The Generous Life-Part II
“How Can I Be Generous When I Am Just Trying to Survive?”
Neil Gabler writes that the the Federal Reserve Board has been gathering data since 2013 in order to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Much of this data is fairly predictable. Americans are willing to embrace more work if offered, hope to be paid more in the upcoming year, and are expecting their homes to appreciate in value. However, one figure that Neil Gabler writes is incredibly shocking is this: Forty-Seven percent of all Americans don’t have $400 to cover an unexpected emergency. Furthermore, this is a problem that is not limited to the marginalized class, it is an epidemic affecting the middle class.
Jesus had a lot to say about our attitudes toward money. In fact, almost one-third of the 38 parables of Jesus taught were about money. So to never teach about money would be to neglect so much of the teaching of Jesus. It has been my conviction that I never wanted people to struggle in an area of life because I didn’t teach about it from the scriptures. So here is the second installment of our series entitled, “The Generous Life” that focuses on how we can be more generous once we reorient our view toward financial stewardship.
The Generous Life is a series of paradoxes.
In order to embrace the generous life, we have to recognize that generosity goes against conventional wisdom, human nature and elementary math. But those who live this way would never consider going back. The generous life is built on at least three paradoxes:
Paradox #1: It is more blessed to give than to receive.
Before Paul painfully departs from Ephesus, he shares these final words with his Christian family: “35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)
Giving goes against our nature. One of the first words we learn as children is “mine.” We praise children when they do share, because it goes against their predicted behavior. Human nature, consumer consumption, and media marketing are all fascinated with getting and keeping more things. Things that many of us eventually learn do not bring us the happiness that was promised.
However, as we mature, we begin to notice something. Most of us begin to enjoy giving gifts as much as receiving them. Parents become more excited about holidays than children. We think more about what we are going to give to others for an upcoming event than we think about what people have given to us as part of the last occasion. Once we begin to give to others, it becomes an addictive cycle. We give, then we feel good, so then we want to give more.
In the church we see this as well. When a person first starts attending, they are a consumer. They enjoy the community, facilities, ministries and impact of the church. By taking advantage the ministry offered, they often are genuinely changed. But then something happens. They begin to see an opportunity that they were unaware of before. They notice that now they can invest in the lives of others. They begin to give toward this ministry. Then after they begin investing in the ministry, they begin to see their lives changed and priorities altered. They look at giving as a chance to honor God and impact others. They have moved from church consumers to kingdom investors…and they could not be happier. They learn that it s more blessed to give than receive.
Paradox #2: We receive more by giving more.
One of the metaphors for giving is that of a farmer sowing. Good farmers know that in order to have a crop next year, they need to be willing to part with some of the crop this year. They take the best seed, and sow it into the field for the coming year. In the same way, we invest in our future by being generous today. Paul writes:
6 The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Corinthians 9:6)
Growing up in the Midwest, we learn a bit about sowing and reaping. First, we always reap what you sow. Sounds simple, but if you sow corn, you will reap corn. Secondly, we reap after we sow. We sow seeds in one season and we reap them in another. Finally, we reap more than we sow. A tiny seed of corn produces a nightly stalk of ears. The more we sow, the more we reap. To put it another way, you cannot reap unless we first sow.
In the same way, as a general rule, the more we give to God, the more we see in return. This is not a hard mathematical equation that promises a particular return on investment. God is not a vending machine where we put in single dollars and get $20 bills in return. However, I have never seen anyone go broke by being generous and I have yet to see a time where God did not somehow honor the sincere generosity of someone. God is not a vending machine, but neither is He anyone’s debtor. We cannot out-give God.
Paradox #3: Our heart follows our money.
Jesus tells his followers:
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
On the surface this isn’t hard to see. We give to the things that we are passionate about in our lives. Our bank statements and debit card expenses are a running tally of what really matters most in our lives. We give money toward the people, things, and activities that are the most important to us. We can lie about what we love the most, but our expense accounts can’t. They show that where our heart is, there our treasure will follow.
Recently I have come to the conclusion that the converse is also true also. Not only do we invest money in the things that we love, but we also love the things we invest in. Our money not only follows our heart, our heart also follows our money.
