Many people in churches are reticent to talk about the question of money and giving. The Church of England has long had a goal of asking people to give 5% of their net income to the church—and has long failed to achieve this. Some denominations and theological traditions are much better at giving, and include a culture of giving in their approach to discipleship. But many others find it hard to broach the subject.
There are lots of good reasons for commending giving as a spiritual discipline, seen as part of our following Jesus. But I wonder whether part of reason for our lack of effectiveness is that we do not deal with the (sometimes well founded) objections to sacrificial personal giving.
So when I was recently asked to preach about this at another church, I decided to address what I felt were the five main reasons people have for not giving. Do you think there are others? Tell me in the comments.
1. It is personal
‘What I do with my money is my business. It is personal, and private, and has nothing to do with you. So mind your own business!’
This is a powerful cultural response in many parts of the UK. We have a long cultural tradition of considering these sorts of issues as personal and private, in contrast to many other cultures around the world, including elsewhere in the West. It is such a strong feeling that there is even a TV advertising campaign currently based exactly this feeling: a group of people are visiting someone’s home, and one guest has the temerity to ask out loud how much the house is worth. An awkward and embarrassing silence sudden falls in the room!
This is a stark contrast to what I have experienced elsewhere. When visiting the States some years ago, I went to an American football match, and the wealthy sponsor of one of the clubs was standing outside the main entrance happily giving away the most expensive tickets to any who looked deserving. (We got great seats!)
Interestingly, Jesus’ teaching supports such a response to some extent. In Matthew 6.1, 6 and 16, he challenges his own culture’s practice of ostentatious display, and argues that we should do our ‘deeds of righteousness’ (meaning practical holy living) in secret ‘so that your heavenly Father sees you’.
But the counterpoint to this secrecy is that, Jesus assures us, one day it will be made public. ‘What has been done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops!’ (Luke 12.3). One day we will give an account of how we have used the time, energy, resource and money that God has given us.
2. I have worked hard and I earned it
‘The money I have is the result of my own hard work, and my own good use of what I have earned, so I deserve to use it for myself.’
This feels like quite a compelling argument, especially for those who have indeed been focussed and disciplined both in their work lives and their personal use of what they have earned. Some will feel that they have more resources precisely because they have acted responsibly, where others have been frivolous.
Yet there are several things that this objection fails to take into account.
First, you might well have worked hard—but others have done so too, and have not earned as much as you. That is quite possibly the case within our own country—but it is certainly the case when considered historically or globally. Even someone relatively poor in the UK is likely in the top 1% of earners in the world today.
Secondly, you might well have worked hard and earned well—but suppose you had been in a different job or career, which did not pay so well? Suppose this other career had paid, say, 10% less? Would you still feel this way? Then why not give away that 10%?
Thirdly, it is good to make use of all the opportunities that we have been given—but they have been given to us! We did not ‘earn’ the education, context, and openings that we have been offered.
3. It belongs to me
‘What I have is mine; it belongs to me legally and morally; therefore I can spend it how I choose.’
Yes, that is true legally, and could be argued to be so morally. But it is not true theologically! Scripture is clear and consistent: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Ps 24.1). Scripture’s vision of the created world is that it was created by God, continues to belong to God, and is cared for by him.
In the first creation narrative, in Gen 1.27 and following, the picture we are given is that God created humanity to share in his divine kingship, ruling over the earth, and nurturing it into fruitfulness. When the humanity turns from him, one of the first things that is spoilt is this relationship with the fruitful earth.
Yet it continues to belong to God, and we are to be no more (or less) than responsible tenants. That is the idea behind the command to celebrate the Jubilee in Leviticus 25.8–55. Since we are all tenants, and the earth (and its resources) belong to God, there needs to be a periodic review, involving rest and redistribution, since none of this ‘belongs’ to us at all.
‘Who has anything that he has not been given?’ Paul asks the Corinthians (1 Cor 4.7). We are not owners; we are stewards, trusted with God’s creation to use wisely and generously. And that includes the generous use of our money.
4. I need what I have—how will I survive on less?
This is a powerful pastoral argument, and is felt especially keenly at the moment, in time of rising energy costs, high food prices, and a time when incomes have fallen in real terms since 2008. For many people, this is a pastoral and personal reality.
Whilst taking this concern seriously, we still need to reflect on some important realities. Despite our present situation, we are still much better off than we were 20 or 30 years ago. Somehow we managed then! So why do we find it hard now?
The simple answer for many of us is that we have become used to a particular lifestyle. Many of us don’t think twice about buying coffee and cake on an outing; spending more than we need to on our food shopping; expecting to have a certain standard of holiday. Watching TV programme like ‘Eat Well for Less’ is a real eye-opener to see what cultural expectations we have become used to.
But the pressing question behind all this is the theological one: do we trust God for our provision? Jesus challenges his listeners in Matt 5, many of whom would be at or near subsistence level of income, for whom one season of bad harvest would be seriously threatening. God provides for those he loves; will he not provide for us if we are generous in the way he calls us to be?
When I was a young Christian, there was a lot of talk about simplicity of life as a spiritual discipline. ‘Live simply, that others might simply live.’ Since then, we have become much richer, and the world more unequal. I wonder why this focus has been lost?
5. They will waste it
‘I have seen what charities—and the church—does with other people’s money. They waste it and use it inefficiently. I will use my own money much better.’
Well, that might be true. So rather than withhold your giving, why not get involved in using it wisely with others? It is important to ask questions of responsible use, of transparency and accountability; it not good that other people’s money is wasted. So rather than just give money, why not also give your time and talents to help that money be used well?
Ultimately this is not a good argument against giving.
In the end, all these questions sound perfectly reasonable—when we put ourselves at the centre of the discussion. But in Paul’s engagement with the Corinthians about giving (in 2 Cor 8 and 9), he takes a strikingly different approach.
Firstly, he avoids telling the Corinthians what they ought to do at all.
Secondly, he focusses not on them, but on God. In the reading we had when I preached on this, 2 Cor 9.6–15, it is God, not the Corinthians (or Paul) who is the subject of most of the verbs. God loves; God is able to bless you; God is the generous giver; God will supply all your needs; God will enrich you; and as a result God will be glorified.
This completely turns inside out and upside down our own thinking about giving. It is part of that gospel revolution, by which we love God, and love our neighbours as ourselves, putting God and others at the centre rather than our own questions and concerns—legitimate though they might be.
And this approach makes no sense in the calculation done by our culture—it only make sense in the economy of the kingdom.
Abundance comes, not in acquiring things, but by giving them away—true abundance.
Joy comes, not from the things we have, but from the things we give. I have found far more joy in the things I have given away than in the things I have kept for myself—and this is what Paul means when he says ‘God loves a cheerful (Gk hilaros) giver. It is not that we ought to be happy when we give, but that in giving we do find true, lasting joy.
Wealth is found—not in material things—but in the riches that God gives us through his son Jesus. When Jesus says ‘where you treasure is, there will your heart be’ (Matt 6.21) he is not telling us what we ought to think, but what will actually happen.
All this is rooted in the nature of God himself. The central claim that Paul makes in previous chapter is this: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’ (2 Cor 8.9). God longs for us to have this spiritual wealth by our generous giving to others.
You have heard it said: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’. But when it comes to money and giving, the truth is that to grasp is human, to give is divine. God does not want us to be robbed of this divine joy.