OK, assuming that we reject (at least part of) the tithing literalists’ interpretation of Scripture, how do we approach A) Malachi 3:6-12, B) Tithing, and C) Giving?
First, I bring us back to what I call the Principle/Application motif. This means that God’s principles are timeless and thus applicable to all of God’s people everywhere and at all times: Before the cross or after it, in all societies and cultures, and until we enter glory (and really not ending even then). But the application of those principles might (and probably do) change over time. A lot of what we read in the Torah are applications which are particular to that time and place in ancient Israel. To interpret this correctly, we need to discern the principles behind the applications, and thus apply these principles to our current situation.
Here’s a principle for you: God owns everything, you ultimately own nothing. Everything you supposedly “own,” including your body, mind, and eternal soul, is on loan from the Almighty. One day you will have to return this to him, and he'll hold you accountable for how you used his property.
Here’s another one: Because of what we just stated, if God tells you to give X to him and you don’t give X, then you are robbing God, just like he says in Malachi. And if X was everything you own in wealth and your own body and soul, he'd only be demanding what already belongs to him. At best, we’re all “unworthy servants” who’ve only “given” to the Lord what belongs to him anyway.
And here’s one more: Even though we owe him everything and he owes us nothing, if he demands X of us and we give it, he'll not only “pay us back” for it, he’ll give us much more than we've ever given him. As someone once told me—and please excuse the slight lack of theological meticulousness with this quote—“God will, in the end, be a debtor to no man.” In that sense, vss. 10-12 are entirely applicable. But I have to say, I don't take those verses to mean that if I’m faithful in my giving, he'll financially bless me out of all proportion to what I give. I do believe that he will take care of all my needs. But make me fabulously wealthy? For the reasons I stated yesterday, this really smacks of the “Health and Wealth Gospel” heresy.
But let me be clear. You know my favorite aphorism: No one who did things God’s way ever regretted it in the end. If I give generously to his work (and I’d include charity to the needy here), then he'll either bless me financially (way out of proportion to my giving), or he'll bless me in a much better way. Based on Jesus’ words about “storing treasures in Heaven,” I think I’d rather have the latter.
And that leads us to the inevitable question: “Keith, do you believe Christians are still under the tithe system? Are they obligated to give a tithe off their gross to the local church?”
First, the short answer: “No.”
Next I’ll give you the long answer: “No, but when I finish, you’ll wish I had said ‘yes.’”
Here’s my argument, which of course isn’t original with me: Under the Old Covenant, with all its incompleteness, they were obligated to give a tithe off the gross to God’s work. Now, how does the New Covenant compare with the Old? Is the New one better? Are the blessings better? If so, by how much? A little or a lot?
My friend, you know the answer to these questions, and you can probably guess where I’m going with all this. If we under the New Covenant are blessed so much more than those under the Old Covenant, are you saying we can give less to our Redeemer than they did? Let me say a word of love to anyone who’s not a brand-new Christian. If you’re new to the faith and are struggling to give more than 1-2%, I tend to go easy on you. But if you’ve been a believer for some time and all you’re giving—on a regular basis—to God’s work is 10% (either gross or net), I have to ask (with love) “How dare you?!” He’s given you so much, and you’re giving him the same amount as an ignorant Old Testament believer? Really?
But I’d prefer to keep this positive. I think much of spiritual maturity—moving from an infant Christian to a more mature believer—is to move from obligations and rule-keeping and threats to seeing our giving to the Lord as a privilege more than an obligation. He doesn’t need your money, you know. But he, in his grace, has given you the opportunity to get in on his plan and make a contribution.
Let’s look at this from a worldly perspective. Let’s say I came to you and proposed the following: “I have a sure-fire investment opportunity. I have a start-up, and although I really don’t need your money, as a friend I’m offering you a chance to make a 10000% return on any money you give me.”
Now, in this world full of lying scammers, you’d probably throw me out on my ear. But if it were God making this offer, you’d listen right? He doesn’t lie. And please reread the above paragraph which starts with “But let me be clear.” If you invest in his work, he'll “pay you back” in dividends which make a 10000% return look like a poor deal by comparison.
That’s how I approach the area of giving. Yes, you owe him everything, and if he told you the same thing he told the rich young ruler, he’d only be claiming what belongs to him anyway. But how’s about getting past the notion of obligation and rule-keeping and moving towards maturity? Instead of asking “What percentage will keep God from getting angry at me?” we should be asking “How much can I invest in the Kingdom? I can give X%? Well, that’s ok, but I want to give more.” As Jim Elliot, a modern martyr for the faith, said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he can never lose.”
Once again, I apologize and ask for your forgiveness for the long post. This is something that’s really important to me, and I honestly couldn’t make it any more concise. And to those who still disagree with me on this, hopefully this won’t turn you off to the rest of what I have to say on everything else. Hopefully I’ve made the case that I’m by no means letting anybody off the hook regarding giving. If anything, I’m quite a bit rougher than those who say that we’re still under the tithing system.
He's given us so much. To say it’s better than we deserve is the grossest of understatements. And he offers still much more. Let’s take him up on his offer, shall we?
Father, I still struggle with a small, unbelieving, stingy, ungrateful heart, which shows up in my giving. Fill me with your Spirit, fill me with gratitude which shows up in tangible ways. Please.
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