Examining our motivations for Christian giving
Generosity is part of the gospel; not a “nice to have” feature or an “optional extra” but a sign of obedience to God. This can be seen from Paul’s writing to the Corinthians exhorting them to be generous: “Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.” (2 Cor 9:13).
But how can we practise generosity in a way that protects us from pride, self-righteousness, prejudice, the desire for control, any tendencies towards patronising the ones we help, a feeling of deserving for giving…or any other sinfulness that we can bring into the practice of giving?
Nowadays, while most Christian resources on how to handle money and possessions encourage generosity and arrive at pretty similar conclusions on the question of “what should we do”, the way they reach those conclusions varies significantly. There is, generally speaking, an agreement on the fact that giving is important and should be practised by every Christian. But there is far less to be found on educating our hearts and considering our motivations.
The rhetoric employed in motivating Christians to give is extremely relevant. Paying attention to this might help us identify the underlying assumptions that are at play in trying to convince believers to make their money serve a good cause.
The thing that I find most troubling when inventorying the contemporary popular discourse aimed at encouraging believers to be generous (be it books on this topic or sermons aimed at stirring generosity), is a strong sense of a pervasive investment mentality. Now, let me clarify: I don’t think it’s all wrong—we should have discernment when exercising generosity—but the moment we take charge and “do it” with a sense of self-importance (“we’re advancing God’s kingdom!”) we’re in danger of photobombing God. Because we are sophisticated enough, of course, we say “it’s all about him”, but oh, how we love to be in the picture.
What’s even more unsettling than this investment mindset that permeates a lot of popular Christian teaching on generosity, is seeing self-centredness and the pursuit of happiness placed firmly at the core of our eternal existence. It is a subtle way of making everything about ourselves, if not here and now, then in the afterlife, as if Christians on this side of eternity should only care about improving their rating, earning points for “The Good Place” and investing in eternal comfort and blessing.
Allow me to be a bit sarcastic on this. I even encountered the syntagm “delayed gratification — eternal gratification”, which not only plays in a dodgy way on the metaphor of “transferring your treasures in heaven”, but it reduces the believer to a self-interested individual that believes and obeys, because it works, because it’s the smart thing to do and the only thing that ultimately works in his own eternal interest. Sometimes this mentality is explicit, sometimes it’s not, but it is there. It feels like it pre-supposes there is a scoring system, points and rewards, which we can pretty much figure it out this side of eternity, and use it in our favour, for our eternal benefit. Therefore we need to be ‘wise’ in every decision regarding money and possessions, because it has eternal implications: it might result in a better spot in the afterlife social system.
I find this kind of rhetoric and the theological assumptions it rests on quite problematic, as it ignores much of the spirit of the Scriptures, reducing them instead to some sort of code which will grant us riches in heaven. We are told that faith determines where we spend eternity (heaven or hell), so yes, “we get to heaven through faith”, but our deeds determine our further condition in either place. I don’t want to dispute this here or insist too much on it, but focusing on this cultivates a transactional mentality, which is not Biblical at all. We are not “dealing” with God; there’s more to this living relationship of love, it goes beyond the stipulations of a contract. It is a covenant. We’re not depending on a contract with an all-powerful being, we have a loving Father-Creator who relentlessly loves us.
The feeling I’m left with after surveying much of the popular resources on giving is that while it gives good advice regarding best practices and practical insights on how Christians should steward money and possessions, it fails to convey a sense of the right motivation for doing so. It has too much cost-benefit analysis (ignoring that true love goes way beyond any “reasonable” arguments, and we are called to love) and it plays too much on cultivating an expectation that if we do our part, God is always careful in rewarding us faithfully. A lot of resources that give sound advice and share best practices lack the heart-transforming touch because they are focused too much on what to do and very little on why do it. Even when addressed, “the why matter” suffers often-times from being instrumentalised: we should act wisely and be obedient because it works for our own good, and failing to do so will result in less happiness. What I’d like to see is more focus on God’s character, not limiting the motivational part to a rule-based, carrots and sticks approach.
Having said that, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If too much attention on “investing wisely in eternity” is bad, us not caring, or being irresponsible, cannot be the answer. Over-reacting against the investment mentality or the self-help, self-promotion spirituality could make us end up with a kind of welfare spirituality, where we feel no responsibility and live as if we have no agency.
The antidote against our sinful tendencies towards one of the extremes (us taking charge vs us feeling no responsibility) is a biblical understanding of sacrifice.
I found one of the best articulations of this idea while listening to an audio recording of Eugene Peterson’s course on biblical spirituality. According to Peterson, the only way to participate in what God is doing is through sacrifice:
“The genius of sacrifice, the heart of a sacrificial act, is not that we give up something, but what God makes out of it. God takes what we give and uses it in ways which are out of our control: to please God, to forgive sins, to bring reconciliation. The minute we place the sacrifice on the altar, we enter a different realm of action: we don’t have any control and any responsibility over this. God is taking charge. So we are back now at the heart of salvation.”
(Eugene Peterson, audio recording of lecture 8 “Salvation: Sacrifice, Hospitality, Eucharist”, 1997, Regent College)
What turns a gift into a sacrifice is not the amount or quality of what is brought to the altar, nothing quantitative or tied up with the gift itself or the giver, but God, who accepts and transforms it. Therefore, the only appropriate response when we give is not feeling good about ourselves and maybe thinking we’ve impressed God, but awe and wonder. Complete surrender. Anything less exposes us to our inherent tendencies towards getting it wrong.
Peterson brilliantly puts it:
"The sacrificial life is cultivated among the people of God to be active participants in what God is doing, with no danger of interfering, of messing it up, introducing our sin into it. […]
Sacrifice gets us into the action, but out of the way.”
Our generosity should be sacrificial in the very sense that we give up control and get out of the way. In doing so we cannot claim credit for whatever “impact” our offering made in someone’s life. It’s all God’s glory. Sometimes we get to see what God is doing and rejoice, sometimes we have to trust without seeing any visible impact. Knowing God’s character, we believe he always does something far better out of our gift than what we could have done with it. God is in charge, so we can relax about the outcome.
For us, sacrifice carries a negative connotation: we focus on what we should or might have to give up. We are obsessed with keeping and afraid of the loss. Truth is, anything we can’t give God we’ll eventually lose. Surrender is liberating; giving up in our hearts everything we’re entrusted with, even before we’re eventually asked to do so, frees us from fear and allows us to live abundantly.
Generous living is living a sacrificial life. A life of joy and ultimate freedom: not merely giving enough so we can have a clear conscience, in order to use as we see fit what’s left after giving, but willing to let go of anything that God might ask us to give up.
Generous living implies developing a radical obedience. We can only cultivate this willingness to obey if we get to know God. King David knew what he was singing about while he was running for his life and hiding in the desert of Judah: “your love is better than life”.
God can do far more than we could ever have done ourselves with everything we place on the altar: our money and possessions, our careers, our dreams and expectations, our families, our own lives.