Shane Claiborne writes about serving with Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta. A woman who was begging approached him one day. Shane had no money, and so he gave her what he did have in his pocket, which was a piece of gum. Who knows how long it had been since the beggar had chewed gum, or whether she ever had. But she looked at the gift and smiled with delight. The first thing she did was tear the gum into three pieces. She gave one piece back to Shane, one piece to another person who was there, and kept one for herself.
Surely this person, to use the apostle Paul’s language, “excelled at the grace of giving” (2 Cor. 8:7).
What does it take to give gracefully? And the offering in our worship services: how do we really enter that act of worship?
Paul’s broader discussion of these questions in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 suggests two things to say about giving gracefully.
First, God is the one who excels at the grace of giving. The last words in these two chapters are “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” The gift Paul is talking about here is Jesus. Amazing that God would give us himself that way. And the reason he did so, Paul told the Corinthians, was “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich” (8:9). God impoverished himself so that we might have the riches of his life.
The second thing about giving gracefully is this: if we want to excel in giving, our giving needs to match the spiritual reality that is ours in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we have been graced, loved, forgiven, guided, blessed, comforted, sustained. We live in a story where creation is being restored, people are being forgiven, the future is good. Out of that reality, we give.
Paul is telling the Corinthians, “Jesus has already made you rich in many ways, so your money-giving should be on the basis of that reality.” Giving is not a prescription for Jesus’ people; it’s not “Do this.” Rather, giving is a description of what happens when people follow their Lord and fall in love with each other across lines that might otherwise divide. Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to envision a world in which generous giving no longer seems awkward or peculiar but is a way of life.
Giving money isn’t about money. It is fascinating to note that Paul never uses the word “money” in this passage. He uses all sorts of other words: grace, service, sharing, blessing. All sorts of other words to get at what the reality of money is for disciples of Jesus Christ. Money is for grace, sharing, service, and blessing. That’s the true value of money. Paul’s concern is not “the budget,” but that God’s grace would bear fruit in people’s lives.
I have come to think over the years that of all the things that can happen in a worship service, the money offering is one of the most amazing acts of worship. That our worship of God includes us literally putting coins and dollar bills and checks into a basket. That our response to Christ’s grace can be so concrete. It says a lot.
Sometimes churches say to guests who arrive at worship: “Do not feel you have to put money in the basket.” I get that: we want to be hospitable; we don’t want to be seen as grabbing for money. However, this approach might mean we tend to see what happens in worship as a collection, as self-serving for a particular congregation. But it isn’t a collection and it’s not for ourselves. Rather, giving is a response to God’s grace, and our responses shouldn’t be measured. We don’t usually say to people who arrive, “Don’t feel you have to sing. Don’t feel you have to pray.” No, we invite them to participate with us in these acts of worship. We say, “Sing! Pray!” And even, “Give! Yes, even money!”
Maybe we’re new at this. Maybe some of us are thinking, “So how do I actually do this?” Here are some biblical guidelines for giving that the deacons at my church have come up with from 2 Corinthians 8-9 and a few other places in the Bible:
1. Give regularly. “On the first day of the week,” says 1 Corinthians 16. Ask yourself, “Is the offering an act of worship I engage in every week?”
2. Give of your firstfruits, not your leftovers. When you have the financial freedom to give money, give to God first.
3. Give proportionally. That is, give as you’ve been blessed. Paul says the people “gave as much as they were able” (8:3). Some of us are able to give a few dollars for our regular giving each week.
Others of us could give hundreds.
4. Give cheerfully. Don’t give reluctantly or under compulsion (9:7). The worst reasons to give are out of guilt, under pressure, or to get rid of someone. The best reasons are to worship God, to show compassion, and to say thanks. Think of God’s grace to us, and then happily give.
5. Give generously. Think of others before oneself.
6. Give sacrificially. The Macedonians gave beyond expectation (8:1-4) and considered it a privilege.
The word “tithe” can be a problem if it makes us think that only a certain percentage of our stuff is the Lord’s. But it can be helpful if it gets us seriously thinking about how much money we’re going to give. Over the years, several people in my congregation have been audited by the federal government for their charitable donations, and the reason is because their giving is so out of whack with the national average. Ten percent, for instance, is way above the national average in Canada and the United States. I’d like to think that our people would get a lot of tax audits.
Meanwhile, church buildings need repairs and renovations and renting. Budgets seem to grow every year. People are going hungry and homeless on our own streets. Countries around the world are flooded and windswept and cracked apart by earthquakes. Students emerge from college with debts and very little income. There are people with no jobs or who are looking for jobs. Young adults with new jobs or almost-jobs. Parents with kids and savings to think of. Semi-retired folk who at times are semi-tired folk with other places to be and see and spend money on. $300 electronic toys, overseas trips for pleasure, and “donation fatigue.” I don’t know how to put it all together.
Even so, we are called to excel in the grace of giving. We can only do that if we excel in loving Jesus and if we excel in living the Scriptures’ story. If we enjoy and wonder at the grace of God that surrounds us and involves us and infuses us. If we live open to the Spirit and if we are alive by the Spirit.
Then we can do nothing but excel in our giving.
- What can we learn from the woman in Calcutta who received the stick of gum?
- What does Vroege mean by this: “If we want to excel in giving, our giving needs to match the spiritual reality that is ours in Jesus Christ”? What does that mean for our giving?
- Share some examples of how “giving money isn’t about money.”
- What place should the offering have in worship? How might your church make that act of worship more meaningful?
- Review Vroege’s list of biblical guidelines. Which of those do you find hardest to honor?
- If we are to “excel in giving” then can we ever be confident that we have given enough? And how can we avoid “guilt tripping” ourselves or others?