What follows is more or less the text from a sermon I gave in church last week. The topic was ‘Generosity and Giving’. If you’d rather listen to it you can do so here (forward onto around 9 minutes of the recording).
You might ask what qualifies me to speak on the subject of generosity and giving? Well, nothing really….but I have sinned in this area and I continue to struggle with generosity and how to manage money generally, due to my greed and selfishness. I do have a desire to change however, and a lot of the following is stuff that I’ve been wrestling with over the past year. So I certainly don’t speak with any authority in terms of having got it right when it comes to giving and how I spend money.
I should also point out I am unqualified to speak on or to judge anyone else’s personal circumstances. I can only really comment on my own experience and on what I perceive in our society and in the church. I also need to mention the fact that I am what would be considered ‘a high earner’ in our society. I’m fortunate to receive a large salary. It may therefore seem hypocritical of me to write about this stuff and encourage others to live more simply and give more to the poor. It is certainly true that I would have to give away more money than most before it would really hurt my lifestyle, before my giving would become truly sacrificial. But that it is why I’m writing about this. I believe God has been challenging me in this area of my life and I believe it’s an issue that’s well worth any of us exploring.
I hope that you will be challenged as you read this but I warn you that it may even make you feel uncomfortable. So read on at your own risk!
Being generous and giving is not all about how much money we give away. In fact it’s really important that we don’t think of it in these terms. Having a spirit of generosity includes many things including giving time, offering hospitality, doing practical service for others and giving relationally. But for the purpose of this post, when I mention giving, I will generally be referring to financial giving and that’s really where I want to focus.
Jesus said ‘Watch out, be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’ Luke 12:15
Before we look specifically at generosity and giving, I think we need to start with the bigger picture and first have a good look at our whole lifestyles and how we spend money in general. I think it’s logical to suggest that the standard of living that we choose and therefore the things we spend money on will have a direct impact on our generosity and level of giving.
So how do you feel about money? Do you like it, love it, loathe it? Maybe you just don’t think about it. I’ve certainly been guilty at least at times of loving having and spending money. In the past couple of years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with my own wealth. I recently realised that the more money I’ve earned in my life, the more I’ve worried about money and having enough of it.
Jesus said in Mark 10 ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ This suggests wealth for any Christian is a burden and a potential barrier to spiritual growth. But I believe this is an issue that applies to all of us. Because in this country (UK) whether you are fortunate to earn a good wage or you receive state benefits, compared to most people in the world today, we are all incredibly rich.
As well as becoming uncomfortable with my own personal wealth, I have also become increasingly uncomfortable with the wealth that our Western society takes for granted. I am no expert in sociology and history but it seems to me that in recent generations we have become accustomed to unprecedented wealth in terms of disposable income and material things.
Put bluntly, we are a greedy society. The majority of private business and services in this country exist to make more money and increase wealth for the people at the top. It used to be that capitalism in the West was about production which prospered by meeting the real needs of real people. Today, capitalism seems to be all about consumerism which profits largely from selling us things we don’t actually need, and half the time, don’t really even want. And none of us are helpless bystanders in this process. We participate in all sorts of ways. Some of our church homegroup having looking at a book by Jen Hatmaker called ‘7 – an experimental mutiny against excess’.
The book is a memoir of 7 months that Jen and her family spent deliberately simplifying and reducing their consumption in a range of areas in their lives. They spent a month focusing on each area or topic which included food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending and stress. When thinking about the role we all play in our consumerism culture, she says:
Every time I buy another shirt I don’t need or a seventh pair of shoes for my daughter, I redirect my powerful dollar to the pockets of consumerism, fueling my own greed and widening the gap. Why? Because I like it. Because those are cute. Because I want that. These thoughts burden me holistically, but the trouble is, I can rationalize them individually. This one pair of shoes? Big deal. This little outfit? It was on sale. This micro-justification easily translates to nearly every purchase I’ve made. Alone, each item is reduced to an easy explanation, a harmless transaction. But all together, we’ve spent enough to irrevocably change the lives of a hundred thousand people. What did I get for that budgeting displacement? Closets full of clothes we barely wear and enough luxuries to outfit twenty families. What if all my silly little individual purchases do matter? What if I joined a different movement, one that was less enticed by luxuries and more interested in justice? What if I believed every dollar spent is vital, a potential soldier in the war on inequality?
