Should Christians give?
Let’s take a look at this, starting with the baby-church described in the book of Acts.
Acts 2:44-5 says: All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
Acts 4:32 continues this theme: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.
It’s a snapshot of the church on fire.
But, WHY did they give. Let’s try to unpack that a little.
They were in the presence of the living God. Instead of looking round at each other’s failings they were looking up at God. Acts 2:43 says: Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. And that leads straight on to verse 44: All believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
The believers gave because they saw God moving: they wanted to be part of what God was doing.
But why should seeing God move motivate them to GIVE? (In addition to say, praying and worshiping?) Let’s look a more closely at God’s nature. God is creator: he gave us life and a world to live in (Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures than move along the ground). And when we fell into sin he gave us his Son and salvation (John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life).
God is a giver! More than that, he is a creative Father who gives compassionately. We are his children. And children, both by nature and by training should grow up to be like their parent.
I’ll say that again: ‘both by nature and by training…’ (John 3:3 Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Galatians 3:26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Hebrews 12:6: The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.)
They gave because their hearts recognized God as their Father, and they were moved to echo his giving nature.
(Note: ‘Echo’ not ‘imitate’ — believers reflect something of God’s glory; they don’t pretend to be God.)
Let’s go back to our first key-note scripture, Acts 2:44-5 — All believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Note that they were in community — they were ‘together’ — and that their acts of giving strengthened their community. That’s also something that flows directly from God’s nature. He is a God of relationship: Father, Son and Spirit — the holy trinity; and also God the Father of his human sons born of the Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ (and daughters, that includes you too — Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus).
When they cared for the community of believers by addressing each other’s needs they echoed God’s relational nature.
So that’s settled. That’s WHY they GAVE.
And according to Acts 2:44-5 we should all sell up and share everything we have with other believers, right?
Maybe not. Let’s do a little more digging.
In Acts 5:1-11 Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell their house and give some of the money to the church for distribution to the needy. Things don’t work out quite as Ananias hopes for and, in Acts 5:4 he has a meeting with Peter, who says to him: Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?
The thing is, in this verse God affirms individual ownership of rightfully acquired property — Didn’t it belong to you? Speaking through Peter he says that Ananias has the right to enjoy it.
(Yeah, yeah, I can hear somebody asking, “Where you going with this? That’s not even half the story!” Well, yeah, I hear you: we’ll get to it. But for now…)
Each believer’s assets — goods rightly acquired (and their abilities and time) have been given them by God. Each believer is responsible for their use and disposal.
(OK, OK… Calm down. We’re going there. Just, it’s one of the scariest stories in the New Testament and I don’t want you to think I get a kick out of scaring people.
What? I can’t hear you…
OK… Yeah, there is a lot to be learned from it…
Right, We’ll take it from the top.)
Continuing on from our second key-note scripture, Acts 4:32 (all the believers were one in heart and mind — no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had)Luke — the author of Acts — tells a scary story.
First he sets the scene by describing how it became the done thing to sell property and donate the proceeds to the baby-church community via the stewardship of the apostles (Acts 4:34-37). Then, enter the villains, a married couple, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). It seems they also wanted to look like big givers. Except they weren’t prepared to give the whole of their property to the church: they just wanted it to look that way so that people would think they were super spiritual. So they agreed to keep some of the proceeds of the sale for themselves while pretending to give it all.
That’s when the scary thing happened. It seems they upset the Spirit of God (I guess he felt really protective of the holiness of his baby-church and decided to make a warning example of Ananias and his wife). Anyhow, the Spirit told the apostle Peter what they were up to, and Peter mounted a bit of a ‘spiritual sting operation’ and got both Ananias and his wife to incriminate themselves in front of the church.
Whoa! The next thing Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead. It doesn’t say so in the scripture, but I’ve always read it as the Spirit killed them — ‘took them home early’. After that, Great fear took hold of the church (Acts 5:11). Well, not surprising really…
Now — while you’re feeling jittery — I suppose you think I’m going to hit you with, “sell everything and give it to the church. Or else!”
Wrong! As we’ve already seen, in Acts 5:4. Peter says to Ananias: Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? From that we concluded that God affirms private property.
Individual ownership of property was not the problem.
The problem was this: in the second half of Acts 5:4 Peter continues, What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God. It wasn’t that Ananias and his wife kept some of the money; it was that they lied to the Spirit of God about it (don’t…just don’t lie to the Holy Spirit). If they’d been honest about it they would have been fine, and people would still have appreciated them, though maybe not thought of them as ‘super-spiritual’ like, say, Barnabas.
Imagine what might have happened if Ananias had really talked with God about his property instead of conspiring to lie. The conversation might have gone something like this (I’m just speculating here, making it up to make a spiritual point, OK).
Ananias: “Lord, I keep getting the feeling that you want me to sell up and give the money to the church.”
God: “Are you sure, Ananias?”
Ananias: “Well Lord, everyone’s doing it.”
God: “And you? Do you really want to?”
Ananias: “If you put it that way…no. Not really.”
God: “Then don’t.”
Ananias: “But if I do sell and give the money to the church everyone will think highly of me. Sapphira might get that stewardship she’s been chasing.”
