Pastor Note #21 — The Meaning of Money, the Power of Giving
I do not think I exaggerate when I say that some of us put our offering in the plate with a kind of triumphant bounce as much as to say, “There–now God will feel better!” . . . I am obliged to tell you that God does not need anything you have. He does not need a dime of your money. It is your own spiritual welfare at stake in such matters as these. . . . You have the right to keep what you have all to yourself–but it will rust and decay, and ultimately ruin you. A.W. Tozer
Our world is full of meaning. We are surrounded by meaning. Words, of course, are the most familiar bearers of meaning. But words are not the only things that convey meaning to us. Think of the things around us that symbolize or represent something. The cross on our communion table means something infinitely important to us. The communion table itself represents a deep connection between us and Jesus with his first disciples.
Flags, gestures, objects all can and do communicate meaning to us as we go through life. But somethings that communicate meaning to us do so without our being fully aware of it. Perhaps the most powerful symbolic object in our lives is something that most of us handle nearly every day without recognizing how much it shapes our thinking and our values. That object is money.
One of the most common causes of marital strife is money. A great many of the fights that break out in churches involve the use of money. There are very few decisions that we make in the course of an ordinary day that don’t in one way or another relate to our values, priorities, and feelings about money.
All of that is true because of the power money has to represent a great many different and important things to us. Money can represents power to us. Having it enables us to do things. Lacking it can inhibit our ability to do things. Money can represent security. Anyone who lived through the Great Depression or who has experience unemployment understands this aspect of the meaning of money all too well. Beyond mere security, money can also represent independence and autonomy to us. There are people whom we refer to as “independently wealthy,” by which we mean they supposedly don’t have to depend on anyone else, such as an employer, for their money.
Money is also seen by some as a means of expressing love. The stereotype is of the husband and father who works two jobs so that he can supply his family with all the best in material things. He genuinely sees his hard work and the money it generates as being an expression of the love he feels for his wife and children. And I am willing to believe that this man is truly trying to express his real love for his family in this way. The tragic fact is that most often his family does not feel loved by him. Instead they feel his absence. He isn’t present when they need his presence because he spends most of his time somewhere else trying to make money for them. And so they feel neglected. They feel abandoned. They may even begin to think that he is just trying to “buy” their love.
Money is a very powerful symbolic object. Money can be very powerful in shaping our thinking, in molding our values, priorities, and our worldview. That’s why Jesus talked about money so much. He knew very well the power money can have in our lives. He knew very well that money has the power to affect the deep state of our hearts.
Now, nothing of what I’ve written here is intended to give the impression that I think money is evil in itself. Money is not evil in its very essence. It can be used to do evil, but it can also be used to do good. And more than that, the way we use the money in our possession invariably has a significant effect on us – for good or for ill.
What does money mean to you? What impact is your money and your use of it having on you? How is it influencing your priorities, values, and worldview? Meditating on those questions and striving for some understanding of the answer to them is a crucial part of a healthy spiritual life. To avoid those questions or to dismiss them is to choose to be spiritually unhealthy.
The Bible, God’s Word, is consistent and insistent from beginning to end that there is one key to coping with the power of money in our lives. That key is giving – tithing to be exact. Giving our money to the work of God in the world is essential to our spiritual health and well-being – giving consistently, prayerfully, and sacrificially.
In his wisdom, God has identified the tithe – a 10% level of giving — as the normal level of giving that his people should follow. God seems to believe that generally we should be able to achieve that level of giving. Of course, you could argue that God might be wrong about that. But personally, I’m inclined to trust him on the matter.
Now, I do understand that for most of us, giving away one tenth of our income would involve a strain on our household budgets, at least at first. In most cases it would require us to make some notable changes in the way we spend our money – or rather resist spending it. Giving away one tenth of our household income would involve a sacrifice on our parts. But as I mentioned already, for us to reap spiritual benefits from our giving, that giving has to be sacrificial. It has to cause us to strain. But it is from the exertion of that strain that the spiritual benefits comes. It then becomes an act of trusting obedience for us.
Tithing is possible. I know people who tithe – ordinary people, secretaries, factory workers, teachers, social workers, and retired people. My wife and I tithe. The people who do it find tremendous joy in doing it. And they don’t find themselves or their families lacking for any of the necessities of life.
If you are not tithing, you may find it difficult to suddenly begin to do it. You may need to work toward it over a period of time. But if you set that goal and work toward it, you will find that you begin to develop new perspectives about money – about what it can do, about how much of it you really need, about how little you really need some of the things you have been using it for.
Tithing is not very common among American Christians. It is much more common among Third World Christians. As a generalization, American Christians in lower income brackets give a greater percentage of this income to Christ than American Christians in higher income brackets.
Here’s an exercise you can do with your own church in mind. Go to the U. S. Census Bureau’s web site, particularly the page for “Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.”
- Enter the latest year available (currently 2008).
- Enter your state in the box below that.
- In the drop-down box, choose your county, and below that check the box for “Median Household Income.”
- Click on “Display Data.”
In the middle box of the chart that comes up, you will find the “median household income” for your county. This median household income tells you that approximately half of the households in your county have an income that is lower than that figure, and half have an income that’s higher. In my county in central New York state, the median household income is $41,909. That may seem like a nice sum. But remember, we’re talking about household incomes. So, in a household with two working adults, it would mean one adult making $25,000 a year and one making $17,000 a year. Obviously, we’re not talking about people in high paying jobs.
What are the people in your church like? Are they more or less like most other people in your community? Let’s say they are. Now, what if your congregation of ordinary people were to all decide to tithe? Well, let’s do the math. A congregation of about 300 members will have somewhere around 180 households. (Remember, we’re talking about household income, not individual income.) If those 180 church households had somewhere around the median household income for your area (some will be making more but about the same number will be making less) and they tithed, what would your church receive in contribution?
For example, in my county here’s how that would work:
$41,909 x 0.10=$4,190.90 (per household tithe)
$4,190.90 x 180 households = $754,362.00
In other words, a medium-sized congregation of ordinary households that tithe would be able to produce over three quarters of a million dollars each year to use for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
Even if they only gave half a tithe – 5%, their church would receive contributions of $377,181.00 a year. Unfortunately, the typical American Christian gives between 1.5% and 3.5% of their income depending on their denomination.
Now, tithing is not a law to be grudgingly obeyed. All our giving must be joyful and free. I do, however, want the people of God to see what kinds of resources they could marshal if they simply stretched toward this goal of tithing, which is a biblical model. I am entirely persuaded the C. S. Lewis is right when he speaks of Christian giving:
“If our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
Most often we don’t give as abundantly as we might because we spent more than we should. What does money mean to you? Comfort and security? Or Ministry and mission for God? Challenge yourself to abundant giving, and you will be amazed at what you can make possible with the resources God gives you.
© 2010 Gary A. Chorpenning