Giving: How much?
If you’ve been reading the last couple of articles, you’ll know that we’ve spent them examining various principles that we find in the Bible that provide the context within which we should make decisions about what we do with our money! To repeat what was said last month, it is in holding these principles together in creative tension that we stand the best chance of responding obediently to the Holy Spirit. My intention in this and following articles is to put these principles to work and address many of the common questions that we tend to ask when thinking about money and possessions.
Perhaps the most common one of all is “how much should I give?” Behind this question often lurk a number of complexities: “what ‘level’ of lifestyle is allowed?” “Doesn’t the Bible teach that we should tithe 10% of our income?” “To what extent should we save?” “Isn’t wealth a sign of God’s blessing and to be enjoyed?” I’m sure you can add your own questions…
Getting the question right
When answering these questions its critical to get our starting point right, and that means we need to change the question. “How much should I give” puts the question as if we own something, out of which we give something to God. But that is not the case! The reality is that God owns everything. Everything you or I possess belongs to him. We are not owners, we are stewards. King David puts it well in 1 Chronicles 29.14: “who am I and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own we have given you.” We have to change our mindset from: “This is what I own, now how much of it should I give to God?” to, “this is what God owns, now how much of it should I spend on myself?”
We tend to think about how much we give away from what is ours; the paradigm shift is that we need to think about how much we keep from what is Gods. That is the correct starting point.
Randy Alcorn once wrote that God gives us a certain amount of possessions to steward and lets us set out own salary. That’s quite a helpful way of thinking. Rather than asking “how much should I give?” we ask “how much should I keep?”
Lets be honest, if you earn £100 000 a year, you can give away 20% and still live with significant luxury. If you earn £20 000 a year, you can give away 2% and struggle. Who has given more – the poor widow in the temple or the rich who gave out of their surplus? I think the reality of our discipleship is revealed by what we keep much more than by what we give.
Out of what God has given me to steward, how much should I spend on myself?
That is part of the reason why tithing is not applicable for Christians today. Tithing has had a long run in the church and many people have faithfully tithed for years, but the uncomfortable truth is that is not the sum of what it means to follow Jesus with out money. Here are four quick reasons a 10% tithe is not Christian. 1) The Old Testament tithe laws added up to more like 26% than 10%; even following the law does not equal 10% of income. 2) Tithing was fair in OT law because everyone owned land so their ‘income capacity’ was roughly equal. It now works like a regressive tax – the rich give 10% and don’t feel it; for a poor South American farmer, giving 10% would be an intolerable burden. 3) Tithing is part of the OT law that was fulfilled by Jesus and, like the rest of the law, is no longer binding on the Christian. 4)Tithing allows us to avoid Jesus’ claim on all our possessions. Jesus said “if you do not renounce all your possessions you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.33). He owns the lot.
So, to ask the real question, how much should we keep?
Looking back at our principles, I would suggest that to answer this question we need to take account of what we need, the ability of God to provide for our needs and the relative wealth of others. When we take time to meditate on the billions of people who do not know Jesus, or the grinding poverty of 1.2 billion people globally, the desperate condition of the church in the UK and the disintegration of our society, we may find a desire growing to give as much as possible away…
Here are three helpful models used by many Christians to help them respond to this question.
Rick Warren writes of a challenge God gave him: “you see how much you can give, and we’ll see how much I can give.” He determined to give away more as a % of his income every year and has done so. Many people I know who have used this model have started at 10% and increased this figure every year. Now of course you can abuse this model, increase your giving by 0.1% every year and avoid Jesus – all models can be abused! But if used properly, this can be a really helpful way of growing in our faith, especially those who find money particularly difficult to detach from! It allows us to ‘test’ year on year whether God can be trusted to provide for us. It allows us to discover, slowly, the joy of giving more and more away.
2. The graduated tithe (the Ronald Sider model)
This model proposes that you work out what you need and then give 10% of your income away up to that point (see the last blog for caveats about ‘need’!). When you begin to earn above what you ‘need’ this model proposes you give away a greater % of each £1000 you earn. So, for example, if I ‘need’ £25 000, I give 10% away of the first £25 000 I earn. Then, for the next £1000 I give away 12.5% of it, then 15% of the next £1000 and so on until there comes a point where I give away everything (in this example, everything I earn over £61 000). This model takes some maths! But it ensures that those who have more give more. On the face of it, it sounds a bit tame, a bit non-radical. However, if it was practised it would change the face of the Western church. Research consistently shows that almost all of us give less as a % of our income the more money we have; this model ensures a different way of living.
3. Give away everything you don’t need (the John Wesley model)
John Wesley famously set his level of income to what he needed (which was not poverty by any means) and gave the rest away. He did this consistently although his income multiplied many times over his life. He is quoted as saying “if I die with more than sixpence in my pocket I have betrayed the gospel.” John Stott was a well-known scholar and evangelical leader. Shortly before his death his house was burgled twice, but both times the thieves left empty-handed… because apart from his large library he had nothing of value to steal. Both men gave away everything they didn’t need; this too can be a model for us.
are complex… but here’s some reflections…:
Consumption and ownership
There is a difference between owning significant possessions and consumption / lifestyle. It is possible (though extremely rare) to be ‘rich’ in terms of the value of what we own without living a rich lifestyle. We may steward vast possessions and use them for mission, care for the poor, etc., and live a simple life. We may do this, however the temptations of riches are such that very few seem able to. Someone once said it was harder than getting a camel through the eye of a needle…
Is wealth a sign of God’s blessing to be enjoyed?
Wealth is a blessing of God. That’s why everyone should enjoy sufficient wealth and poverty is an evil. In a context where many people are destitute, the question is, why has God blessed us? Is it so we can enjoy a comfortable life or is it that “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9.8)? A bit of a cliche, but when God increases our income is it to increase our standard of living or standard of giving?
To save or not to save?
Like many difficult tensions this one needs discernment with principles in hand; there are no hard and fast rules! Some savings allow us to steward our possessions better than living without savings. If I buy a house, I spend less money on my accommodation than if I rent forever (in the UK anyway). That should be the way of thinking though – does this allow me to steward my resources most effectively for the kingdom of God? Saving can of course also be an attempt to avoid relying on God’s provision or selfish hoarding. It is likely that each of us will reach different decisions, but as ever accountability helps to prevent us deceiving ourselves!
Next Time: Giving: What to?