Christmas time and my family members’ birthdays reveal how bad I am at giving gifts to other people. Even those with whom I am closest rarely receive good gifts from me (if they receive anything at all). I don’t often think about gifts, either for myself or other people, so I tend to forget or act like I forgot to give my family members gifts. Naturally, then, I often become frustrated with myself when other people around me give and exchange gifts.
This clearly shows
that I am very self-centered. That’s putting it nicely. What I really mean is I am selfish. I don’t think about giving gifts because I don’t like to sacrifice the time and effort it takes to learn what would make a good gift and then to think about what would be the perfect act of kindness for them. It’s hard to pay attention to other people when I am constantly consumed with thoughts of my own needs and desires.
God’s attitude is completely different. He loves to give to everyone (see Exodus 3:17, Matthew 7:7-11, John 3:16-17). From the creation of the world he has given us the entire planet to cultivate, shape and work on. He gives us the breath that fills our lungs, the capacity to think, and the ability to make friendships and communities. He gives us food, water and shelter. He even gave up his own Son for our sakes, so that we would repent of our sin and come back to a true relationship with him and his people.
That is an extremely cursory look at God’s heart to give. We can see his fondness of providing for needs and giving blessings throughout the narrative of Israel and the church in the Bible.
So how do we respond to it? Naturally we give back. But what does it mean to give back to God? That is a more difficult question to answer, especially in these modern times.
How Israel gave to God
A good starting place is God’s commands to his chosen people, the Israelites. In a large scope, the entire sacrificial system, which is described in the Books of Moses (the first five books of the Bible), was about the Israelites offering from what they had–what God had provided for them–and giving back portions to the Lord. One of these offerings that God commands is called a tithe. It is first mentioned as a command of God in Leviticus 27:30, although the same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 14:20 when Abram gives “a tenth part” of all he had to Melchizidek.
Tithing often plays a big part in church bodies today, and how it should be handled is a topic of hot debate. While I will not assert here my beliefs on how the church should use the tithe, I will say it is a good way to think about giving in a simple fashion. God has given us all that we have, so we show our gratefulness by giving back to him a tenth of our possessions. There is, however, much more to giving back to the Lord than the tithe, and the question of “How do we give to God?” at this point remains unanswered. So far, we can see that the many details in God’s prescribed sacrificial system for the Israelites shows that he does care about what we give to him.
Now we have gone over a (once again) simplified synopsis of how God instructed the Israelites to give. But how, you may ask (as I often have), does this affect us today, the people of God’s church?
Any place, any time
The Israelites’ sacrificial system provides a good example of how God has told his people to give in the past. However, we do not live in that time nor culture. Jesus made the once-for-all sacrifice, so in this time after his death and resurrection we must find other ways to give to the Lord–and we must make sure that they are supported by the Scriptures.
There is no more physical building that is God’s temple, yet there still is a temple of the Lord. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) The context of this passage is Paul rebuking the Corinthians for their sexual immorality, but it can also be taken in the more general context of the entire letter: a discourse on how the Corinthians treated each other. Paul rebukes them for causing divisions amongst themselves in various ways. The church should be a unified body, Paul states, and division has no place within it. Indeed, Paul goes so far as to say that the body of the church is the new temple of God. What happened at the physical temple? The people offered sacrifices and praised the Lord together (2 Chronicles 6:12-7:11). Paul uses this metaphor to say that the same should happen whenever believers are together. But what kind of sacrifices are we to make in lieu of Jesus’ sacrifice for us? How, I hope you are still asking, do we give to the Lord?
To continue finding the answer to that question, let’s look now at Jesus’ life. Taking note of three of his teaching moments (not in chronological order) will help us see his perspective on giving and sacrificing better. I will take some liberties as to setting up the scenes, so check the Text for the facts and grant me grace as I imagine what happened in the periphery of each situation.
First, during a heated discussion with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes–the era’s top-of-the-line scholars in Jewish culture–Jesus saw many rich people giving rich-people-size offerings in the Temple. They were talking amongst each other as they walked to the altar, reaching into their robes to pull out some of their coins. Then he saw a poor widow walk up to the altar, open her tightly-closed fist, and drop in two small coins. She sighed, closed her eyes, said a brief prayer, then walked away from the altar. After the widow had disappeared in the crowd, Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on” (Mark 12:41-44).
On another day, while Jesus was walking with his disciples under the hot sun, the Twelve were getting excited about their Rabbi coming to Jerusalem. They knew that he, as the Son of David, was going to take the city back from the Romans at last and fulfill what they had always dreamed of! As such, they wanted to ensure that they would have seats of honor as his closest friends. Two of them, James and John, said to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus asked them if they would accept the same fate as him. James and John looked at each other, smiled and answered they would. Jesus waited a moment, looking at his hands, then said, “… To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Jesus then clarified their call on how they must live: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (see Mark 10:35-45).
Earlier in his ministry, Jesus ascended a large hill, and was followed by a large crowd. He looked around at the people and the people stared back at him, most of them holding their breath so they would ensure they heard what he said. Jesus sat down, and the crowd, following his lead, did the same. Jesus then began to speak, and one of the statements he made was this: “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:42-45).
The widow gave more than the rich men. Jesus’ followers are to serve other people. And Jesus taught his followers to withhold nothing from anyone, but to give freely and love their enemies. This is a much different mindset towards giving than I have often seen in the modern American church. We keep our prized belongings for ourselves, afraid of what may happen if someone else uses them without our supervision. We reserve our time for certain people and avoid those whom we don’t favor. We sit comatose on couches after work every day, giving no thought to what our neighbors may need.
What if we were to return to the way the early church treated each other, holding back nothing from the people around us and spending time together every day (see Acts 2:42-47)? Maybe then we would provide for each others’ needs without any second thoughts.
I hope you can see that the conversation about giving concerns more than money. It concerns all of our resources: our time and energy along with our money. It concerns us giving ourselves. When we give, we are to do so with the desire to follow God’s greatest commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).
With the Holy Spirit living in us, we can do amazing things for the kingdom of God. Let us change the trend of how we live from selfishness to having the hearts of servants. Two ways we can do this are to learn the Text well–even memorize it–and to live in community with one another, giving mercy and grace freely and abundantly. These are attainable goals; let us pray to our Father in heaven, the giver of all good gifts, to give us these lasting desires. Then we will come even closer to showing the world the kingdom of heaven and the glory of our King.