A friend asked me to write a few words about a passage of Scripture that has been meaningful in my personal giving. That sounded easy enough. But as I thought about it I realized I do not have one verse. Different phases of my giving have been informed by different verses.
Early in life, I was required by my parents to “tithe to the storehouse.” That meant putting a coin in the Sunday School envelope. There was no questioning them on this. It was my duty, and yes, there were times I resented having to part with even one coin, but every study on giving I have ever seen has confirmed that teaching a child to give their own money is invaluable. It also shaped a habit of giving early on and I am grateful for that.
Later, I was more influenced by a verse that gave me far more latitude: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” This did not relieve me of the responsibility to give but allowed me more say in how I wanted to do that. I had a little bargaining power and could easily delay a gift while I made my decision or give a smaller gift that might make me feel more cheerful. Regardless, I was in charge and I liked that.
Of course, there is a dark side to the whole process of “deciding in your heart.” In some ways, it encourages ministries to spend more time and energy figuring out what is in your heart and how to move you more quickly toward a decision. There is, as we all know, an industry dedicated to helping us “find our passion” or prompting us with compelling images of need. Giving from the heart, unfortunately, has come to mean giving from emotions and that is not what Paul intended.
I also went through a phase when I found myself giving out of a form of greed. It was not just a misreading of the passage in 2 Corinthians 9 about being made rich in every way so that I could be generous on every occasion or falling into the false teaching of “seed sowing” that obligates God to giving me an increase. No, it was more about being greedy for profit and an outsized return on my giving or making sure it was tax-deductible. I either wanted more “bang for the buck” or I wanted to see proof that my gift was being used in the way I thought best.
Years ago, I discovered giving from the motivation of gratitude. Childishly, I had avoided gratitude because it only emphasized what I had compared to others. My first trips to Africa only made me feel guilty for being grateful! All the things for which I was thankful only made me realize how afraid I was of losing them. My gratitude was dependent on things that – like Job – could be taken away completely. But in time I realized genuine gratitude is having the ability to know whatever God has chosen for me – and others – is out of a love that runs beyond my understanding.
Not long ago I read a verse in Romans 15 that helped me revisit duty as a prompt for giving. Paul is speaking to the church about his collection for the Christians in Jerusalem and he says that they (the Macedonians) were pleased to do it, “and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” The sense of obligation or paying a debt in giving was foreign to me. I had come to believe that the best giving was voluntary and motivated by gratitude and the heart. What did it mean to owe or be indebted? Well, it means exactly what I learned as a child. We have an obligation that is non-negotiable, but still something in us resents that because we have come to see duty as a grim and joyless demand – and not an affirmation of our belonging to something greater than ourselves.
So, for now, I am thinking about the obligation of giving and how that binds me in the best possible way. As Wendell Berry put it:
“And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place and had made it answerable to my life. Of course you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose it seems without being chosen. For the place in return had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.”
There is something to be said for the simple duty of giving.