In the last few years, the U.S. economy has faced its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and Americans are not out of the woods yet. This financial debacle, fueled by failed mortgages, has rippled through every sector of the economy. The values of homes and investments have plummeted. Consumer confidence has fallen to an all-time low. Millions are out of work, wondering how they will make ends meet. Since charitable giving is one of the first areas to suffer in an economic downturn, churches have felt the pinch and many have been forced to slash budgets and lay off staff. There’s no question we live in challenging times, but with each new challenge comes opportunity.
Through this crisis, when the idols of our materialistic culture lie shattered on the floor, like Dagon before the ark of the Lord, and the nation’s sense of security is in jeopardy, God has given the church an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that allegiance to Christ results in a distinct set of values and priorities. As we find our joy and treasure in Christ we are set free from debilitating worries about money and an insidious slavery to things. In Adam we worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). In Christ our hearts are set aright. Our perception and response to this global economic meltdown ought to be different because we are a peculiar people, a people who no longer belong to this world but to God. Jesus taught that if we love only those who love us and fail to love our enemies, we are no better than the pagans. Likewise, if we are generous and cheerful in our giving only when times are good and our bank accounts are robust, how are we different from the world? Christians in the West have enjoyed an extended season of plenty. In this season of want, perhaps God intends to teach His people some fresh lessons about the grace of giving.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul exhorts the church to give selflessly and cheerfully, inspired by the magnanimity of the Macedonians and Christ Himself. In chapter 9 he offers this summary statement: “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (vv. 6–8). It is unbelief and fear of loss that constrain our liberality, but here Paul compares giving to sowing. Seed sown in the soil seems lost, but the farmer knows a season of harvest will follow. As we sow bountifully with faith in the benevolence of God, not only can we expect to reap a harvest of earthly blessings, but we store up for ourselves a good foundation for our eternal future (1 Tim. 6:19).
In one sense, how we give can be more important than what we give. We must be cognizant of how our giving appears in the sight of God, for He loves a cheerful giver. To give cheerfully is to give without grieving — to give with ease, spontaneity, and pleasure. It is necessary to honor God with our tithes and offerings, yet no sacrifice is pleasing to Him unless it is voluntary. Our Father desires the cheerful obedience of His children.
Paul cited the Macedonian Christians as exemplars of this spirit. In spite of their poverty and affliction, their joy in Christ resulted in abounding liberality. “For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Cor. 8:2). Severe affliction and extreme poverty do not usually add up to a wealth of generosity. Such circumstances would seem to provide justification for withholding whatever resources one has left in the interest of self-preservation. But their joy in Christ was so abundant that it could not be contained. Joy, like gratitude, seeks expression. The question for the Macedonians was not “How little?” but “How much?” If God’s grace has truly gripped our hearts, we will not be calculating the minimum we can offer, but the maximum we can give to Christ and His church. Cheerful givers always wish they could give more. Our tendency today is to spend beyond our means, but the Macedonians gave beyond their means: “for they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (vv. 3–4). Pleas from the pulpit and desperate appeals from the deacons were unnecessary. God’s people begged to help their brethren in Jerusalem. That’s not something you hear very often.
How do we account for their extraordinary munificence? Paul attributed it to the grace of God (v. 1). To give sacrificially with joy is not natural; it is supernatural and requires the presence and prompting of the Holy Spirit. Giving is an act of worship and a work of grace.