Treasures in Heaven

Giving. It’s a topic that makes most Christians somewhat uncomfortable. We have a vague sense that we should be giving more but no concrete ideas about why or what that should look like. In this article we’ll address what the Bible says about giving and attempt to create a framework that will help us give in a way that honors God and grows our discipleship.

Addressing the Confusion over Giving

Amplifying our discomfort over giving is the confusion caused by mixed messages from our culture and incomplete teaching from the church.

Cultural Messages about Giving
  1. Give if it benefits you. Give to get a tax break. Give to be noticed by others and well thought-of. Give to organizations that have something to offer you in return.
  2. Give if there’s anything left over. Pay the bills. Take care of expenses. Maybe buy something that makes you happy – after all, you’ve earned it. Then, if there’s anything left, give a bit.
  3. Give out of a sense of duty or obligation. You have it so much better than others – you owe it to them.

These and similar messages dominate the airways and confuse our thinking. And they all come from one basic assumption: ownership.

The Church’s Incomplete Teaching

Unfortunately, the messages from the church about giving don’t help clarify its importance. In most churches, the only time giving is mentioned is in conjunction with a weekly offering or with the budget – making giving all about the church rather than about discipleship.

The annual “stewardship campaign” doesn’t help. It conflates stewardship with giving, ignoring other key areas of Biblical teaching about earning, saving, spending, and debt.

And then there’s the so-called “prosperity gospel”, which promises a material blessing for giving to God. Based on certain Old Testament promises – without any analysis of whether those promises were specific to the nation of Israel or more general in nature – this teaching insists that God will materially bless those who give liberally to God (by which they mean, their specific church).

But as David Platt has said, there’s only one Gospel. And if the gospel we’re proclaiming doesn’t work in poverty-stricken areas of Africa, then it isn’t the true Gospel.

Giving in context

The key question to resolve when thinking about giving is the question of ownership vs. stewardship. Who really owns the things that are currently in our possession? Do we own them, or does God?

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), among many other passages, addresses this. The Master – our Creator – owns it all, and he has placed possessions and finances in our care to multiply and to use for his glory and purposes. This is the foundational truth of Christian stewardship – we are stewards, trustees, managers of what God has given us.

Once the foundation of stewardship has been established, principles of giving and generosity follow pretty naturally. No longer are we asking “How much of my money do I need to give to God?” but rather, “What is the best use of the finances God has entrusted me with?” Sometimes, that “best use” is going to be giving; other times, it might be saving or reducing debt. Giving is a key aspect of stewardship and does much to shape our hearts; but it is one aspect of a lifestyle of honoring God with all he has provided.

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The Generous Giver

The Generous Giver is one who gives with an obedient will, a joyful attitude,
and a compassionate heart.

Generosity is not primarily about the amounts we give. It’s primarily about our attitudes toward giving, which come from our heart for God. When Paul instructs the Corinthian church about giving for the needy, he emphasizes this:

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

2 Corinthians 9:7

Let’s dive a bit more deeply into the characteristics of the Generous Giver.

An Obedient Will

Giving is not an option for God’s people. While circumstances may vary, the teaching of Scripture is clear: God is the source of all we have, and we rob God when we fail to recognize that through our generosity. In Malachi 3:8-10, God accuses the nation of Israel of robbing him in the area of tithes and offerings. He goes on to promise blessing if they change their ways and honor him with generosity.

The point of this article is not to make a case for or against the tithe as a standard of giving. Instead, the emphasis is that Scripture teaches that giving is normative for all believers. Giving did not originate with the Jewish system of tithes and offerings. As far back as Cain and Abel, we see that men were offering sacrifices to God (Genesis 4:3-5). We see Abraham giving a tenth of a battle’s plunder to Melchizedek the priest (Genesis 14:18-20; Hebrews 7:1-2) and Jacob vowing a similar offering to God as he left his family (Genesis 28:22). Both of these latter events occurred over 400 years before the institution of Israel’s system of tithes and offerings!

A Joyful Attitude

Paul exhorts us to give cheerfully, from the heart – not reluctantly. But how do we condition our hearts this way? What causes our heart to be joyful in giving?

Mindset of Abundance

We struggle with joy when we’re worried about scarcity. If we are constantly anxious about whether God will take care of our needs, then we tend to rely on our own ability to take care of ourselves. This scarcity mindset makes it difficult to give at all, and nearly impossible to give with joy. We can’t give joyfully if we’re worried that by giving, we’re not leaving enough for ourselves.

