[the poor among you] and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
What’s the law’s standard? Generosity.
In Proverbs we read this piece of wise advice (Prov. 11:24-25): “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” What is wisdom’s standard? Generosity.
Jesus says to the Pharisees (Luke 11:39-41): “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” What is Jesus’ standard? Generosity.
Paul says to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:17-19): “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” What is Paul’s standard? Generosity.
Bottom line: Generosity is the biblical standard for giving. In fact, it is pretty clear, if you are not giving generously (to your church, a ministry or a charity), you’re missing the boat. And if you are not giving to help the poor and needy and directing some of your income to ministries of compassion, you are also going astray.
Scot McKnight brought something to my attention that I had not really noticed; how often Paul’s collection for the poor in Jerusalem appears in the New Testament. Early on in Paul’s ministry, Paul went to Jerusalem and met with the leaders of the church. They gave him one piece of instruction. Paul recounts this in Galatians 6:10. There he says, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” McKnight says, “And remembering the saints in Jerusalem became Paul’s mission within his mission.” And he is right! It shows up numerous times throughout his letters. Why? Because it was a BIG deal for him. He was so invested in this ministry of compassion that he even brought it up in his trial as the reason for why he came to Jerusalem in the first place. Now, that is invested. Paul’s accusers say he came to Jerusalem to raise a ruckus, but Paul says if he has raised anything it is money to help the people in Jerusalem who are suffering from a terrible famine. Bottom line: for ten years Paul continually worked at collecting money from each of his churches so they could give a generous gift to the poor in Jerusalem who were suffering. For Paul it was absolutely essential that his Gentile churches show their love to their Jewish brothers and sisters by giving generously to provide for their needs.
And Paul celebrates, maybe even brags a bit, about his churches that gave generously. Look at 2 Corinthians 8:1-5: “And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.” In one of the reviews of a book decrying the lack of generosity in the church today (Passing the Plate by Emerson, Smith and Snell), someone gave an excuse for why the church is not giving saying that it was because the government isn’t leaving us enough (basically, saying we have nothing to give because we have to bear the burden of reckless government spending; and as a result, we can’t give to the truly needy.) No matter what your opinion is on taxes and government spending, please note that this excuse is pure garbage. Paul says the Macedonians gave in spite of being in extreme poverty themselves. In fact, Paul says, that out of this “severe trial” they “welled up in rich generosity.” And why did they do this? Because they loved to give and give generously. Because they saw it as a privilege. Because they loved to serve. Because they had given themselves wholeheartedly to the Lord. Because they were so grateful. Looking for a good reason to start giving? There are five whopping good reasons to give right there! Here was a church who knew how to give.
But please note that giving generously is not the same as giving a lot. You can give a ton of money and not be generous. And you can give a small amount, but do so generously. It all depends on your heart. The Macedonians gave even more than they were able out of a grateful and loving heart. That’s generosity plus a step or two.
But Paul is very careful here in 2 Corinthians 8. He wants the Corinthians to join his other churches in giving and believes it is crucial for them to do so, spiritually speaking, but he is very concerned about how he presents this. He is not interested in twisting the Corinthians’ arms or manipulating them in any way or even in “guilting” them into giving (let alone shaming them into doing so.). Instead, he implores them to give out of love (2 Cor. 8:8 says, “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.”). From Paul’s vantage point, generosity and love go hand in hand.
This is so important. So many strategies of fund-raising, so many stewardship campaigns, so many marketing tactics in the church today, aim at getting people to give for reasons that fall outside the grid of what Paul would consider proper biblical motivation. Paul refuses to make giving a new law. He rejects the idea that giving ought to be reduced to some ought or obligation. He refuses to strong-arm people to give or to play off their emotions. Instead, he calls for people to give out of love and out of gratitude. Anything else, fails Paul’s test here.
And what is Paul’s goal here? He wants there to be equality. He says (2 Cor. 8:13-15), “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’” Now this is a rather radical statement. Paul is arguing that when a Christ follower has plenty, he or she should give because there are brothers or sisters in the world who have little. And in the bond of love, it is our privilege to give to help them in their situation. Paul’s logic seems to be something like this: God has given you more than you need for such a time as this, that you may be the answer to a brother’s or sister’s prayer for help. Scot McKnight adds this wise comment: “For Christians living in abundance when others are living in poverty contradicts the very heart of the gospel.”
See, the Bible calls us to give and to give generously, not so we can live comfortably and build fancy buildings and have extravagant play things, but so that God’s people could be encouraged and God’s causes throughout the world could be advanced mightily. And as we give, something else happens. Thanksgiving and praise and worship erupts in the hearts of God’s people all over the world. And that makes our giving astounding. Listen to what Paul says and dream that he could say these words to you about your giving (2 Cor. 9:12-14): “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 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. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.” I don’t know about you, but I want this sort of response to my giving. Recent studies may not be that encouraging, but when someone gives and something like this happens, well, that is beyond encouraging. That’s the power of the generosity principle.