The Folly in Being Stingy
Scrooges in the Bible
Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, doubtless the most popular tale associated with the Christmas season, conveys the Christian message that a sinner reaps what he sows. It tells about an old loan shark by the name of Scrooge, who wants and loves nothing else but money. He spends long days at work, clawing for every penny he can get. Away from work he has no life except to shuffle about an empty house, and no conversation except mutterings to himself about all the humbug in the world, and no friend except a dead partner who lives on in his memory. But what is remarkable about Scrooge is that his daily round of grasping and grumping is exactly the life he has chosen. He made himself the way he is, and even now, given a choice, he would not become anything else. We see from our standpoint that he is not happy. How could a lonely man with a venomous tongue and cold heart be happy? We see also that he could escape from self-imposed misery if, instead of clinging to his wealth, he shared it with others and joined with all kind hearts in celebrating Christmas. But Scrooge is blind to his folly. It takes three supernatural visitors, the last bringing him to the sight of his own unmourned death, to open his eyes.
The character of Scrooge is just a nineteenth-century recreation of the rich man who appears in two parables of Jesus. In one of these, Dives (traditional name for the rich man) lives so much for his own pleasure that he reluctantly parts with a few crumbs to feed Lazarus, a leper at his gate (Luke 16:19-31). After both men die, Lazarus goes to a place of comfort and rest, but Dives goes to hell. There he hears that his torments are the just reward for a life of heartless self-indulgence. In the other parable, the rich man builds storehouses for all his wealth in the confidence that he will enjoy it for years to come, but God suddenly takes his life, calling him a fool because he has failed to be rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).
Giving God His due
In two ways we can give God a portion of what, by human reckoning, belongs to us. We can put both time and money on the altar of sacrifice: time borrowed from the pursuit of our own affairs and money taken from our own pockets. What guidelines should we follow when deciding how much time and money to give God? We should heed Scripture, which offers guidelines well grounded on moral principles.
Moral Principles underlying our Giving
The minimum allotment of time to the worship and service of God is one day in every seven (Lev. 23:3). An important secondary purpose of setting aside this day is to provide both man and beast with rest from the routines of life (Exod. 20:8–11). It appears that God was making it easier for us to schedule proper time both for Him and for rest when He gave us the week to structure our reckoning of days.
The value of a weekly rest has often been proved. In the early 1800s, brigades of native Americans toiled every summer to transport goods across Canada. The brigades who had been evangelized and taught by missionary James Evans refused to work on Sunday. At first the officials of the Hudson Bay Company greatly resented Evans's influence and sought to discredit him, but in time opposition melted away because it became clear that the Christian brigades who stopped on Sundays could travel faster and reach their destination sooner than the brigades who worked day after day without stopping (1).
Lord Shaftesbury, the British earl in the middle 1800s who was both a leader of Parliament and a prominent figure within the evangelical church, left us proof that a weekly rest is also beneficial for working animals, as the original Fourth Commandment implied when it laid the Sabbath requirement on animals as well as men. When Lord Shaftesbury saw that London costermongers were working their donkeys day after day without any break, he challenged them to take Sundays off. Since the earl had previously gained their respect by defending their interests, the costers complied with his suggestion and soon found that with a weekly rest of twenty-four hours, their donkeys could pull loads thirty miles a day without exhaustion, whereas before their limit was fifteen miles a day (2).
We should give generously to God and to His ministries (again, Luke 12:16–21).
Old Testament Applications
Before Christ came, God in His wisdom applied and upheld these underlying moral principles in ways best suited to the nation of Israel.
When God gave Moses the summary of moral duty known as the Ten Commandments, He decreed that the people of Israel should set aside the seventh day of the week—the day known as the Sabbath—for worshiping and serving God (Exod. 20:8–12). After the nation returned from exile in Babylon, God used Nehemiah to reaffirm this requirement (Neh. 13:15–22), which remained in force throughout the remainder of the Old Testament era.
The special day God chose for Israel, the seventh day, was intended to commemorate His day of rest after creating the world in six days (Exod. 20:11). God’s purpose was to remind the nation of His greatness. Because they were continually tempted to fall into idolatry, He gave them a weekly lesson on His superiority to all idols. Unlike an idol that is powerless to create anything, He was the Creator of all.
In the law of Moses, God mandated that the people of Israel give a tenth of their increase, known as a tithe (Lev. 27:30–32; Deut. 14:22–23). Malachi, the last prophet during the Old Testament era, rebuked the nation for neglecting the tithes that the law required (Mal. 3:8–10). Tithing had been the recognized standard of giving even in the days of the patriarchs. Abraham gave Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God, a tenth of the spoils from his victory over the Mesopotamian kings (Gen. 14:20). Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, promised to give God a tithe of his possessions if God would grant him protection and blessing (Gen. 28:22).
