What encouragement we have been given by more folk wanting to join us in membership! At each service of admission of new members our own commitment has been challenged as we have rehearsed in our hearts the vows taken by those professing faith. In the recent Enquirers' Classes, perhaps the vow which has caused the biggest intake of breath has been the fourth one:
I promise to give a fitting proportion of my time, talents and money for the church’s work in the world.
Underpinning this vow is the principle of generosity, a quality which is lacking in our day, in particular during a global recession. The culture of materialism and of consumerism and of self-centredness has pervaded all sectors of society, including the Christian church.
Christian generosity is merely the outworking of our total surrender to Jesus Christ. This is not to say that there are not generous non-Christians. Indeed many philanthropists with no knowledge of Christ have often given more generously to the poor than professing believers. But embedded in the Christian notion of generosity is that of a life consecrated to the service of Christ and His kingdom. This is what made a group of Christians in Macedonia, who were considered to be living in poverty, to give so generously to those in hardship in Jerusalem. The liberality of their giving to people of another race and culture stemmed from their wholehearted commitment, from their first having ‘given themselves to the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 8: 5). Their generosity was an expression of their love of Jesus and their concern for his disciples. As the missionary to India, Amy Carmichael, said: ‘You can give without loving. But you cannot love without giving’.
Sometimes, giving of our substance can be easier than offering ourselves. There is a wonderful story, which I heard many years ago without being able to trace its origin, of a young boy, who, at the time of the collection, had nothing to offer the Lord but the shorts he was wearing. In an African agrarian culture in which crops and livestock were part of the offering, the boy jumped onto the vast collecting tressels, symbolically offering himself.
Our giving is also a token of our thanksgiving to God who emptied the heavenly treasury in sending Jesus to be our Saviour. Giving is a reminder of all the riches we possess through Christ’s willing sacrifice of himself:
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we, through his poverty, might be made rich. (2 Corinthians 8: 9)
Jesus gave up His position of power and of honour in order that we might be able to share his inheritance. Murray McCheyne, in a famous sermon in 1838 on ‘More blessed to give than to receive’ posed the question of what it would have been like if Christ had been as ungenerous as we:
Christ might have said, My blood is my own, my life is my own; no man forceth it from me: then where should we have been?
What should we give?
One of the problems here is that generosity is nearly always associated with money. It is so sad to see on so many church buildings posters begging for money for the upkeep of the church or to find that there is a charge to enter some of places of worship, which have taken on museum status and have become merely of historical interest. As our treasurer has often said when deluged by stewardship schemes, ‘it is putting the cart before the horse’. How off-putting, too, in so much TV evangelism, is the aggressive appeal for money.
The membership vow does however include financial giving, but perhaps significantly, as the third of three examples of contribution to the Lord’s work listed above. How much should we give? Many Christians give one tenth of their income (before the government has taken its percentage). The biblical justification for the ‘tithe’ would seem to come from the Old Testament, where there are examples of four different types of tithe. The only reference to tithing made by Jesus is a criticism of the hypocrisy of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (Matthew 23:23). While there is for the Christian no legal requirement to give one tenth there are so many exhortations to give generously.
There is, however, in the present recession a cutting back on what is given to the Lord on what many households might see (wrongly) as the most expendable item in the budget. Some surveys have suggested that some church members give a higher percentage to their hairdresser or to a waiter than to their church (not that it is wrong to give generously to employees who often earn little in terms of salary). Particularly noticeable has been the decline in giving to missionary societies and charities in the last year. A Charity Commission report has stated that UK charitable giving went down by 20% during 2012, with Christian charities (including church income from members, gifts to agencies, Christian colleges) suffering the sharpest fall, and with no expectation that the trend will stall or even reverse. As Mark Twain said, ‘the last thing to be converted in a man is his wallet’.
However, money is only one kind of giving. Peter and John did not have silver or gold yet gave generously of what they had. One of the most difficult challenges is to give of our time. In one sense we probably have more time than Christians in previous generations, who did not have all of our electronic machines to help them. Yet we seem to have much less time than they. Is the problem one of time management? In an earlier age there was also perhaps a sharper focus on eternity, given the limited life expectancy. Our social space too offers far more choices, and we show ingratitude to God in refusing the gifts which He has given richly to enjoy. Yet sometimes we can forget that we are accountable for what we do with our time. How many exhortations there are to invest our time wisely, not least in the service of his kingdom (e.g. Psalm 90:12, Ephesians 5:15-16). Besides, as we often sing, to that wonderful Psalm tune Dennis, ‘our times are in God’s hands’. Every second of every minute, every minute of every hour, twenty-four hours a day belong to Him. Obviously, there are time commitments which we must not neglect, particularly to our employers, to our families and to our friends. But it is good to open our diaries and have a fresh look at how we spend our week.
As with money and time we can short change God. Our talents and abilities belong to God. We own nothing that was not first given to us (‘And what do you have that you did not receive?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7)). There is a twofold danger here. The first, the belief that we have nothing to offer. There is a thin line here between humility and burying the talents that God has given us. Churches would be greatly impoverished without the contribution from all who would regard themselves as mere ‘helpers’ in the work. The second danger is to believe that we can offer everything. We are blessed in Sandyford by so many gifted people. The challenge is to know how to adapt these gifts to the needs of the church. I was struck by a visit to All Souls Church London some years back to hear the rector commend a band of very accomplished, professional musicians for their willingness to play well beneath the range of their capabilities in the interests of leading the worship. Our task is to offer whatever talents we have to the Lord ‘according to the grace given us’. (Romans 12:6).
How should we give?
So often our generosity can be grudging, legalistic, or out of a sense of obligation. For the Macedonians it was spontaneous, the fruit of ‘overflowing joy’ and a sense of the privilege of sharing in service to the saints (2 Corinthians, 8: 3). Paul urges the Corinthians to adopt a similar spirit of intentional, joyful giving:
Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians, 9: 7).
The word cheerful, the commentators say, could be translated ‘hilarious’. Now to what extent do we give thanks for the opportunity to give? As Peter White said, ‘when we announce the offering we should all say ’hurrah‘!’, or words to that effect. What a challenge to the grumpy giver!
It is also important that our generosity is proportional to what we have been given. Some will have more time available; some will have talents suited to a particular work; and financially, the student or the pensioner cannot be expected to contribute as much as those with considerable means (the widow’s two copper coins given out of her poverty were commended by Jesus above all the offerings of the rich. (Luke 21: 1-4)). As John Stott said, ‘A gift is acceptable according to what the giver has, not according to what he has not’.
What do we get back?
Our generosity with regard to time, talents and money should be unconditional. In a dividend-conscious age, how easy it is to be beguiled by those who preach a ‘prosperity gospel’, a gospel which feeds our greed and self-centredness and prompts us to look for recognition or material advantage. That said, there are promises of reward to all who would cast their bread upon the waters (Ecclesiastes 11:1) The return, it is promised, will far exceed our every imagining. If we give liberally, cheerfully, and freely, hoping for nothing in return, God will give back ‘a good measure pressed down, shaken together, and running over’ (Luke 6:38). As Paul affirms, generosity is fundamental to spiritual harvesting:
He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows generously will also reap generously. (2 Corinthians 9: 6)
God just loves to give back to his people. Read, for example, the stories of contemporary Christian philanthropists such as Colgate or John Laing. How generous are we? May the Lord help us to give Him not the leftovers but the very best of our time, talents and money in the days ahead.
With very best wishes
Session ClerkView All Letters