Giving—Don’t Listen to Your Preacher

Giving—Don’t Listen to Your Preacher

From the standpoint of scripture, there is not a great deal to be said to Christians about giving, tithing, and so on. Although many books have been written on the subject, and millions of sermons preached, they often have involved eisogesis—i.e., reading into texts a preconceived idea, ending up with spurious scriptural justification for a specific theology.

I present no “proof texts” here, but rather what I believe to be the overall thrust of scripture, and indeed of God’s heart, concerning our material possessions.

Old Testament Statements About Giving

No single collection of practices clearly defines what the Torah says about sharing our bounty. The commands are inconsistent and confusing. I intentionally will quote no Old Testament texts on this subject, because I fear that citing texts and trying to artificially harmonize them would obfuscate rather than inform. If full-time scholars over many centuries have failed to make coherent sense of the commands, I have little chance of doing so.

Here is a bare-bones summary:

*Israelites were commanded to offer a tithe (1/10) of their agricultural produce (early on, virtually all Israelites were farmers). But they were to consume it themselves, essentially having an exuberant party in the presence of Yahweh—note also that they were to include their slaves in the party! [A side note: This is not the way other religions did it!]

*They were to give another tenth of their produce to the Levites, since this priestly tribe did not receive an allotment of land for growing crops or livestock.

*Yet another passage mentions a special offering of a tenth every third year, this going not only to Levites but also to widows, orphans, and aliens (people from other lands). It is unclear whether this tithe was in addition to or the same as the annual tithe for the Levites. My guess is that it was in addition to the standard Levitical tithe, but I may be wrong.

*These tithes—tenths—were in addition to various other offerings specified for special occasions. At the very least, then, God commanded the Israelites to give away one-tenth of their produce, and likely another tenth every third year. Another tenth was offered to Yahweh, but he told them that, after offering it, they were to use it for a family feast (our Creator is very much into partying!); so I don’t count that as giving it away. The people made numerous other sacrifices and offerings related to such things as sickness, becoming ceremonially unclean, seeking forgiveness, etc.

*Israel’s cumulative tithes, sacrifices, and offerings added up to a significant portion of the people’s produce—many times more for these people, who constantly lived on the brink of sufficiency, compared with the trivial amounts that we give away in the midst of our relative wealth. (According to the Empty Tomb data cited below, on a percentage basis the Israelites gave away perhaps 4000% to 6000% of what American Christians give.)

New Testament Statements About Giving

No New Testament language explicitly sanctions a particular regime of giving. The longest passage about giving, and the one most quoted, is Paul’s statement to the Corinthians related to his collecting money for destitute believers in Palestine. Chapters 8 and 9 of II Corinthians address this question, the heart of the discussion probably being this:

He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.  As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever.” [Psalm 112:9, trans. BCM—This statement refers not to God, as some assume, but to “the man who fears Yahweh, who rejoices greatly in his commandments.”]

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God.  — II Corinthians 9:6-12 (RSV)


Advocates of the “prosperity gospel” love to quote some of these words as a Spiritual Principle: For example, “You will be enriched in every way for great generosity.” That Paul’s words do not imply God’s commitment to bestow riches on anyone who gives away a lot of money is illustrated by the fact that Paul himself remained thoroughly un-rich. Ditto for all the apostles, and of course for Jesus himself when he walked the earth. The prosperity doctrine proclaims the opposite of a great deal of what Jesus taught and lived (cf. Matthew 16:24 [Trans. BCM]  “If someone wants to follow me, he should deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”). I would challenge anyone who believes the foolishness of the prosperity gospel to preach it in Haiti or in Zimbabwe, and see how successful it is. The doctrine (scam) works only in an economy sufficiently wealthy to permit “natural selection” of believers.

Here’s a rough description of how it works, using totally hypothetical numbers: Out of 100 people who decide to test the doctrine and give away preposterous amounts of money, perhaps 10—purely by chance—will find themselves becoming somewhat (or even a lot) wealthier. The rest either will see no change or perhaps will become even poorer; those people are never again heard from. Of the 10 who have “proved” the prosperity gospel by (randomly) becoming wealthier, perhaps one or two will (again, randomly) come into significantly greater wealth (a rich unmarried aunt will die, or whatever), thus “demonstrating” the validity of the doctrine. These one or two will proclaim their success, while many if not most of the 10 will still stick around, inspired by the riches of their friends and hoping for even better fortune for themselves. Then a new set of 100 people will be deceived into trying this method of manipulating God, and the process starts all over again. The net result is a congregation in large part comprising people who confidently proclaim the legitimacy of the prosperity gospel—those who discovered its ignis fatuus having left for other pastures.