Old Testament Law in the New Testament
When we turn to the New Testament, we naturally expect it to reinforce Sabbath-keeping and tithing. After all, God is the same now as He was before Christ came. What it means to be generous toward God has not changed either. Yet nowhere in the New Testament do we find either a commandment to observe the Sabbath or a commandment to tithe. The reason is that these commandments are Old Testament laws of a kind that the church has been free to modify in particulars even though it has been obliged to retain them in principle.
Within the legal code known as the law of Moses we find laws in several distinct categories including ceremonial, civil, and moral. The ceremonial law prescribed a system of sacrifices that became obsolete when Christ died on the cross. The civil law presumed a form of society that did not survive into the Church Age. Therefore, the church retained neither the ceremonial law nor the civil law and recognized that binding force continues only in the moral law, including all Ten Commandments except the law of the Sabbath. Yet there is another category of Mosaic law. Within it are laws that the church has retained in modified form. One is the law of the Sabbath, and another is the law of tithing.
In many debates over questions of Christian practice it is forgotten that the Lord gave sweeping authority to the church (Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23). Its right to "bind" or "loose" extends to "whatsoever." Since Scripture never teaches otherwise, we must presume that a mandate so broad in scope must include all decisions in the following two categories:
- The church can decide for itself what is best in matters that do not touch directly on truth or righteousness: that is, in matters such as church government, administration of the ordinances, and forms of worship.
- The church also has authority to decide how moral principles should be applied. The early church set certain standards of conduct that translated moral principles into guidelines appropriate for daily life in ancient society (Acts 15:20). Likewise, many Christian bodies today set similar standards for the purpose of maintaining good order and testimony in the modern world.
Acting within this second realm of authority, the church transferred Sabbath obligations to a different day of the week and dispensed with the law of tithing. The church did not disregard the underlying moral principles, but rather dressed them in a new set of obligations. Since the early church was controlled by the Spirit of God, we may assume that it was following divine direction. God in His wisdom led the church to implement the same moral principles in new ways best suited to the new era.
New Testament Applications
Which precise day in the weekly cycle should be designated as the day of rest and worship is merely a question of words and names, with no moral significance. Recognizing this, the church decided to make the first day special (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10) in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. As a result, believers have a weekly reminder that Christianity is a supernatural religion. Celebration of Sunday is therefore one safeguard against Christianity degenerating into a religion of unbelieving forms and traditions, such as we find in today’s liberal churches.
Yet the New Testament never mandates cessation of all work on Sunday. That is, it does not present a modified Fourth Commandment, with Sunday replacing Saturday as the day set apart. The reason is simple. God knew that many believers in the worldwide church springing from the apostles would not have the freedom to shun work on Sunday. In the early church, many believers were slaves, who could refuse serving their masters on Sunday only at great risk to life and well-being. Therefore, in His mercy, God declined to make Sunday a day of mandatory rest.
Still, most believers in the modern world have the option of devoting all Sunday to God, thereby also securing a day of rest for themselves. Since that day truly belongs to Him, they should, to the fullest extent possible, use Sunday for fellowship, worship, and carrying out the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20).
The New Testament application of the underlying principle specifies three obligations (1 Cor. 16:2):
- We should give weekly.
- Everyone in the church, regardless of age or financial status, should give.
- Everyone should give according to how much God has prospered him. In other words, the wealthy should give more than the poor. We learn from this that God measures our giving in relation to our ability to give. But the New Testament does not require of anyone a specific amount or percentage. The only standard is to be generous. What does this mean?
How to define generosity
As Jesus watched worshipers at the Temple cast money into the treasury, He observed a poor widow give two mites, equivalent to only one farthing (Mark 12:41-4). A farthing was the smallest Roman copper coin, equal to about one sixteenth of a soldier's daily pay. Jesus told His disciples that from God's point of view, she gave more than all the rest, because what she gave was a greater portion of what she had. This incident is extremely important because, like the Sermon on the Mount, it raises Old Testament conceptions of righteousness to a new level. An Old Testament saint fulfilled all his legal obligations to God and to the poor if he gave less than twenty percent. At that level of giving he saw nothing in God’s Word that required him to feel ungenerous. But the only person that Jesus commended for generosity was a poor widow who "did cast in all that she had, even all her living." Clearly, God wants us to know that we have no grounds for boasting in our generosity if we give Him less than everything.
Must we conclude that we should give our whole paycheck to God? No. What we should conclude is that however much we give, we could give more—that we are less generous than our resources truly allow. One reason the New Testament refuses to say how much we should give should now be evident. It is seeking to discourage pride. God does not want anyone to think that he is a great and wonderful giver.
