Author Lance Morrow wisely noted that “a rattlesnake loose in the living room tends to end all discussion of animal rights.” Loose ends, like loose snakes, can’t be a good thing and should be quickly dealt with (when you know you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, but have no other way to say it, well, that’s why God created the parenthetical remark). So today, we round up a few “loose ends” on tithing and giving as we start to bring this series on giving to an end. And to do that, let’s look at one of the premiere passages on tithing in the Old Testament, Malachi 3:7-12. The text reads:
“Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty. “But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.”
First loose end, to tithe or not to tithe? Let’s face it: people get nervous when you argue that tithing is not God’s way to fund the church (like we did in a previous blog). After all, even though this passage is found in the Old Testament, it is quite clear: not to tithe is to rob God (and that seems true regardless of which Testament you are reading!). Bottom line: Malachi seems to be saying that we have two options: either we tithe or we rob God.
Now, if you have grown up in the church, no doubt you have heard this passage preached on numerous stewardship Sundays (and felt guilty every time). But before we run to the offering plate out of fear (let’s face it, if God came to us saying that we were robbing him, we might be moved to sheer terror), we need to take note of a couple of things. Here’s the good news. Tithing (read, “giving”) is not the real problem here. Here’s the bad news. The real problem is a heart that has turned away from God. Here’s more bad news. The way this true problem reveals itself is through a refusal to give.
See, Malachi’s goal here is to wake God’s people from their spiritual slumber on every front. Their failure to tithe was actually the least of their problems. They were hardhearted, bitter, and felt that it was useless to serve God. See, the main problem, according to Malachi, was that the people were far from God. But they had a second problem: they had no idea they had the first problem (you can see that when they say things like, “How are we to return?” and “How are we robbing God?”). In fact, they were doing all sorts of things that would technically fall under the category of robbing God (at one time, God had been called glorious, good, faithful and powerful, but in Malachi’s day God was no longer seen in such a good light. Why? These people had stolen these things from God). But the people were clueless. They had no sense of their own spiritual apathy; and so when Malachi brought up these issues, they quickly dismissed them or gave an excuse.
And that is why Malachi brings up the whole issue of tithing. It was the one thing Malachi could point to that the people could not weasel their way out of or deny. Their failure to tithe was undeniable. Now again, Malachi could have charged them with robbing God of all sorts of other things (not giving proper worship, not being faithful to the covenant, not trusting God, and so forth), but he focuses in on this one thing because he knew the people could not deny its veracity. This is sort of like what the Feds did to Al Capone. They couldn’t pin racketeering and murder on him (he was guilty as sin; but not only did he have good lawyers, but most people who might have testified against him were now wearing cement overshoes in the Chicago River). And so the Feds convicted him on tax evasion (not exactly what they wanted, but at least he was behind bars!). In other words, tithing is a lesser issue compared to everything else; but in this case, it is the loose thread that, when pulled, unravels the whole garment of superficial adherence to God. The real issue is a hard heart, but a hard heart towards God always reveals itself in a lack of gratitude, a lack of joy in worship and a lack of giving. Giving is always a symptom, never the cause; but as a symptom, it is always quite telling.
All that to say, tithing, strictly speaking, for us as God’s New Covenant people is not mandated by the Bible. Not tithing is not robbing God. But like tithing, not giving is a symptom of other spiritual problems.
Second loose end: where are we to give? A lot of pastors that I have heard love to make the case that their people need to take the “whole tithe” into “the storehouse,” by which they mean their church. Now Malachi could get away with something like that, because there was one temple in Jerusalem. But today, I think the storehouse is best represented by the kingdom of God. God says, “take your whole (to use Malachi’s words) tithe and give it to advance the kingdom.” Now, giving to civic organizations is nice. Everyone should have the experience to pay five bucks to buy a box of cookies that could be made for 38 cents. But being nice and giving to civic organizations is not (to use Malachi’s terms) “bringing the whole tithe into the storehouse.” We are to use our gifts to advance the cause of Christ. But giving to advance the kingdom does not require us to give only to our local church (say it with me, “not that there is anything wrong with that”). Our giving can be spread out in numerous kingdom directions, to our church, to sponsor a child through World Vision, to helping someone find hope after being trafficked through Araminta, or to help bring food and clean water to poor African villages through World Relief, etc. It is all “storehouse giving” because it is all going to one place, to serve the kingdom of Christ.
Third loose end: “whose money is it?” The funny thing about this passage is that Malachi seems to be saying that we rob God by not giving. The obvious retort is that we can’t be robbing God when it’s our money that we are (not) giving! But that is not how God looks at it. The money we call “ours” is really God’s because he has given it to us in trust. We are stewards of everything we have and called to be faithful in how we manage all of it. Now, that is hard because we always see it as “our” money, money we worked hard to earn. But one of the hardest things to pry from our fingers is the fact that it is not “our” money. It is God’s. And when we forget that, we run into all sorts of problems. Think of it this way. Suppose, a few years ago, you decided to invest in this new stock called “Apple.” So you call an investment broker and tell him that you want to buy 100 shares. He initially thinks you are interested in buying fruit, but you tell him that it is actually a start-up computer company out in California somewhere. So he buys it for you. And suppose you then sit on that stock. Every now and then, you look to see how it is doing and you see that they have introduced a few new product lines, something called the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad to mention just a few. But each month, your broker sends you a detailed account of how the stock is performing and what he would recommend doing next, but you never read those reports. And then suddenly, it is today and you decide you are going to sell your Apple stock. But when you call your broker, he says, “No way. That’s my money. I’ve been managing it all these years while you’ve done nothing. And I’ve worked hard to make this money grow into a very nice portfolio and to care for it in tough times and in good. Bottom line: You can’t have it. It’s mine.” I would suggest that what he just said might be a problem. Why? Because when all is said and done, your broker is your employee hired to make your investment grow. It’s not his money. Here’s the truth Malachi would want to pass on to us: “It’s not our money.” We are brokers “hired” by God to manage his resources and to get the most out of his investment in us. Giving acknowledges that it is all God’s money given to us as stewards. And when we don’t give . . . well, Malachi calls it by what it really is: we are stealing from God.
Last loose end. Are we willing to trust God with our money? Note that after God calls the people to give, he encourages them saying: “Test me in this. . . . ” It seems that in God’s eyes, giving acts as a gauge to see if we would be willing to trust him (especially with our money). Now, that should not surprise us. God is always inviting us to a challenge to see if we would trust him. And God is always looking for ways to prove his faithfulness to us. That’s what this whole passage in Malachi is about. God says, “Give generously, and I will prove to you I am faithful.” That what God did with the Sabbath. He said, “Don’t work one day (and instead, spend it in worship), and I will provide for your every need.” He said, “Step out in faith and give yourself to others by serving them, and I will show you my power.” He said, “Give me a portion of your income, and I will prove myself more than faithful.” He said, “Give me your whole life, and I will bless you with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” God says, “Test me in this, and I will reveal myself to you in ways you would never expect.” Interesting. According to Malachi, giving has another name. It’s called faith.