A mindset of scarcity or abundance doesn’t depend on our level of wealth. The rich fool in Jesus’ parable of Luke 12:16-21 had more than enough – but he focused exclusively on meeting his own needs through his own means, and this prevented him from being rich toward God. Contrast this with the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17:5-16), who trusted God enough to bake Elijah a loaf of bread with her last flour. In the first case, a man who lived in abundance regarded it from a mindset of scarcity and hoarded all he had instead of sharing with others. In the second case, a widow who had nearly nothing acted out of a mindset of abundance and saw God’s miraculous provision as a result.

Ultimately, maintaining a mindset of abundance is a matter of faith – faith that God knows our needs and that he will provide, even if we don’t yet see that provision (see Matthew 6:7-8, 25-33).

Perspective of Gratitude

Likewise, we struggle with joyful giving when we fail to realize that all that we have comes from God. When we see ourselves as the source of all that we have, we come to view ourselves as owners rather than as stewards. This can puff us up so much with pride that we ignore God as our provider, as Nebuchadnezzar did (see Daniel 4).

But Scripture tells us that even the ability to produce wealth comes from God’s hand (Deuteronomy 8:17-18; see also James 1:17). When we recognize with gratitude that all we have comes from God, we’re able to give joyfully, as we see in several Scriptural examples:

  • Gratitude for God’s protection and victory in battle prompted Abraham’s gift to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:1-20).
  • Gratitude for deliverance from slavery in Egypt prompted the overflowing generosity of the Israelites in offerings for the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 35:20-36:7)
  • Gratitude for God’s promise of a son to inherit the kingdom and build the Temple prompted David to extraordinary generosity in providing for the Temple (2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 29).
  • Gratitude for salvation prompted Zacchaeus to give away much of his wealth (Luke 19:1-9).
Practice of Prayer

This perspective of gratitude carries over into our prayer lives. We believe that God will grant us his peace based on submitting our needs to him in prayer (Philippians 4:6-7), but we tend to forget that the prayer that Paul encourages is prayer that includes thanksgiving. We can thank God even for provision we haven’t yet seen because we trust him in faith (Hebrews 11:1).

The prayer of faith reflects two beliefs:

  1. That God will provide what we need.
  2. That what God provides is what we need.

We’re familiar with the first application of faith – that God will provide for us. But we often assume that what God will provide is what we’ve envisioned. We don’t leave room for God to answer our prayers for provision in a way different than we intend. And when God doesn’t live up to our expectations, our faith is challenged.

The prayer of faith not only expects God to provide, but recognizes that God is already providing. Rather than trusting in an outcome, the prayer of faith trusts in God to bring the outcome that most honors him, as well as taking care of us.

This prayer of faith reinforces the mindset of abundance – that God is in fact providing all that we need. From a stewardship perspective, this frees us for a spirit of generosity because we trust God to take care of us.

A Compassionate Heart

Finally, the Generous Giver gives with a compassionate heart. As a result, generous givers give more than just finances – they give of themselves.  Consider the following:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

Matthew 23:23

But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Matthew 9:13 (see also Matthew 12:7-8; Hosea 6:6)

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:17-18

Giving generously of ourselves – to God and to others – is a whole-life response to God’s generosity. But it begins with our finances.

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The “Why” of Giving

Generosity accomplishes several things in and through our lives:

  1. It breaks the hold that money can have on us, freeing us to serve God wholeheartedly.
  2. It honors God as the source of all that we have.
  3. God uses it to accomplish his purposes in the world.
Breaking the Hold of Money

Wealth is deceitful. In fact, the deceitfulness of wealth is one of the things that chokes out the word of God in a person’s life, making that person spiritually unfruitful (Matthew 13:18-22). Wealth is a dubious place to put our hope (1 Timothy 6:17) and the desire for wealth leads to temptation and a trap (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

We see this in the Old Testament story of Achan (Joshua 7). After a victory in battle, Achan coveted some of the plunder (though it was all supposed to be given over to the Lord and destroyed). He hid it in his tent, and the results were disastrous – not only for him, but for his family and even for several soldiers, who lost their lives in the next battle as part of God’s judgment. Money’s hold on us is powerful and often leads to disaster.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus portrays wealth as the chief rival god. He offers us a choice: serve God, or serve money – we can’t do both. Putting our treasures in heaven leads to serving God; keeping our treasures on earth leads to serving money. One is eternal; the other doesn’t last. (Matthew 6:19-21, 24)

The surprising part of Jesus’ teaching is that our hearts follow our treasure, not the other way around (verse 21). So giving is an early step to cultivating a heart for God. If we want more of a heart for God, then the place to begin is with our finances – because money vies with God for our hearts. We can’t fulfill the Greatest Commandment – loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – if our hearts are serving money.