A practical rule of thumb
Another reason the New Testament never legislates a certain level of giving is implied in Paul's exhortation that we should give cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). God declines to set a rigid requirement that would stifle the right motives in giving. Giving would be mechanical and cheerless if we were all forced to pay a definite amount. It would be like paying a tax. We would enjoy giving as much as we enjoy handing our money over to the government. God expects His children, filled with the Spirit, to give because they want to, not because they have to. And He gives them the freedom to decide how much, so that they can be generous with a willing and cheerful heart.
Nevertheless, the practice of tithing was not created by the law of Moses. It goes back much further, at least to Abraham. Thus we may view it as a timeless standard for minimum giving. Most Christians feel that they should give God no less than a tithe.
Moreover, it is a common view among Christians that a believer's whole tithe should go to his local church. The practice of giving one tenth to the local church is called storehouse tithing, in reference to Malachi 3:10. From the remaining nine tenths comes all giving to parachurch ministries, charities, and the poor. Examination of Old Testament law lends support to this practice. The obligation that fell on an Israelite somewhat exceeded the basic tithe. He was enjoined, for example, to help the poor by leaving them field margins and a second gleaning of grapes (Lev. 19:9; Deut. 24:19-21).
Some advocates of storehouse tithing go further and teach that giving to missions should also exceed the basic tithe channeled to support the ministries of a local church. A church committed to this view of tithing may conduct a fund-raising campaign called "faith promise missions." All members who participate agree to take a step of faith, pledging to missions an amount above their tithe while trusting God to continue meeting their own needs. The amount is whatever each family decides as they seek the Lord's leading.
Many texts promise that God will confer great blessing upon a faithful and generous giver. The blessing takes many forms.
- Deliverance from trouble (Psa. 41:1).
- Material bounty (Prov. 3:9-10; 11:25; Luke 6:38). These texts make it clear that if you share your wealth with others, God will give you more than you have given. You cannot outgive God.
- Spiritual prosperity (Isa. 58:10-2). In particular, God promises to illumine and guide the man who reaches out to needy souls. Just as he has helped others, so God will help him.
Many believers can testify that these promises are true. I have heard many state that God raised them to a higher standard of living when they began to tithe faithfully. God did not necessarily make them wealthy, simply more comfortable with more financial security.
My own parents double-tithed for many years. Did God bless them? From today’s perspective, allowing us to see their whole lives, the benefit of their practice is quite obvious. Toward the end of my mother's working career, the Lord gave her a good job that provided for almost thirty years of comfortable retirement. He also gave her someone (her son) to take care of her.
By following a few simple rules, you can assure that your giving will please God.
- Start tithing with your first paycheck. No one who is old enough to earn money is too young to be generous. Indeed, one of the main purposes in giving children opportunities to work should be to teach them the principle of tithing.
- Tithe from your gross income. All the money withheld from your paycheck is no less yours because you never see it. Withholdings are really payments for benefits you receive in return—benefits that include retirement income and medical care, not to mention fire and police protection and all the other government services supported by taxes.
- Tithe from the top. The first check you write on the new balance after depositing your earnings should go to the church. Pay your tithe before you pay your bills, lest your bills take all your money and you fail to give God anything.
- Pay your tithe immediately. Do not let a tithe obligation accumulate over a period of weeks or months. According to 1 Corinthians 16:2, mentioned earlier, you should pay your tithe on the next Sunday after receiving your earnings. Delay tempts you not to pay your tithe. If for some reason you cannot pay your tithe immediately, any interest you may earn from investing the money belongs to the church.
- Let your giving be as secret as possible. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that giving motivated by a desire for the praise of men is unacceptable to God (Matt. 6:3-4). If you win such praise, it is the only reward you will receive. To gain the rewards that God promises for generosity, you must keep your giving out of the limelight. Indeed, even your left hand should not know what your right hand is doing.
Jesus' advice anticipated the very first problem that arose in the church. Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, two believers in Jerusalem, sold a possession and publicly donated some of the proceeds to the church, but to magnify their own standing, they pretended that they had not withheld a portion for themselves. God struck them dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11).
Obviously, you can rarely keep your giving secret from everyone. For example, certain officers of the church will process your tithe money and see where it comes from. But you can avoid publicity, and you can guard your heart from an improper desire for human recognition.
- Do not view tithing as a way of getting rich. God promises lavish material blessings for generosity. But desire for the selfish benefits in tithing is as much an improper motive as desire for human praise. To seek riches is contrary to Scripture (Prov. 23:4-5; 1 Tim. 6:6-11).
- Give cheerfully, from a grateful heart. The right motive in giving is love for God. By giving generously to Him, we show that we appreciate all that He has done for us. Moreover, we show that we are glad to be His servants, endowed with the privilege of giving, for "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Our joy and cheerfulness as we give are the outward marks of inward gratitude. Thus, "God loveth a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7).