Anatomy of a scam

The way the prosperity “gospel” (basically a scam) works in practice is similar to a classic investment hustle:

(1) Send ad letters to a million people touting a certain very volatile stock, saying it’s going to go up and you can make a killing by buying it; send another million letters saying it’s going to go down and you can make a killing by shorting it (a method of profiting from declining stock value).

(2) If the stock goes down, you forget about the first group, mailing the second group to say, “I told you it was going down!” To half of this group, you tout a second stock, saying it’s going to go up; and tell the other half it’s going to go down.

(3) Keep doing this, mailing subsequent letters only to those who received letters describing what turned out randomly to be the case (because you have no idea whether it will go up or down). Eventually, a few hundred people are left who have seen you “correctly” call every single event—and therefore who are willing to pay you thousands of dollars a year to subscribe to your financial newsletter.


God has never established any kind of Rule or Principle or Spiritual Law that guarantees particular results: Do A, and B will follow. That is magic. And God strictly condemned such practices (see Leviticus 19:26, Deuteronomy 18:10-11). Our God is personal, and he relates personally to all of his creatures. He has no buttons to push. Thousands of benighted preachers have proclaimed, concerning healing or answered prayer or finances or whatever, that if you employ the right kind of faith or perform the acceptable action, God will heal you, or God will perform a miracle, or God will bless you financially—because he has established the Principle that, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will receive whatever you claim, or he has established the Principle that if you give a lot of money (conveniently, it’s always to a particular church or organization), you will become wealthy. And so on. It’s right there in Matthew 17:20 (If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.), and in II Corinthians 9:11 (You will be enriched in every way for great generosity), or whatever. I have even heard preachers say that if you do such-and-such, God has to act, because he always conforms to his own “laws.” Ouch!!!

Although I don’t clearly understand the Matthew 17 passage, I can safely say that it doesn’t establish a push-button response on the part of God. Yes, God does heal the sick, God does perform incredible miracles. I’ve seen both, on multiple occasions. But such are never guaranteed. The Creator and Redeemer of the universe is not a vending machine. There is no push-button response relating prosperity to giving. That is magic or witchcraft, not service to the Creator and Savior of the world.

Generosity on our parts can indeed open up all sorts of blessings for us, and miserliness often blocks God’s blessings—I have no problem agreeing that there is often a correlation between our giving and our being blessed (the blessings, however, will not necessarily be financial): For by aligning our hearts with the heart of our Savior, we are more capable of receiving his blessings.

But it’s not magic. No buttons to push. It is a trend, not a guarantee. There are never any guarantees with God in terms of how he is going to act. We know that his actions will bless us, but those blessings may even take the form of suffering, in which our days of patient darkness help us to be more conformed to the image of Jesus—and that, of course, is the greatest possible blessing (cf. Romans 8:28-29)! Millions of Christians over the centuries have been outrageously generous with their material possessions, giving sacrificially in ways that you and I cannot imagine, but they have not thereby triggered a Spiritual Principle that brought them riches. As often as not, they died in poverty.

I do not say they were not rewarded, for our God is insanely generous in rewarding graciousness on our part. It just may not happen in this life (see Matthew 6:20—“Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal). The riches no doubt are there, and will be there, but they may appear only after the resurrection.

God’s heart, our hearts

Back now to the biblical view of giving—where part of the reward may come later, but where the consequences of generosity also can bring incomparable and immediate pleasure to the giver even in this life. The biblical view is simple:

We should cheerfully open our hearts and open our hands, remembering that none of what we “own” is in fact ours. We’re just squatters on Someone Else’s land. (Check out Leviticus 25:23, I Chronicles 29:11, Psalm 24.)

I love the way our friend and pastor Jim Linder phrased it many years ago:

“I can’t give anything to God, because I don’t own anything! It all belongs to God. The fundamental question, then, isn’t ‘How much am I going to give to God?’ but rather, ‘How much of his wealth am I going to spend on myself?’ ”

My favorite sermon on giving came from our friend Glenn Taibl, pastor of the Lutheran church we attended in Minnesota several decades ago.