As a doctor, I’m inclined to think of medical analogies for things I’m thinking about. And so I’ve come up with a cheesy term for an illness I think many of us are suffering from.
It called diabetes materialis.
In case you don’t know much about diabetes mellitus. It’s a disease which results in high sugar levels in the blood because the pancreas either gets worn out and stops producing insulin or the cells become desensitized to the effects of insulin. When I was at medical school one of our biochemical profs had a phrase he liked to use when he was talking about diabetes. He used to say ‘People with diabetes are drowning in a sea of plenty’. What he meant was that the sugar is plentiful in the bloodstream but it can’t get to where it needs to go, so the body is effectively drowning in a state of abundance.
When I remembered that phrase, I thought of our culture which is obsessed with money and material things. I believe most of us have become desensitised to the excess that we live with. We have lost insight into the extent of our greed. We talk about the things we need when we have no idea what it means to really need something. We have lost the ability to distinguish true needs from wants.
More than that not only can we be unaware of the excess around us but we can be left unsatisfied and unfulfilled by what we have. And although we know (in our heads) that material things can’t satisfy the cravings in our souls we constantly look for more and more. So we’re drowning in a sea of plenty. And I worry that I am and that many us are often blind to the problem.
I’ve been reading a book by Tim Keller called ‘Counterfeit Gods’ and he talks about greed and money in one chapter:
Ernest Becker wrote that our culture would replace God with sex and romance. Even earlier, Friedrich Nietzsche had a different theory. He wrote that, with the absence of God growing in Western culture, would replace God with money. In short, Nietzsche foretold that money in Western culture would become perhaps its main counterfeit god. Innumerable writers and thinkers have been pointing out the ‘culture of greed’ that has been eating away at our souls and has brought about economic collapse. Yet no one thinks that change is around the corner. Why? It’s because greed is especially hard to see in ourselves…Why can’t anyone in the grip of greed see it? The counterfeit god of money uses powerful sociological and psychological dynamics. Everyone tends to live in a particular socioeconomic bracket. Once you are able to afford to live in a particular neighbourhood, send your children to its schools, and participate in its social life, you will find yourself surrounded by quite a number of people who have more money than you. You don’t compare yourself to the rest of the world, you compare yourself to those in your bracket. The human heart always wants to justify itself and this is one of the easiest ways. You say, ‘I don’t live as well as him or her or them. My means are modest compared to theirs’. You can reason and think like that no matter how lavishly you are living.
Jesus warns people far more often about greed than about sex, yet almost no one thinks they are guilty of it. Therefore we should all begin with a working hypothesis that ‘this could easily be a problem for me’. If greed hides itself so deeply, no one should be confident that it is not a problem for them.
So we need to open our eyes to identify our greed. But we also need to recognize how our greed and contentment with comfortable lifestyles impacts on our generosity to others. As I said earlier – In very simple terms, the more I spend on myself, the less I have to give to others. Perhaps just as important is that often the more we have materially, the more distracted and comfortable we become, and therefore the less we give of ourselves in terms of time and even in relationships – both with each other and with God.
So how do we fix the problem we find ourselves in? Well in a moment I want to look very practically at steps that we can take to improve. But personally what I think I need is a total change of mindset or thinking. We’re familiar with the verse in Romans 12:2
‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’
Are we not guilty so often of conforming to the pattern of this world by the way we deal with money? We need renewing of our minds and a good place to start is in scripture. Our church recently took part in the Community Bible Experience, when we read through the entire New Testament over 8 weeks. I found it a really useful exercise and because we were reading large sections of scripture at a time, there were some things that jumped out at me to a greater degree than I’d ever noticed before.
