At a recent school citizenship day I led the students in planning their personal budget. Each group had a limited monthly income and a large number of items requiring funds, with ten-minutes to plan a balanced budget. They could choose what to include and what to leave out.
The choices they made revealed a lot about their priorities.
Did they want a nice car? If so they had to consider going without the international holiday. But what was most revealing was how much of this money the students chose to give away.
It’s all very well speaking about TV licenses being £15 per month or an iPhone contract costing £30, not to mention rent, bills, council tax and the like, but what about more selfless items? We included a number of other areas of spending - £2 for school dinners for a child in Ghana, £20 a month to sponsor a child in South Africa, £10 to donate to a local foodbank and stepped back to listen to the table discussions:
How much of their monthly budget would they decide to spend on people other than themselves?
Some groups started with essentials and once they had paid out all that they needed to, they began to consider what they might add before running out of cash. Other groups would start by including all the charitable gifts, until realising the limitations of their income – at which point charitable giving became an unaffordable luxury.
The children were very happy to be generous when they were given an unlimited amount of money. But once they realised their limitations, they had to make different choices.
“I’ve got a limited amount – how much can I afford to give away. I’m going to have to choose between sponsoring a child in South Africa and getting a new iPhone.”
The least anyone gave away was only 1/700 of their income; the most a group chose to spend on others was 1.5% of their income.
In 2 Corinthians 8, we see the opposite attitude being displayed by some Christians in Macedonia.
The church in Jerusalem was facing hard times. There had been a severe drought around 40AD – leading to famine and poverty. Not only that, but the Romans were getting a little over enthusiastic about collecting their taxes. They weren’t just collecting tax once, but twice, meaning that everyone had to give away a double tithe. To make matters worse, the Christian church was being marginalised and treated very unfairly – if you followed Jesus then it was pretty tough to get a job.
As Paul travelled round the cities of Europe, he shared news of these troubles, and the church in Macedonia responded. When the Macedonians heard about the troubles in Jerusalem they were facing hardship of their own, but that didn’t stop them from digging deep and giving generously.
The true miracle here is not merely lavish giving, but seemingly-reckless generosity. Without regard for their own plight and poverty, they responded with liberal abandon to the needs of others.
Why did they behave in this unusual way?
Paul claims that this kind of generosity is a gift from God. Paul tellingly speaks of ‘the grace of giving’ in verse 7.
The key ingredient in their counter-intuitive money management was grace. These Macedonians knew the grace of God – they had received the love of God in Christ Jesus and it had made a difference in their lives – producing joy.
Our giving is dependent on God’s prior giving.
Giving is being caught up in the flow of grace: ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights’ (James 1:17).
Paul is very clear – we give because we’ve received. When we realise what we’ve been given, we will find it easier to give. In particular, when we understand how much we have been given, we will realise how much we have to share.
If we understand that our budget is limitless, then we will not find the need to scrimp and save; to cut £2 from the budget here and £5 there, as we’ve been given so much.
Our receiving comes before our giving.
Our giving reveals our receiving.
If we are slow to give, if we are ungenerous or miserly, it shows that we think we don’t have enough.
Finally, Paul turns to a deeper reality
– a more significant truth.
As ever, Paul brings us back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The life of the Christian is a life of imitation – Jesus calls us to follow. And as we walk in his footsteps, we try to be like the one who leads. We are called to live Christ-shaped lives in the 21st century.
The life of our saviour was not a life of grabbing and getting, but of giving. And this generous attitude led him to the Cross, where he gave his very self. The life of Jesus was shaped by the cross.
He was so rich – he had it all, and yet he gave it all away.
Paul claims that the Macedonian Christians had got this. The Gospel wasn’t merely an historical fact or a religious symbol, but a life-changing reality.
They knew how much they had received and so they gave, even out of their poverty and trial, they gave generously through the grace of God.
Finally, a challenge for us.
Jesus said, “for where you treasure is there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21).
‘It’s not natural for us to give away what we want.’ 5 minutes observing small children will prove that to the most optimistic humanist. What we do with money reveals our hearts. We naturally think of ourselves first.
As Billy Graham noted long ago, our chequebooks, bank and credit card statements are theological documents in that they reveal our hearts. Just as Lot revealed his heart in claiming the best land when he and Abraham parted company, with disastrous results (Genesis 13), so the way we spend our money reveals what we care about.
Our giving reveals whether we acknowledge God’s ownership and gift of all we have. It reveals our captivity to the chains of materialism.
The Macedonian Christians didn’t spend all that they needed, and then wondered what to do with the rest.
They didn’t ask ‘Once I’ve got my new iPad, can I afford to donate to the foodbank?’ Instead, they gave generously – without thought to the cost – because they understood the grace of God and had been set free from materialism.
Whilst my year 8 students were challenged to consider how much of their budget they could afford to spend on others, we are called to consider something far more radical.
Given the generosity we’ve received, how much will we give – without regard to the cost?
Our spending reveals the shape of our lives. Does your bank statement show the imprint of the cross? Is your attitude to money undeniably, radically and wholeheartedly altered by the grace of God?
Our giving reveals our receiving.
Christian giving can be radically generous because it flows from our radically generous God.