, then prayer and thought at home, then more discussion.
Now, as we arrive at the end of today’s message, let’s hear once more the voice of Christ. In John 12:24, He says, “What I'm about to tell you is true. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only one seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Without the teachings we have heard today, we may think of using our money as a simple matter of gaining and losing. We don’t want to lose it, so we keep it instead of giving it. But Christ has a whole different view of money. He shifts from (1) gaining and losing to (2) planting and harvesting. When we place our money and all we have in His hands, He will multiply its effects and use it for things far greater than our possessions could give us if we kept them for ourselves.
After hearing today’s talk about giving, I hope you are thinking about what God wants you to do in this part of your life. If He is leading you to commit or re-commit your choices about your money to His control, I hope you will do that. I pray that you will arrange your spending and giving in line with that decision. Please don’t make a decision out of pressure or if you don’t understand it well enough. But I hope you will do all that God is telling you in your heart to do. Let’s pray.
Lord, thank you for being so generous with us. You have given us life itself and through your Son the forgiveness of our sins and hope for life forever with you, not to mention the safety, food, friends, and so many things we enjoy from day to day. Help us to learn to be generous, too, Father. Make us able to love deeply and trust you boldly. Help us place all parts of our lives, including our finances, in your hands. In that way, may we learn by depending on you daily how trustworthy and reliable you are. In Christ’s name, amen.
Brooks, A. (2006). Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. New York: Basic Books.
Moll, R. (December 5, 2008). “Scrooge Lives!” Christianity Today. Retrieved May 4, 2015 from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/ december/10.24.html
Ortberg, J. (October 19, 2014). “Live to Give: The Test.” Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Menlo Park, California, U.S.A. Retrieved July 5, 2015 from http://mppc.org/sermons/live-give-test
Palmer, S. (October 5, 2014). “As Wealthy Give Smaller Share of Income to Charity, Middle Class Digs Deeper.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Washington, DC. Retrieved July 15, 2015 from https://philanthropy.com/article/As-Wealthy-Give-Smaller-Share/152 481
Pender, K. (October 7, 2014). “Bay Area ranks near bottom in charitable giving, report says.” The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 14, 2015 from http://www.sfgate.com/business/networth/article/Bay-Area- ranks- near-bottom-in-charitable-giving-5805194.php
Smith, C., Emerson, M., and Snell, P. (2008). Passing the Plate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.