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Daniel Propson on the Wisdom of Giving a Tithe to the Lord
For many years, when the subject of tithing came up, I laid low. Many of my fellow Christians seemed rather uncompromising about it, thinking that every Christian ought to tithe a full ten percent of his income, no excuses.
I didn’t disagree to their faces, of course; they had the Scriptures to back up their claims. I had—what? A few petty rationalizations, at best. I could cite circumstances that would justify withholding a full ten percent (to pay for an unanticipated surgery, for example), but this line of reasoning was no good; my friends weren’t out to deny me my needs. So in the end, the brutal fact staring me in the face was this: I didn’t need a tenth of my income; I kept it because I wanted it.
Moreover, my own church’s attitude toward tithing confused me (and still does). Like many other churches, mine seemed rather casual about this whole “offering” business. The word “tithe” never came up, and no one spoke of the necessity of giving to the church. It was as if the concept of giving one’s first fruits to the Lord had been blotted out of the Scriptures and replaced with the kindly injunction, “Just give what you can spare—that is, if it isn’t any trouble.”
But tithing is trouble. If it weren’t, God wouldn’t have to ask us for it.
As time went on, I became ever more convinced that the Lord wanted my life to be totally devoted to him, and that giving “my” money was a necessary expression of this devotion. He who has freely given all to us has commanded us to give back. If we do not obey, how are we better than thieves? The man who does not tithe is in danger of becoming corrupted. He risks becoming like Judas, a man of such reckless audacity as to think that stealing from the moneybag of the living God could win him any lasting gain.
Living on Manna
Tithing a full ten percent forces a man to face up to his attachment to material things; it draws out the battle in our souls between manna and mammon. Given how absorbed most of us are in financial concerns, given how hard we work for our money and how tenaciously we cling to it, money becomes a battlefield on which the Lord challenges us to show our mettle.
Therefore, when we offer our lives to God, we must not be astonished if, first of all, he demands of us our money. If we will not part with it, how are we different from the rich young man who would not impoverish himself even to follow God himself? Money may be the mote, or even plank, in our eye that blinds us. If we are not willing to part with one of every ten dollars for the Most High God, of what account are our earnest attestations that he is our all? What are we willing to give, if we refuse this token?
Tithing also presents us with the opportunity to express our faith in the body of Christ, which is—as the Bible teaches—the Church. Put your money where your mouth is, they say. Surely we would not deny our money from Jesus suffering before us in the flesh, so how can we deny it to his people?
It is in giving that we receive. This truth is a lens through which we might see the Incarnation: Christ, who gave up every ounce of his life for us, was raised up in incomparable splendor, receiving blessing from his Father. Just so, when we give what the Lord requires of us, we will find blessing. This blessing exists in Paradise, but it can also become a temporal reality—as Jesus promised that those who give up their houses for his sake will receive houses in this present age (Mark 10:30).
An Acceptable Sacrifice
There is often a tendency toward legalism in discussions about tithing. They often become discussions about certain passages of Scripture, about the exact amount that is required of us, about the suspicion that churches are seeking to exploit the words of Christ. Is this anything but a search for adequate excuses?
While there are some things more important than tithing, and even some purposes for money that may have a claim to being more important, there is only one passage necessary to form our attitude about tithing: “Then God created man in his own image.” The disposition of a man who knows God is thankfulness, and thankfulness finds its natural expression in generosity. A generous person is always looking to give more. This attitude—“What more can I do?”—will, in itself, be life-giving to us, will make giving ten percent, or more, the most natural thing in the world.
What would happen if we each gave ten percent of our income to the Lord? The question is something of a weathervane, revealing our true attitudes toward God’s church. On the one hand, there is a fear that we would not have enough money to live on comfortably, that we would have to make sacrifices. On the other, there is a fear that the money would be wasted, that the church is not to be trusted with such large amounts (although it is to be trusted with our souls?).
Regarding the first concern, yes, we likely will have to make sacrifices. Our standard of living may go down, and we may struggle more financially. But these sacrifices—or even just the willingness to make them—can be a blessing to the believer, because he knows that God will give him everything he needs. The blessings we provide to our families are, after all, impossible without the benediction of the Lord. If we tell our children that “they are worth” thousands of dollars in schooling, how is the Lord not worth every dollar in our bank accounts? If we refuse to make sacrifices, then our love has been tested and found wanting.
Okay, some say, but how will our churches use the money? If everyone started tithing at once, could our churches—our bumbling, inefficient, unreliable churches—properly manage such a windfall? This is a vain line of questioning. Our faithfulness, like Hosea’s faithfulness to Gomer, is not predicated on results. Though we do not see the church triumphant through our tithe, yet the body of Christ is being built up through it. And we must take care not to fall into the reasoning of Judas who, seeing precious oil poured out to anoint our Lord, cynically invoked a soulless kind of utilitarianism.
We give to the Lord, not to our church; our church is our trustee. If she has not seemed trustworthy before, perhaps it is because we did not hazard to trust her. Pastors—like spouses and children—all too often live up to our expectations. Our role is to make ourselves vulnerable, to give God the opportunity to transform the gift we have given for his kingdom. At worst, we have done what we ought to do, and grown in character. We have lived with less, and leaned on God more. We have been tempted by the devil to turn stone into bread, and we have resisted.
In some rare cases, perhaps, a believer’s church is so irresponsible as to make it imprudent (perhaps even sinful) to contribute to it. His commitment to tithing then presents him with the obvious choice to stop attending that church, or—if such a move would be difficult—to reconsider the life that cuts him off from a truly faithful congregation.
The Sermon on the Amount
If we all gave ten percent, what a witness it would be! Yet, when the call for tithing comes from the pulpit, the only thing many in the congregation hear is the same old Sermon on the Amount. It is natural (and sometimes accurate) for individuals in a church to interpret this sermon as an expression of personal selfishness on the part of the pastor. This can create a rebound effect, of course, unintentionally excusing the churchgoer for his own selfishness.
But if the Sermon on the Amount will not do, neither is it decent that the mission of the Church should be crippled by a people who have not dutifully repaid the Source of all good things. Perhaps a grass-roots campaign would help, a variety of different speakers and writers rediscovering and communicating the meaning of the tithe.
Or perhaps all we need is the movement of the Holy Spirit in hearts open to receive it, a movement more pure and more powerful than the force of a thousand sermons.
Daniel Propson is an English teacher at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He and his wife attend St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Detroit, and are members of the Word of Life community in Ann Arbor. They live with their two young children in midtown Detroit.