One of those things was Jesus’ heart for the poor and vulnerable. Reading through the gospels, I was really struck by how much of what Jesus said was about caring for widows, orphans and the poor. It seemed to be one of the main themes when he referred to the Kingdom of God. Surprisingly in comparison there seemed relatively little that Jesus said about the need to preach the Good News and make converts. Obviously the latter is crucial and is part of the great commission that we have all been given as Christians but I wonder how I, as a Christian for over 25 years, have until recently largely missed the huge emphasis that Jesus places on caring for the poor and vulnerable.
I saw a clip on youtube recently where a controversial American talk show host Bill Mayer was doing a comedy piece attacking the Christian lobby in America. One of the things he said struck me. He said ‘If you call yourself a Christian but ignore Jesus’s teachings, you’re not followers, you’re just fans.’ Are we followers of Jesus or are we just fans?!
Did you know that you can buy a ‘Poverty and Justice Bible’. It’s a Bible that has all the verses referring to poverty and justice highlighted. There are over 2000 verses highlighted and the publishers state that almost every page of the Bible speaks of God’s heart for the poor, his concern for the marginalized, his compassion for the oppressed and his call for justice. Scripture is clear – God’s heart is for these things and we need to align our hearts with His.
What about the early church? When we look Acts 2, we read about the Holy Spirit coming on the believers at Pentecost. Have you ever noticed what happened in the church immediately after the believers were filled with the spirit?
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Acts 2:42-45
When God’s people are filled with the spirit, they form a community and share everything they have with those in need.
Have you noticed when reading through Paul’s letters how much time and effort the early church devoted to collecting and distributing money for the poor? It was about one of these collections that Paul said in 2 Cor 9:7
‘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.’
I think this is a great principle in giving. You should give what you feel able, not because of peer or other pressure. My problem with this verse is that I think it is so easy for us to use this as an excuse for not giving or for not being generous. We might say ‘The Lord hasn’t laid it on my heart to give’. Or ‘I know I could give but I’d be doing it because I feel I should therefore I just won’t bother’. And maybe it’s not as conscious as that, but subconsciously, I wonder do we use this verse as a get out clause?
Should we not always be willing to give cheerfully to those who we know are in need? If we don’t feel cheerful about it, I would suggest that the problem is not that the Lord has not laid it on our hearts but that there is something wrong with our heart. So I think we have to ask ourselves: If I can only give reluctantly and if I am comfortable living with much more than I need: Is my heart right with God?
But we need to try to see the bigger picture in all of this –look at verses that sandwich this verse:
‘Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’
‘And God is able to bless you abundantly…’
So actually in giving we will be blessed, we will benefit. To put it another way, perhaps it’s only in the practice of regular sacrificial giving that we become truly cheerful about our giving.
Here’s another quotation from Jen Hatmaker’s book. She says:
‘Giving away is somehow sacred, connecting to the sacrificial heartbeat of Jesus. It’s as transformative for the giver as a blessing to the receiver. When God told us to give, I suspect he had spiritual formation in mind as much as meeting needs’.
We’ve thought about the culture that we all live in here and the excess that we’ve come to take for granted. Maybe you think I’ve been overdoing it a bit or that really most of this doesn’t apply to you because you don’t live a particularly extravagant lifestyle and by most people’s standards you give generously. And that might well be true but I do think it is important every now and then to get a bit of perspective of our world. Each of us in the UK enjoys being in the top 1-4% of the wealthiest people in the whole world.
So the truth is the reality of our lives is very different from the reality for most of the rest of the world. The following statistics make this point all too well:
- Today 4,000 children will die from drinking dirty water or poor sanitation.
- One in eight people in the world do not have access to clean water.
- 2.5 billion people live without appropriate sanitation (defined as safe and clean disposal of human urine and faeces).