“Have fun with your giving!,” he proclaimed. “Be generous. Give and give and give. I don’t care whether you give to this church or to someone else, as long as you give. The important thing is that you cultivate the heart of Jesus and that you refuse to cling to the things of this life. The more you open your heart and your hands and your wallet, the more joy you will experience. Go for it!”

How rare was Glenn’s refusal to teach that Christian giving should first go to the local church. Professional ministers have proclaimed that doctrine for centuries. Nonsense! Nowhere does scripture say anything remotely like that. In fact, nowhere are Christians commanded to tithe. Our relationship with God does not involve legalistic Rules. I would never claim that people must give away ten percent of their income in order to be pleasing to God. And I especially wouldn’t contend that said ten percent should go to the local church! There is no justification for that practice, other than the fact that churches very much want our money. It certainly does not appear in the scriptures. It is vitally important that we give generously, but the recipients of our giving should be determined by what the Holy Spirit tells us to do and by our own consciences, not by leaders of a church eager to share our bounty.

Giving cheerfully

I would find it surprising (but not out of the question) if many believers could give away less than, say, twenty percent of their wealth and still experience intimately the heart of Jesus. Some can share much more, some poorer people much less.

If all believers gave from hearts radically transformed by the love of Jesus, preachers would not need to invoke nonbiblical Rules such as the need to tithe to a local church—for no churches would want for funds, and charitable organizations would overflow with resources, and there would be virtually no homeless people, no orphans.

Alas, we have a long way to go. The organization Empty Tomb, Inc., which dedicates itself in part to monitoring and analyzing Christian giving, points out that, on a per-person basis, Christian church members give away less than one-half of one percent of their income to charitable organizations of all kinds, including churches ( That is appalling! Moreover, although richer people give in aggregate more money than poorer people, income is negatively correlated with the percent of people’s income that they give: The higher people’s income, on average, the lower the percentage they are willing to part with.

There is no condemnation

Yet we cannot, we must not, be legalistic. We dare not judge our sisters and brothers:

*First, we rarely know anyone else’s actual financial circumstances, and therefore we can’t know for certain what resources are truly available to them. Nor do we know their intentions. Do you remember all the media stories years ago that focused on Bill Gates’s stinginess, because he rarely gave away any money? Reporters sneered when he responded that he was planning to do so, but hadn’t yet worked out all the details! See Matthew 7:1-5. It turns out that Gates’s “excuse” was genuine, and within a few years he had given away more money than perhaps anyone else in the history of this planet.

*Second, even when we are stingy, we are forgiven. That’s what the cross was all about. Jesus takes away all the sin of all the world, including our avarice. It is easy for me to point the finger at zillionaires who live in ostentatious mansions, claiming that they clearly are selfish. But cannot a starving Congolese child say the same about me, as I enjoy life in our (by my definition) “modest” house while she has no place to sleep and must drink filthy, contaminated water just to remain barely alive?

We will never forget the night, years ago, when members of the small group that met in our house brought a visitor who just that afternoon had arrived by air from an impoverished African country. We love our home and are very grateful for it, but have always thought of it as being quite average and in some ways even slightly humble. Imagine our chagrin when this wonderful, godly visitor asked meekly if he could go upstairs to see the rest of the house, because he had never been in such a luxurious dwelling!

If after the resurrection we are all lined up according to our level of stinginess or generosity, I suspect that the vast majority of us from the developed world will be clustered at the back of the line (I include myself in this indictment). Of the people on this planet who are extraordinarily generous, most probably live in poverty, yet are accustomed to giving away the last of what they have in order to bless another human being.

I do not write this, however, to foist guilt on you. I rather want to encourage all of us to strive to have the heart of Jesus. The hymn in Philippians 2:5-10 is, in my mind, the most condensed statement of God’s heart in all of scripture. Jesus was willing to let go of all that he had, of all his prerogatives, of all his glory, in order to become a human slave, and even to be tortured and murdered. Because he loved us! Likewise we are called to let go of all that we have. For joy!

Only in giving—of ourselves, our money, our time, our love—will we experience the joy for which we were created. That’s why no Rules are appropriate for guiding Christian giving. We are simply to give and give and give, freely and joyfully, for that’s what God had in mind when he created us. It’s great fun!