Note from the Editor: I hope that you are spending Thanksgiving Day interacting with people in a way that shows them that they matter to you. We post today not to distract from time with family, nor to distract from opportunities to serve and listen and learn. We do post for those who may be having a Blue Thanksgiving, or are far away from family and friends, or who find themselves with a moment to meditate on God’s goodness. Whether you offer a cold and broken hallelujah this Thanksgiving or revel in an abundance of joy, I pray God’s presence will be felt in your life today. ~ Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor, Wesleyan Accent
Jesus dealt with possessions in a radical way because he knew that our possessions too often possess us. It is a sign of our original sin that we are possessive. The unconverted self, the ego (by nature it seems) is in bondage to things, slavishly persistent in acquiring and keeping. So the discipline of generosity is essential for spiritual growth.
(For a scriptural survey, you are invited to explore passages like Genesis 4:3-7, Genesis 14:17-24, Genesis 28:10-22, and Malachi 3:6-10.)
The Practice of Generosity
Every spiritual discipline has its accompanying freedom. Generosity frees us from a raw possessive ego and also from our bondage to security in material things.
Albert Day in his book Discipline and Discovery gives a kind of catalogue of the characteristics of the ego when left to itself:
• It is persistent in acquiring and in keeping
• It has to be taught to give
• It is possessive
“Mine” is its dearest adjective. “Keep” is its most beloved verb! As Day notes: “Because of this possessiveness of the ego, the practice of generosity is very significant. It is a denial, a repudiation of the ego. Faithfully practiced, generosity weakens the ego’s authority. Every departure from the pattern the ego sets, makes the next variation easier. We are made that way.” (Discipline and Discovery Workbook ed., p.80)
So we practice generosity to free ourselves from our raw possessive egos and from our bondage to material security.
Tithing and a Standard of Generosity
Since money is integral to our lives, how we give money usually reflects our overall pattern of generosity.
In most Christian churches, when the stewardship of our money is considered, the principle of tithing comes to the fore. It is the biblical pattern set for practicing generosity in the use of our money.
The principle, which became a law in Judaism, began not in a focus on money but on all we possess: land, flocks, crops, even “bounty” out of war. Tracing the biblical witness on tithing will give us the perspective we need to consider this principle as a discipline of generosity.
The story of the first offering in history is found in Genesis 4:3-7. This is the story of Cain and Abel making their offerings to God. The big issue in the story is that Abel’s offering was acceptable to God but Cain’s was not. Why? It had to do with the quality of the offering. Abel gave the firstlings of his flock, while Cain’s offering seems to have been an indiscriminate collection of the fruit of the ground.
The story in Genesis seems a bit confused as to the reason one offering was acceptable and the other not, but in the Epistle to the Hebrews there is this word: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s” (Hebrews 11:4).
In the original story the meaning is difficult to comprehend. There is no indication why God preferred the gift of Abel to the gift of Cain. On the surface it seems that the whole business is unjust. Yet, when you live with it, for a while at least, this much comes clear: God requires the best we have to offer.
We move from that story of the first offering to the first mention of tithing in the Bible. This is in Genesis 14:18-20. It’s the story of Abraham paying tithes to Melchizedek, who was a king of Salem as well as a priest of God. It was after Abraham had won a great battle. Melchizedek blessed him. After receiving this blessing Abraham gave the priest a tenth of everything.
Here the amount of the separated portion is designated for the first time. It is the tenth. It was a common practice among ancient warriors to tithe the spoils of war. Abraham, no doubt, was familiar with this custom. Yet there was something different about this act of Abraham. It was an act of genuine devotion. He was worshiping the one true God and was giving to God the tenth of all he received. Therefore, it set the precedent of tithing. The concept grows in the Old Testament, and Jacob is the first person on record to enter into a tithing covenant with God (Genesis 28:10-22).
Now to be sure, there is something far less than Christian about such praying and such a relationship with God. God is not one to be bargained with. We don’t make deals with God! God is not one from whom we can buy favors. Still, the story of Jacob and what Jacob is doing, though primitive and certainly not yet Christian, is something to reckon with.
Jacob had a vision of angels ascending and descending on a ladder between earth and heaven, and the Lord spoke to him with a great promise. When, in reflection, Jacob prays again and enters into that tithing covenant with God, it is on the basis of having received the promise from God. It is as though he is testing that promise and seeking to offer a response to it. That is certainly only the beginning of the development of the tithe in the history of the Hebrew people and in the Christian church, but it symbolizes the fact that our relationship with God always involves giving to God a portion of that which God has already given us.
It is this principle—returning to God a portion of that with which God has blessed us—that must be at the heart of our understanding of the tithe.
After that final law, the book of Leviticus closes with this word: “These are the commandments that the Lord gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34). So the precedent was set firmly in the fabric of Jewish life.
The classic and most dramatic warning about tithing came from Malachi. In language that is strong and unmistakable, this prophet painted out that disobedience to the law of the tithe was the cause of Israel’s apostasy in his day and that reformation in this regard was the sure and only way to the restoration of the divine favor and blessing. Those words from Malachi are enough to cause us to know what the witness of the Old Testament is concerning the tithe. Consider it:
“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.”
Tithing Gives Us Perspective
For many Christians the scriptural precedent set for tithing is enough to lead them to a commitment to tithe. It should be so for all Christians if we are going to be people of “the book.” However, other reasons merit consideration.
For one thing, tithing gives me perspective. Giving my tithe to the Lord is an ongoing reminder of what money can and cannot do. It would be wrong to idealize poverty. And it would be equally wrong to caricature riches as though they were innately wrong. Having money can make an enormous positive difference in our lifestyles. But it is crucial to maintain perspective about the fact that there are certain things money cannot buy.
Money can’t buy friendship, nor can money buy love.
And money won’t buy respect. We may get some of our selfish wants with money. We may use it to gain loyalty and deference from others. But this loyalty and deference are a charade for respect and usually turn into contempt.
Perhaps the most significant perspective we need to own is that money won’t buy exemption from the problems that are common to everyone. Money or the lack of it doesn’t keep children from breaking their parents’ hearts. Money or the lack of it doesn’t prevent incurable diseases from ravaging our lives. Money or the lack of it is no key for holding marriages together. Money cannot shield us against the early death of a marriage partner and the loneliness that follows.
We don’t buy character, meaning, and direction in life. We can’t put peace of mind on our Visa cards. Money can’t purchase eternal life, but how we spend our money may rob us of eternal life. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Tithing Enhances My Performance in the Cause of God’s Kingdom
Though it sounds lofty, it’s the most down-to-earth, practical thing I know: tithing enhances my performance in the cause of God’s Kingdom.
There are things that you and I can never do for Christ and the kingdom by ourselves. We have to be a part of a body, a community. This is especially true in the use of our money. This is the primary reason that we are to bring our tithes into the storehouse—into the church. The church can use that cumulative money to accomplish far greater things than we could ever accomplish on our own.