One family from church has invited our family to watch the Kentucky Derby each year with their family. One of the traditions is to put a dollar on table and grab the name of of one of the participating horses out of the bag. I usually end up with a horse with a name like “Old Gimpy,” but despite his bad name and past performances, I am “all-in” on Old Gimpy. From the moment I draw his name, I am researching his past, learning his race style, tracing his heritage, and preparing to cheer loudly. I am crazy about this horse because I have invested in him, albeit only a dollar.
We give toward the things that we care about deeply. However, we also care about the things we give toward as well. If you want to love your church more, give toward it. Your heart will follow your purse. If you want your love for Jesus to grow, one of the ways is to give toward the local church.
The Generous life is led by people that have learned to be content.
Paul writes to the Philippians, “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
A few things about this passage strike me as interesting. First of all, contentment is something that has to be learned. We all must learn somehow that time and resources are not limitless and yet we have all that we need in this season of life.
Secondly, we learn that there is not a relationship between our income and our contentment. There are many marginalized people that live with great contentment and many wealthy people who cannot seem to get enough. Likewise, some marginalized people can be very discontent while some wealthy people content. Contentment has more to do with our attitude than our assets. We call can struggle with discontentment and we can all learn to be content. Paul said that he had to learn to be content in “any and every circumstance” that he faced. Why do so many extraordinarily wealthy people keep working withhold giving? Because they still have yet to learn to be content.
Finally, we see that the power to be content is not in ourselves, but in Christ who strengthens us. Paul writes that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Having nothing but Christ or having nothing with Christ teach us a valuate lesson: When Christ is all we have, we have all that we need.
A lack of contentment causes a number of problems in our lives. First, we seek to buy possessions the things that only God can provide. We attempt to put our security in wealth or our identity in our possession. We can find ourselves in the great consumer debt cycle that often begins with, “buying things that we don’t need with money that we don’t have to impress people the we don’t like.”
Contentment does not mean that we don’t have things. It simply means that because we don’t need to have things, so that we can actually enjoy the things that we do have.
The Generous Life requires that we prioritize our generosity.
It is not enough to be generous to the things that matter. We must be generous to the things that matter most. When asked “What are we obligated to give toward?” Haddon Robinson writes the answer would be the following items as concentric circles:
- We are to provide food, shelter and necessities for our family. God never asks us to give at the peril of our families. In fact, Paul writes that to not care for one’s family makes a person worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8). We are to take care of every need (not wants or wishes) of our families.
- We are to support those who personally teach you the word of God. (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18, 1 Corinthians 9:9). Scripture likens withhold of generosity toward ministers in the same category of withholding food/water from an ox while it is working. We recognize that it is cruel to do this to an animal, but sadly we can often find an excuse to withhold from our teachers.
- To help those within the local church who are considered poor. (Acts 2:44-45; Acts 11:29; 1 Corinthians 16:1;) The apostle John writes that our care for our Christian brothers and sisters demonstrates our love for God. He writes: 17 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? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)
- We are to do all the good we can as much as we can. “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10, Luke 3:11; ) Our giving gives us the opportunity to make a difference directly in the areas that we are the most passionate about.
As Christians, we are to provide for our families and our local church before we give to other ministries charities. Many people may object that this the prevents us from giving toward other causes. However, studies show that Christians that give to their local church first, still give at a greater rate to other charitable causes than their non-religious peers towards show simply give to the same charity. My friend Mark Brooks likes to share that that people who tithe to the local church actually give more than their peers to other non-profits. In other words, tithing causes people to be more, not less generous, to other secular charities.
The Generous Life is led by people that have a plan.
In order to live a sustained generous life, an amount of planning has to be involved. This planning is called a budget. Budgets are not about restrictions of spending. Budgets are about determining what is most important so that it is not neglected. Or as Dave Ramsey famously says, “A budget is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went.”