- Every day almost 16,000 children die from hunger related causes. That’s one child every 5 seconds.
- Throughout the 1990’s more than 100 million children died from illness and starvation. Those 100 million deaths could have been prevented for the price of what the world spends on its military in two days.
- The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world is well-fed, one-third is under-fed one-third is starving.
- 3 billion people in the world today struggle to survive on US$2/day.
- Half of all children under five years of age in South Asia and one third of those in sub-Saharan Africa are malnourished.
- To satisfy the world’s sanitation and food requirements would cost only US$13 billion – what the people of the United States and the European Union spend on perfume each year.
And closer to home:
- In 2008/09 in the UK, 13½ million people were living in households below the low-income threshold. This is around a fifth (22%) of the population.
- Almost 3,000 people in England and Wales will die this winter because they cannot afford to heat their homes (reported in the guardian in October)
I don’t know about you, but when I read these statistics I feel pretty awful. I feel ashamed and I feel guilty. And the point of showing these facts is not to make you feel guilty but as I said to give us perspective. To awaken us to the reality of our world and of the need which we so often are happy to ignore.
Perhaps we see these facts or we see pictures of children in the third world and maybe we are tempted to blame God. Maybe we sometimes cry out to Him – why do you let this happen? Why don’t you save those poor hungry children? But the problem is not ‘up there’ with God, the problem is in my heart. My continued greed ultimately results in the suffering of others.
Will you allow me another quotation from Jen Hatmaker –she has a lot of good stuff to say on this topic:
‘We top the global food chain through no fault or credit of our own. I’ve asked God a billion times why I have so much while others have so little. Why do my kids get full bellies? Why does water flow freely from my faucets? Why do we get to go to the doctor when we’re sick? There is no easy answer. The why definitely matters, but so does the what. What do we do with our riches? What do we do with our privileges? What should we keep? What should we share? I need to address this inequality because Jesus clearly identified the poor as His brothers and sisters and my neighbor.’
I’m aware this can all feel quite heavy and depressing. It can feel like a burden too heavy to carry. My purpose is not just to make you feel guilty. Guilt will not motivate or effect change in our hearts. I think what we really need to get our heads and hearts around is that God wants us to be generous and giving people not just to meet the needs in our world but for our own good. The Bible seems to make it clear (in verses we’re already read and elsewhere) that sacrificial giving leads to blessing, fulfilment and peace. There seems to be this amazing paradox that the more we give, the fuller our lives will become. Maybe it’s because as we learn to live with less, it’s then that we create space for God.
Shane Claiborne who lives in a community that is attempting to share everything and gives sacrificially to those who are in need. When asked by some people questions like: ‘how much should I give away, what do we have to do’. Shane replies:
‘it’s not that we have to but that we get to’
It’s a privilege because of the blessing that comes from giving sacrificially.
OK, even if we can all accept that. I think there’s still a part of us that wants to ask ‘but where is the line. When is it ok to spend money on myself and on good, nice things, luxuries even? And of course we have to realise that God as well as creating many wonderful things for us to enjoy, he created us as creative people and we (the human race) have in turn created wonderful things for us to enjoy and many of these wonderful things cost money.
So I don’t think there’s a right and wrong in this. We are blessed with incredible freedom and we will naturally express that freedom in different ways. We have different likes and dislikes and different things will give us pleasure and that will be reflected in what we spend money on.
For example in our family, I’ve come to realize the value in spending money on experiences. So our family generally enjoys good Holidays. I have found in a busy and stressful job, it’s actually quite important for my mental health to be able to get away on holiday at regular intervals and to have quality time with my family. But the challenge for me is to be responsible in my holiday choice – maybe I don’t need to fly all the way around the world if a week in Donegal is just as good. So I think we need to ask ourselves good questions about what we spend our money on and why.
Which leads me on to some practical suggestions. So if you feel challenged about this issue in your life as I do, what can I and what can we do about it? The first thing is probably to take a good long look at ourselves.
Examine your heart.