Honoring God as the Source

God is the source of all that we have. James tells us that every good and perfect gift is from God (James 1:17). We saw earlier that the first brothers, Cain and Abel, recognized God as their source and brought sacrifices to him (Genesis 4:3-5). Even the ability to earn money and create wealth is a gift from God (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).

There is a direct tie between giving and God’s provision – not in a tit-for-tat way as the so-called prosperity gospel would suggest, but as two parts of an ongoing cycle. Proverbs 3:9-10 reflects this truth:

Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.

Proverbs 3:9-10

God confirms this cycle through the prophet Malachi:

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse —your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe, ” says the LORD Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the LORD Almighty.

Malachi 3:8-12

Paul affirms this relationship in his letter to the Philippians:

I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:18-19

We often quote verse 19 out of context as a promise that God will fulfill to everyone regardless of any circumstances. But there is a context, and that context is generosity.

Again, this shouldn’t be thought of as a transactional exchange, like putting a coin in a vending machine and getting a snack out. Instead, it should be viewed as a relational truth: God desires to operate in partnership with us. He provides for our needs, and we honor him with the resources he provides through generosity.

Accomplishing God’s purposes

This partnership is the primary means that God uses to accomplish his purposes, especially on behalf of the needy. God does not need our resources; he created the heavens and the earth and everything in them by the power of his word. He’s not running out of money. But God created men and women to partner with him. He gave us dominion over the earth, and part of that dominion means that we are in his employ to carry out his designs.

Consider Jesus’ opening sermon based on Isaiah 61:1,2 and 58:6:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

The poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged – these have always been at the center of God’s purposes. Our generosity enables us to partner with God in accomplishing those purposes. A great example of this partnership occurs in the early church:

God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Acts 4:33-35

This passage makes it clear that it wasn’t the contributions of the early believers that ensured that all the needs were met – it was God’s grace. But God in his grace placed it in the hearts of some of the believers who had more than they needed to sell houses and land, and to bring the money to the church.

God’s grace works in us in similar ways to accomplish his intentions. We work out our salvation by allowing God to work in us to will and to act according to his purposes (Philippians 2:12-13).

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The “How” of Giving

Most conversations around giving focus around the “What” – that is to say, how much we should be giving. And the Bible does provide a benchmark called the tithe, or a tenth of our income. But Scripture is much more concerned with the “how” than the “what”, because God is concerned about our hearts first of all. So let’s look at a few Scriptural principles of How we should give.

Privately, not Publicly

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:3-4

Jesus was constantly upbraiding the Pharisees because most of their religious expression was not done for God, but done for men to see. Their prayer, their fasting, and their giving was all about the impressions they created in the minds of others.

We see an extreme example of this predilection for impressing people with giving in Acts 5. Believers like Barnabas and others were selling lands and houses and bringing the money to the church in order to meet people’s needs. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, no doubt enticed by the gratitude of the church to these benefactors, decided to go after some of that gratitude by selling a piece of property and giving to the church. But because their hearts were focused on their own gain rather than on God’s glory, they decided to hold back part of the money while creating the impression that they had given all of it to the church. Peter called out their duplicity, and their deaths caused the fear of God to fall on the church.

When we keep our giving private, rather than public, we help ensure that our motivations in giving are pure and God-centered.

Gladly, not Grudgingly

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

2 Corinthians 9:7

Giving should be an act of worship to God, not an act of duty or obligation. As a result it, should come from a cheerful and glad heart, one that recognizes God as provider and joyfully gives back to God in gratitude and in partnership with his purposes.