There are different ways that a budget can be structured and since each families income and obligations are unique, so each family should customize their own budget. However, I have seen one particular model work often in the lives of generous people and we have made a commitment to live by it ourselves. It is called the 10-10-80 principle. This means we give the first 10% to God, save the next 10% for our future and live on the remaining 80% now. Here is how it works:
1. Give to God First (10%)- In the Old Testament, the people of God were to give the “first-fruit” of produce back to God. The first-fruit was not only only the first, but it was the best of the produce and livestock. Giving God the first 10% was a way of saying that God was first in their lives and worthy of the the best they had to offer. It also meant that they had faith that God was going continue to bless them. They could be sacrificial toward God because they knew that He was going to continue to bless them. Generous people give God the first portion, not what is left over at the end. It is similar to having a guest of honor at a celebration. We give the guest the first and best piece of the cake, not the leftovers. The first communicates honor. The leftovers communicate indifference or thoughtlessness.
We don’t give to God as an appeasement to ensure financial blessing. However, we do recognize that giving to God first is a way of demonstrating that we are deponent upon Him financially. There is often relationship between hard work, savings and long term financial stability. But our stability is more often determined by things outside our control. We have no control over flooding/droughts, the price of a barrel of oil, political stability throughout the world, and other factors that determine long rises and falls in the stock market and the super market. When we give to God, we are affirming our dependency on the God who is sovereign over everything inside and outside us.
2. Prepare for the Future (10%)- Generous people also recognize that we go through seasons of life when things go wrong and finances get tight. In Genesis, Joseph was rewarded by Pharaoh and actually preserved the people of God because he prepared for the famine by requiring the people of Egypt to save 20% of their grain while the harvest was plentiful. Then we famine came, they could be sustained. If you have lived long enough, you have become acquainted with Murphy’s Law, You know the one that says, “everything that can go wrong will.” There are seasons of life this happens: companies downsize, refrigerators quit working, unexpected medical expenses are incurred, roofs start to leak, and so forth. Murphy will be coming, the question is when. Generous people are ready by saving in advance.
But saving doesn’t just include emergencies, but also a long-term plan. Investment advisors will tell us the secret to building a solid future is not simply by picking the right portfolio alone, but by saving a small, sustainable amount consistently over the course of your life. The wealthiest man in the Old Testament was King Solomon. He gives the following advise:
6 Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.
7 Without having any chief, officer, or ruler,
8 she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)
3. Live on the the Rest (10%)- When we honor God with our first portion and prepare for the future with our next portion, then we can actually enjoy the remaining portion more. Generous people have found that living on 80% with peace and security is much better than living on 100% worried about the future.
A Couple Considerations
We have found this principle works well though not easy at first. However, it is not as difficult as it seems. When someone gets a 20% pay raise, he/she will feel rich getting those first 2-3 checks. However, expenses gradually inflate to the point that after 2-3 checks, it doesn’t feel any different than before. The same is true for the 10-10-80 principle. The first 6-8 weeks it will seem difficult, but quickly our expenses will adjust to the new level of “income.”
However, there are a couple considerations we need to remember. First of all, the majority of Americans are carrying a level of consumer debt. There must be a plan to attack this debt. For this reason, we offer a course regularly called “Financial Peace University.” Compound interest is working for our against all of us in some way. Those who are struggling in this area are in need of a budget even more in order to get out of this cycle. We have known many people that have been liberated by getting out of the debt cycle. However, I have never seen it done without a budgeted plan.
Secondly, the above percentages changes can as our circumstances change. It was reported that when John Wesley made thirty pounds, he lived on twenty-eight and gave away two. When his income rose to sixty pounds, he knew that he only needed twenty-eight, so he gave away thirty-two. Finally, when he earned ninety pounds, he continued to live on twenty-eight and gave away sixty-two.
Finally, we recognize that there are rare occasions when it mathematically is impossible to give 10%. I have found it comforting to believe that “something is always better than nothing,” so long as that something is legitimately the best that we can do at the time. We don’t always do that we want to do, but we should all do what we can do. Likewise, others find themselves in circumstances where the tithe literally is, “the least I can do” and should be exceeded. Robinson writes, “I believe God honors many poor people who don’t give a tenth, because what they do give is a sacrificial amount in relationship to what why ear. Similarly, for many people, giving a tenth is a way of robbing God. Their tithe becomes their tip.”