Ask God to highlight any areas of greed in your life. Ask Him to reveal the root causes of your greed. Tim Keller in the book I read from earlier provides a helpful way to think about this. He talks about these root causes of our greed as deep idols. These deep idols include the desire for power, for approval, for comfort or for control. It is these deep desires that are so often at the root of our greed.
I’ve identified that one of my deep idols is the desire for control. This desire then drives how I view and manage money. I want to have enough money so that I can be in control of my life, so that I can be completely self-sufficient. I need to address that deep idol if I want to tackle my sin of greed. Do you have any deep idols that affect how you manage money?
Examine your lifestyle.
Next examine your lifestyle. Look at all the material things you have. Consider your possessions – big and small. Try to distinguish between needs and wants. What do you actually need? What things can you live without? The aim is not to get legalistic about it but let’s get real and ask ourselves probing questions.
Think about the house you live in, the car that you drive, the clothes you wear, the meals out you enjoy. Do those things make you more or less alive? Do they bring you closer to or take you further away from God? Here’s a challenging question: In what way do your possessions bring glory to God and attract others to Christ?
So examine your heart and examine your lifestyle. And this should be a regular discipline. I do think we need to develop the regular habit of seeking God’s guidance and wisdom in our purchase of material things.
It’s so easy to have good intentions but in our busy lives we allow important issues like this to slip and to be forgotten. So make looking at your spending and giving a priority.
Be intentional in your spending: Do you need to make decisions to limit spending in any area of your life? Do you need to set budgets? Sit down, take the time to look over and even pray over your bank statements for example.
Be intentional in your giving: I think this is one of my biggest problems when it comes to giving and I suspect I’m not alone. I’m a man of good intentions. I see a need and think. ‘Oh I must give to that cause or charity’ but so often I just never get round to it. It’s so often true isn’t it, we can be willing to give cheerfully or joyfully (as we were thinking about earlier) but we just never get round to it.
Thankfully there has been one occasion in my life when I have been unusually deliberate in the area of giving. I share this only to illustrate the importance of being intentional. When I started working I felt I needed to set up a separate bank account which I called my tithing account and I set up a monthly standing order for a percentage of my income to go into the account. Now unfortunately I wasn’t so intentional on making sure that I then gave all that money away, I had certain standing orders to my church and other things but I had plenty of my monthly tithe left over. But within in a few short years of me and subsequently Rachel earning a then relatively modest wage, we had literally thousands of pounds sitting in our tithing account.
Now I don’t mention this in any way as a boast, but I know that if I had not been intentional in this way, if I hadn’t ring fenced my tithe, I would just have spent it thoughtlessly on myself. The other advantage I’ve noticed in being intentional about setting aside money for giving is that when a need arises you can genuinely joyfully give to that need. And I’m not saying a separate bank account is necessarily always a good way to go. It has taken me a number of years for me to learn to stop seeing the money in the tithing account as God’s and the money in my bank account as mine. The reality of course is that it’s all His.
But setting up some sort of mechanism where your giving actually takes place and isn’t dependent on you remembering or finding time to do it I think is really important. And I would really recommend the setting up of standing orders to help with this.
So have you sat down recently and considered your giving? Are there charities or other causes that are on your heart that you have thought of supporting but have just never got round to it?
What about giving to the church? Have you prayerfully considered what you give to the church? Do you regularly support your church financially? What about the issue of tithing? Do you tithe? Maybe some of us have never really thought about it and it’s something that isn’t talked about very much in churches today. Tithing seems to be an important principle in the Bible. It doesn’t seem to be a command but there does seem to be a general expectation that God’s people set aside a minimum of 10% (yes you did read that correctly – I said minimum) of their income for the church and those in need. For some of us with good wages perhaps the figure should be more like 20 or 30%.
So I would encourage you to set aside time regularly to practically consider your giving. And to help us do that, leading us onto my next practical suggestion, I think we need to make ourselves accountable to each other in this.
