1. Christian giving is both a spiritual gift and a discipline of discipleship to our Lord Jesus Christ.
What is a spiritual gift? Paul’s Greek has two label-nouns for identifying any item in this category: charisma, meaning a product of the active, communicative, redemptive divine love that the New Testament calls charis, and we call grace, and pneumatikon, meaning an expression of the life and energy of the divine person whom the New Testament calls hagion pneuma, the Holy Spirit. A spiritual gift, a grace gift as we may well describe it, is essentially a pattern of service in the church that honors Christ, glorifies God his Father and ours, edifies one’s fellow believers and oneself too, and imparts strength and maturity to the church as a whole. Some gift are abilities that transcend one’s natural resources and are supernaturally bestowed in and through Christ; others are natural abilities redirected, sanctified, and activated by the Holy Spirit from within on each occasion of their exercise. Thus, Paul’s intermittent healing powers were a gift of the first type, while his unflagging powers as a teacher of gospel truth were a gift of the second type. Giving, now, is a gift of the latter sort.
In Romans 12:6, Paul writes, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them,” and he proceeds to give examples of this, emphasizing each time that one use his or her gift in the best way possible. He speaks of prophesying (i.e., preaching the word of God), serving, teaching, exhorting, and exercising leadership. Then in verse 8 he comes to this: “the one who contributes [should do so] in generosity.” “Contributes” is a word in the Greek that means “shares” and certainly refers to the sharing of money, as those who have give to meet the needs of those who have not. “Generosity” is a term that also signifies “sincerity,” and Paul probably selects it for use here because it always carries overtones of transparent goodwill being expressed.
So giving or sharing or using money to relieve needs is a spiritual gift, and one who gives generously is as truly a charismatic as one who prays for another’s healing or who speaks in tongues. Also, giving is a discipline of discipleship to the Lord Jesus. Disciplines do not come naturally, without effort. On the contrary, they are acquired and sustained habits of thought and/or behavior that need constant practice if they are ever to be anything like perfect, and they often involve specific techniques of their own.
Christian virtues, of which generosity is one, are disciplines that Christ commends, commands, and models as life qualities that should mark out all his disciples, that is, all those who have committed themselves to learn his way of living. ( e Greek word for “disciple” means learner.)
All spiritual gifts are, from one standpoint, disciplines of discipleship, and if we are not actively traveling the path of generous giving, it will have to be said of us straightaway that we really are weak and deficient in our discipleship to and dependence upon Christ Jesus our Lord—which means that we need, urgently, to change our ways.
2. Christian giving is management of God’s money.
When we set ourselves to think about Christian money management, in whatever connection, from buying groceries to supporting missionaries to investing in industry to financing a holiday, the first thing we have to get clear on is that the money that is ours to manage is not ours, but God’s. Yes, we have been given it to use, but it remains his. We have it as a loan, and in due course we must give account to him of what we have done with it.
That is the point of the word stewardship, which nowadays is in effect the church’s label for the discipline of giving. A steward is someone whom an owner entrusts with the managing of his assets. An investment manager is a steward: he has control of his clients’ assets in one sense, but his job is to understand and implement his clients’ wishes and priorities regarding their use. In the same way, a trustee is a steward: his job is to invest, safeguard, and disburse the money in the trust according to the stated purpose of whoever appointed him.
Society (which Scripture calls “the world”) sees each person’s money as his own possession, to use as he likes. Scripture, however, sees our money as a trust from God, to be used for his glory. In the Holy Communion liturgy in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the collection is offered to God with the words: “All that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee” (words taken from 1 Chron. 29:11, 14). Such is the constant biblical perspective. The money that is ordinarily thought of as ours remains God’s; we receive it from his hand as his stewards and trustees, and must learn to manage it for his praise.
3. Christian giving is ministry with God’s money.
Ministry means service; service means relieving need; need means a lack of something that one cannot well do without. Paul calls his plan of financial help for the Jerusalem poor “the ministry for the saints” (2 Cor. 9:1) because the poverty of the poor is denying them necessities of life. Paul celebrates, and sets forth as a model, the way in which the Macedonian churches have embraced this mode of ministry, ascribing their action directly to the grace of God. “In a severe test of a affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty"—what a combination!—“have over owed in a wealth of generosity . . . . they gave . . . beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints . . . they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us” (2 Cor. 8:1–5).
The ministry of giving has many goals: spreading the gospel, sustaining the church, providing care for distressed individuals (as the Samaritan in Jesus’s story did for the beaten-up, half-dead Jew), and for distressed groups like the Jerusalem Christians, and more. The ministry of giving in all its forms aims to advance the kingdom of God, which becomes reality in human life whenever the values and priorities of Christ’s teaching are observed. It goes without saying that in this ministry, all God’s people are meant to be involved.
4. Christian giving is a mind-set regarding God’s money.
Management and ministry are matters of motivated performance. A mind-set, or mentality as we may prefer to call it, is a characteristic attitude, a habitual orientation, an entrenched desire, and as such a matter of motivation and purpose. Christian giving aims at pleasing and glorifying God and never settling for what is clearly second-best; such, positively and negatively, is the use God means us to make of the money he entrusts to us.
Jesus told the story of a servant who, given a talent to use, did nothing with it beyond hoarding it till he could return it to his master; “wicked,” “slothful,” and “worthless” are the adjectives his master applied to him (Matt. 25:14–30). Never settling for the fairly good, the possibly good enough, or the not-bad calls for enterprising and imaginative thought, for which the biblical name is wisdom. Giving randomly, without wisdom, is sub-Christian, just as is giving nothing or giving far less than one could.
That raises the question, how much should one give? Specifically, should we tithe? Some seem to think that tithing is like paying God rent: when we have given him 10 percent of our income, the rest is ours. But no, it is all God’s, and the New Testament nowhere tells Christians to tithe. What Paul tells the Corinthians is not that they should raise their share of the collection by tithing, but that if they give generously to God, he will give generously to them.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. . . . God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. . . . You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us [as we deliver your gift] will produce thanksgiving to God. . . . they will glorify God because of . . . the generosity of your contribution for them. (2 Cor. 9:6, 8, 11, 13)
Paul’s appreciation of the Macedonians for giving “according to their means . . . and beyond their means, of their own accord” (8:3) suggests that his answer to the question, how much should one give? would be, give all you readily, easily, and comfortably can, and then prove your zeal and wholeheartedness for God by giving something more.
In light of Jesus’s commendation of the poor widow who put into the temple treasury all she had, it is natural to suppose he too would answer our question by challenging us along these lines. This is certainly how John Wesley was thinking when he told his lay preachers, “Give all you can,” and how C. S. Lewis was thinking when he directed a correspondent who had put our question to him, “Give till it hurts.” By dint of constant giving, Wesley himself died almost penniless, and Lewis’s private charities, so we are told, were huge.
It may be a good idea to practice tithing as a crutch until we get used to giving larger sums than we gave before, but then we should look forward to leaving the crutch behind because now we will have formed the Christian habit of giving more than 10 percent. When the amount to give is in question, the sky should be the limit, and the word of wisdom, “Go for it.”