As I’ve written on before, there are few areas of the Christian life where I feel more tension than when it comes to giving. Is it wisdom or self-reliance that leads me to want a thick savings account? Is it greed for this world or joy in the goodness of it that makes me desire a pool one day? Am I really materially rich? Can I possibly believe otherwise when I compare my lot to those of the past? Can I possibly believe that I am when I look at my bills in the present?
Like I said, there is some tension here. But, tension, whatever else it might mean, at least is evidence of concern. And for that, I am grateful. I care what I do with my money, because I know that God cares. There is much about the specifics that gets tricky and complicated, so sometimes it’s good to take a step back, and just ask, “Do I even care about faithfulness in this area?” And, as much as I can search my own heart, I believe I do, even if I’m not always sure what that looks like.
But then what? How do we take the next step beyond just recognizing that there is a desire to faithful in any given area? Do we just write the next check to our favorite charity? I don’t think so. I think the next step is to seek to understand, or try to understand, what’s motivating our desire to give.
Fundamentally, that motivation should be driven by a desire to be obedient to Christ. But still we must ask, what is driving that motivation? Is it guilt or gratitude? Recognizing that there is a place within the Christian walk to just do something obediently no matter the feelings we have or the exactness of any given motivation we express, it is still important to seek a healthy motivation that aligns most closely to the type of heart that Jesus wants His followers to have.
As we consider our own financial giving, there are times when encountering stories like the rich man and Lazarus, “can send chills down our spines.”1 Those chills can quickly morph into a strong sensation of guilt. That guilt can then be the root of a financial change in our giving for the better. And to a degree, this isn’t a bad thing, as long as the person who is increasing his giving firmly understands that this will not increase or decrease their chances of being saved. If that’s the case, they haven’t just missed the point of that parable, but they have missed the entire point of the Christian story. And that point is that there was only one person who gave all their wealth, who, being rich became poor (II Cor. 8:9), that he might save and redeem those who were spiritually bankrupt.
Just in case that is too vague or poetic, let me be clear. We are not saved by how much give, we are saved only by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our faith in him. Motivation for giving that comes from a desire to seek God’s approval, without this foundation of faith, is its own form of sin.
Nevertheless, even if we have a firm understanding of salvation by grace, we can still be motivated to give by feelings of guilt. Although this motivation does not have to be inherently bad (a guilty conscience is often the first step in a change of heart), it is so far from ideal. Ideally, a Christian should be giving from a heart of gratitude, not one laden with guilt. Indeed, “God loves a cheerful giver” (II. Cor. 9:7, emphasis mine). But where does such cheerfulness come from?
The most fundamental level again lies at the roots of a Christian’s life, the recognition of all that God has spiritually done (and will do) for us in Christ. I think that is the obvious answer, but not the only one. Additional gratitude can actually come from the material blessings that we have received as well. Recognizing that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude” (I Tim. 4:4), we begin to understand that we can give genuine thanks for our material blessings. While we should be careful with both the triviality and material focus that a “#blessed” culture can view material blessings with, we ought to be careful of avoiding an overreaction that does not see physical blessings as actual blessings worthy of thanksgiving.
As we rejoice in these things. As we praise God for the food on our plates, the cool air within our homes, the coffee in our cups, and every other good and physical gift that God chooses to grace us with, we may just begin to notice a shift in our attitudes. Rather than feeling shame that leads us to toss a few more dollars in the plate, we may begin to feel an overflow of gratefulness that fills that plate with far more than our motivation of guilt would ever allow. A heart overflowing with thankfulness is the best source for hands that overflow with generosity.
Ironically, the very gratefulness that we experience, if truly directed toward the Giver, frees us from both the greed of hanging on so dearly to what we have and the greed of obtaining everything we can get. As Todd Wilson writes:
We should focus on gratitude rather than feeling guilty for what we have. Many of us have been given so much. The tendency is to feel guilty because of what we have when we see how much those around us don’t have. Resist that temptation. Guilt is not a good or God-honoring motivation. Instead cultivate thankfulness for all that God has given us because thankfulness paradoxically frees us from having to hang on tightly to what we have. When we take our eyes off of the gifts and fix them on the Giver, we realize that gifts aren’t the source of lasting joy, God is.2
- Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 203 —Slight paraphrase.
- Todd Wilson, Galatians: Gospel-Rooted Living (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 64
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