Again it comes back to being intentional, often without the encouragement or reminders of others, it is all too easy to allow the issue to slip from our minds.
Choose someone close to you – your spouse or a close friend or family member and give each other permission to hold each other accountable to how you spend your money and in what ways you give. I know that in order for me to change I will need the encouragement and sometimes rebuking of others. Could we be accountable to each other in church with this? I would like to give anyone the permission to challenge me on any aspect of my lifestyle that displays greed or a lack of generosity.
Of course we have to be careful not to become judgemental or condemnatory. But if I’m chatting with my friends and I say I’ve saved up £40,000 for a brand new top of the range BMW, or Merc, or Audi, or VW, or Skoda, or what ever, I would like to think that someone might feel able to ask me: ‘Are you sure that that is the best use of the money God has given you?’. So let’s not be afraid of gently challenging each other.
Finally just do it. Just do something. We can talk about it and think about it and go round in circles and beat ourselves up because we feel we should be doing more but sometimes we just need to get stuck in and do something.
One of the most influential books that I have read in recent years is a book by Donald Millar – ‘A million miles in a thousand years’.
In the book, the writer is basically exploring what makes a good story and his challenge is that our purpose here on earth is to tell a good story with our lives and ultimately to participate in and be part of God’s story.
Reading this book was like an epiphany for me. I suddenly realised I don’t want to continue on the conveyor belt of life that our society would have me on. I don’t want the story of my life to be: got a good job, lived in a nice house, drove a nice car, went on nice holidays, saved enough to put kids through university, retired on a nice pension, played golf three times a week and then died and left a shed load of money to his kids. For a lot of people, that’s the height of their ambitions.
Honestly – How boring is that? I want to tell a better story with my life.
What about you? What story have you been telling? What story are you going to tell? What stories can you tell through your generosity and giving?
Are you thinking of changing your car? Maybe you’re planning to spend £15,000. Why not choose to buy a car for £5,000 and give the rest to a local charity that provides food and shelter for the homeless.
Maybe you’re planning to remortgage your house to pay for a new kitchen.
Why not stick with your old kitchen and using the money to fund well digging projects in Africa?
Maybe you’re retired, the kids have left home. You’ve a good amount of life savings in the bank but you realize actually you don’t really need much money and the kids don’t really need much of an inheritance. Why not use your life savings to help build an orphanage or a hospital or a school in India?
Wouldn’t those be great stories? But they’re big stories and I suspect very few of us including me are ready to dive into a life of such truly sacrificial giving. If you are, great! Go for it. If not start small – small stories can be just as good.
Whether it’s committing to supporting a child in poverty with a monthly giving to Tearfund or Compassion or another charity or giving just a small amount to a local charity like Patchwork (Coleraine) that cares for the poor and the vulnerable and the mental ill – Let’s do something good with our money. Let’s attempt to tell good stories!
Finally…… having challenged you to be intentional and accountable in your generosity and giving, I want to give you a practical opportunity in this right now!
If any of this has struck a chord with you or you have felt challenged as you’ve read this: Go grab a piece of paper and a pen.
Take a moment to prayerfully consider some specific things in your life in the area of money or materialism or generosity or giving that you feel challenged about and what action you could take to change. Try to think of up to 3 things if you can (but just one or two things would be fine). They can be about anything but try to make them specific. It could be ways in which you are extravagant, or aspects of your lifestyle that you need to change. It may be a way to simplify your life or something you have realised you can live without. May be there are causes or charities you have considered giving money to but have never got round to it. What you write can represent big steps or just small steps that you want to take in this area of your life. So note down the issue or thing and then what you think you can do about it.
So that’s the intentional bit. Then I want you to make yourself accountable to someone. Keep that piece of paper somewhere safe and commit to sharing your list sometime within the next week with your spouse or a close friend or family member. Give that person the permission to hold you accountable to changing or acting upon the things on your list.
I look forward to hearing your stories and adventures in giving!
Grace and peace.