As we saw earlier, this was Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians as he encouraged them to contribute to an offering for the needy in Jerusalem. God cares about more than the size of an offering. He cares about how it is given – and offerings given from cheerful and glad hearts bring him not only joy but also honor among others. Look what Paul says about the impact of the Corinthians’ generous giving on God’s reputation:

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.

2 Corinthians 9:12-13, emphasis added

By their generous and cheerful giving, the Corinthians were causing others to praise God – just as Jesus had indicated in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14-16). Their giving was both an evidence of God’s grace in their lives and a means of God’s grace to the believers in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 9:14).

Firstfruits, not Leftovers

Honor the LORD with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops.

Proverbs 3:9

God wants our giving to be a priority, not an afterthought. And he wants it to be meaningful – to cost us something.

King David got this. When God told him to build an altar in a specific place in order to bring an end to the plague, David went to the owner of the land to buy the field. The owner, a man named Araunah, offered to give the field to David free of charge and further offered up his oxen and tools for the offering. But David responded, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” God honored David’s offering and stopped the plague (2 Samuel 24:18-25).

God challenges the Israelites to honor him with their best:

“When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the LORD. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king, ” says the LORD Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations.

Malachi 1:13-14

What happens when God is honored with the best of the flocks rather than blemished animals? His name is feared among the nations! The generosity of God’s people and their willingness to bring him their best has an impact on God’s reputation among unbelievers.

Today, the equivalent contrast would be giving based on our income vs. giving based on our spending. When we base our giving on our income, we’re honoring God for what he has provided. When we base it on our spending – giving him the leftovers at the end of the month – we communicate that God isn’t that important.

Integrated, not Isolated

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

Matthew 23:23

God wants our giving to be in a context of lives given over to him and lived for his priorities. Giving is not to be an isolated function, where we give (even if we tithe!) but neglect to live for God. On multiple occasions, God warned the Israelites that their sacrifices were unacceptable – not because they weren’t the “right” offerings, but because their lives were not right with God:

Hear, you earth: I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law. What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me.”

Jeremiah 6:19-20

“Though Ephraim built many altars for sin offerings, these have become altars for sinning. I wrote for them the many things of my law, but they regarded them as something foreign. Though they offer sacrifices as gifts to me, and though they eat the meat, the LORD is not pleased with them. Now he will remember their wickedness and punish their sins: They will return to Egypt. Israel has forgotten their Maker and built palaces; Judah has fortified many towns. But I will send fire on their cities that will consume their fortresses.”

Hosea 8:11-14

God had instructed King Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites. Instead, Saul brought back from the battle King Agag and sheep and cattle, and planned to offer the best of the animals to God as a sacrifice. But here’s how Samuel responded:

“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.”

1 Samuel 15:22-23

God wants hearts that are completely devoted to him. While that often begins with giving (as we saw in Matthew 6), it doesn’t end there. Giving should be a part of an overall life of generosity that displays God’s goodness, grace, and compassion.

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Generous Giving is for Everyone

From the initial sacrifices of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) to the continual offerings of the 24 elders (Revelation 4), Scripture is replete with examples and exhortations of giving. Through generosity, we cultivate our hearts for God, guard ourselves against the deceptiveness of wealth, honor God in the eyes of believers and non-believers, and participate with him in accomplishing his purposes.

As a result, giving is not a privilege reserved for a small percentage of the wealthiest people. It’s for everyone. Those who have the means can make a significant kingdom impact through their giving, whether it’s providing for needy believers as we saw in Acts 2 and 4, taking care of the poor as Zacchaeus did on his conversion, or supporting ministries like some of the women who followed Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). God asks extra generosity from those who have much (Luke 12:48).

But even those without wealth benefit from the privilege of giving – and their gifts can be some of the most meaningful in God’s sight. One day Jesus was watching people put offerings into the temple treasury. He singled out to his disciples not the rich who were putting in large amounts, but the widow whose small offering represented the greatest sacrifice (Mark 12:41-44). Paul instructed the Corinthian church that a gift from a willing heart was pleasing to God based on what the person had, not based on what the person did not have (2 Corinthians 8:12).

Perhaps the best testimony of generosity is the way that Paul described the Macedonian churches. Though themselves impoverished, they gave sacrificially to help out the believers in Jerusalem. Paul describes it this way:

In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.

2 Corinthians 8:2-5

They gave themselves first to God, and then to the apostles via the collection. What a testimony! May our generosity likewise bring glory to God.

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