God: “Ananias, don’t go there…”
Ananias: “And I need cash to put my son through yeshiva, so if I hold on to 40% of the proceeds while pretending to give it all, then…”
Ananias: “Gesundheid! I can hear you, already.”
God: “Then listen. I wouldn’t accept your gift anyway — even if you sold up and gave me everything — because your heart is not right. I don’t accept any gift that does not echo the purity of my love (1 Corinthians 13:3 If I give all I posses to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love. I gain nothing). When your heart is ready I will ask you: then you will give and I will receive it.”
A believer’s heart has to be sincere for his or her gift or sacrifice to be acceptable to God.
Now that’s a big theological claim to make (though it’s totally obvious to anyone with an active conscience). Let’s see if I can justify it by taking a closer look at God’s heart — at what motivates him. And in that line, the parable of the ungrateful servant (Matthew 18:21-35) is about more than just forgiveness: it’s about the way God thinks in relation to a whole lot of issues besides — fatherhood (make that Fatherhood, with a capital) parenting, covenant, generosity and giving, and us echoing the nature of God.
It’s a parable that shows us how to be ‘for giving’ (ha, ha, get it? Forgiving! OK…OK…)
In it a servant owes his master a fortune. He can’t pay so his master threatens to sell him and his family into slavery to repay some of the debt. The servant begs for more time to make repayment but his master (I’m reading between the lines here) knows he will never be able to raise the money. And so, with great generosity he cancels the debt. The servant leaves, a free man. Outside he runs into another man who owes him only a small amount of money. He insists that this man repay him and, when the man begs for more time, shows no mercy but has him imprisoned. When the master hears of this he is outraged that his servant did not follow his example and show mercy. He immediately revokes his decision to cancel his servant’s debt and has him severely punished.
Jesus told this parable to illustrate the attitude of his Father (the master) to forgiveness but it gives us a key to understanding a lot more besides.
The key verse here is Matthew 18:33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant [the man] as I had on you? God expects us to echo the mercy, the compassion, the generosity, and the faith he has in us. It’s a sensitive issue with God. He’s put his faith in us many times and been disappointed often. Indulge me while I borrow from the language of modern pop psychology. Speaking in those terms I might conjecture that God has ‘issues’ with humanity over faithfulness, that there’s history there and maybe even ‘baggage’.
Except, God keeps on forgiving us, opening his heart to us, taking us on as his children, nurturing us to be more like himself. When we get it right he’s thrilled. (Think of the affirmation given Jesus in Matthew 3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” And, like Jesus, we too are children and co-heirs with Christ — Romans 8:17.)
But when we get it wrong — when we break faith and sin, don’t listen and fall short; when we behave like self-absorbed, selfish, ugly little humans he feels betrayed and tends to get angry.
Thank God we have Jesus Christ as mediator!
I’ll say it again: “Thank God we have Jesus!”
Back to giving. We give because we echo God’s nature, like a growing child echoes the nature of its parent. And from the parable it is plain that God’s nature is forgiving, merciful and generous. It is also clear that he expects us to be aware of his nature and to be aware of where we stand, and to make the effort to conform to his nature as best we can. And because he expects awareness it is essential that our communications (and relationships) with him are as sincere as we can make them. It also follows that he will never accept giving or sacrifice that is based on anything less than our most sincere imitation of his nature. This complex of attitudes is at the core of the love relationships we share with God.
To repeat St Paul’s take on it: If I give all I posses to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love. I gain nothing.
Sad but maybe necessary, I’m going to round off this section by headlining a few of the other false motivations for giving that crop up (we’ve already had giving in order to impress other people).
Sometimes people give because they want to buy salvation. It’s unnecessary. The only way to enter eternal life is through accepting the un-earned gift of salvation provided by the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ (scripture)
Sometimes people give to buy God’s favor. That doesn’t work. They have his favor already because of salvation. What they need to do is listen better and obey the leading of his Spirit, and have faith.
I can think of a few more, but they’ll lead me onto contentious ground. Instead, why don’t you send me some of your own false motivations for giving?
Now, just before we sum up, I’d like to revisit one of the conclusions I came to: ‘each believer’s assets — goods rightly acquired, and their abilities and time — have been given them by God. Each believer is responsible for their use and disposal’.
That’s quite a sweeping statement.
No, I’m not back-tracking on private property — but the inclusion of abilities and time hasn’t been properly shown yet. Neither have I looked at what constitutes ‘responsible use and disposal’. I hope to do that when I examine the Parable of The Ten Bags of Gold (Matthew 25:14-30) in the follow-up to this page (see the tab, Motivations for Receiving).
But for now, bear with me. Let’s end with a summary of the key points in this post.
In Acts, the believers gave because they saw God moving: they wanted to be part of what God was doing.
They gave because their hearts recognized God as their Father, and they were moved to echo his giving nature. When they cared for the community of believers by addressing each other’s needs they also echoed God’s relational nature.
Then and now, each believer’s assets — goods rightly acquired, and their abilities and time — have been given them by God. Each believer is responsible for their use and disposal.
A believer’s heart has to be sincere for his or her gift or sacrifice to be acceptable to God.
God bless you all!