Monday, March 28, 2011

where does your money go?

I have started a short series on money called "The Great Give: The Discipline of Generous Living." Financial stewardship has been called "the one area of our spiritual lives we cannot fake." Our giving says so much about our spiritual living. Perhaps that's why Jesus taught more about money than He did about heaven or hell.

Once the topic of money is broached, a whole host of practical questions follows. How much? How often? Net or gross income [I love the answer: "If you want a net blessing, give on net income. If you want a gross blessing, give on gross."]? A very important question concerns the destination of our giving. To whom/where should we direct our generosity?

I'd like to answer this question on two fronts. First, I believe it is important for Christians to focus a majority of their charitable giving on Kingdom-centered initiatives. To be sure, the local symphony, animal shelter or policeman's banquet are all noble causes. But, when the souls of people are at stake, the greatest investment we can make is in ministries which are strategically and intentionally designed to make Jesus Christ known. This doesn't mean that every ministry is financially accountable or equal in regards to its effectiveness. But, when the Christian has to decide whether to save the trees or save people, give to people. In this, you lay up for yourselves treasure which are heavenly and eternal [Matthew 6:19-20].

Second, I believe it is important for Christians to give to their church first, then to support ministries. Throughout the Bible, God's people were commanded to give their tithe ["tenth"] to the priests, the apostles or the church. The Israelites were not allowed to take a tenth of their crop and distribute it at will. The early church brought their money "to the apostles to give to those who had need" [Acts 4:35]. Each time, God's people entrusted their resources to leaders who were given the responsibility to steward and safeguard the resources.

I believe there is a logistical and spiritual reason for this plan. Logistically, or practically, the community leaders [Levites, apostles, elders, etc.] are charged with seeing the needs in the whole community. As leaders of God's people, they are better able to disburse the funds of God's people in an equitable, balanced, strategic manner. Conversely, if all the people in the church gave to whomever they wished, the church would have no means to accomplish it's central mission. Spiritually, the act of giving is intended to be a step of faith wrapped in surrender. There is the ever-present temptation to go half the distance of faith/surrender by giving, but still attempt to maintain control by personally choosing where my money goes and how it is spent. In this, I miss the full "losing" and "gaining" that God has planned for me [Matthew 16:25].

Having offered this perspective, let me also address the other side. I do believe it is important for Christians to support initiatives within their community. Supporting participants in a breast cancer awareness walk-a-thon or giving a contribution to the local Girl Scouts can be a great thing. In addition, I do believe it's important for Christians to support ministry beyond the scope of their church. Hopefully, every believer has a relationship with a missionary whom they support. There are thousands of God-honoring, non-profit organizations who are committed to spiritual life change [I sit on the board of a an incredible Christian fraternity,] and they deserve our partnership, over and above our commitment to our churches.

The good news is that all the money to accomplish all of God's mission is available. Let's seek the wisdom of God to give faithfully, regularly and strategically to the places where we might see the greatest return on our generous investments.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Q&A: a brief theology of work

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Theology of work: Why should I bother to work with any excellence at all if all I do is temporal and will all burn in the end? Does God think I am wasting my time? --Miki Anzai

A: Miki, first of all, let me tell you how much I miss you. Ministry with you in Austin was a real privilege. I will never forget your testimony of quitting your job, in lieu of an opportunity to serve on a short term mission trip, trusting that God would line up new employment when you returned. Your investment in the eternal puts your question above in sharp focus. Does our work matter?

I have previously been tempted to start forming my theology of work in Genesis 3 where God announces to Adam,

17 "Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

Sin brought the curse of painful toil, thorns and thistles, and laborious sweat. My conclusion was that work was the curse. People sinned, so God sentenced us to hard labor.

However, Genesis 3 simply declares the new, qualitative aspect of work. In chapter 2, before sin arrived in Eden, God put man in the garden to "work it and take care of it" [v. 15]. Work was a pre-fall design, not a post-fall discipline. I believe that God set Adam to work in the garden as an expression of man made in the image of God [Genesis 1:26-27]. Just as God is creative and productive [expressed in creation], so He made human beings to reflect His creativity and productivity. In other words, work is an opportunity for each of us to express our connection to God Himself.

It's in this realization that work may become worship. Paul writes that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" [Ephesians 2:10]. Of course, the Apostle is referring to the "good works" of Christian virtue and service, not vocational work per se. But, God's "work" in our salvation is intended to reproduce itself in our "working" in a way that pleases God. So, "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" [1 Corinthians 10:31]. We work with excellence because God is excellent. We work with diligence because God is diligent. We work with perseverance because God perseveres. It's not the work that honors God, but how we work which has possibility of glorifying Him. And, in the end, it matters little whether we dug water wells of built widgets. Our work is a reflection of our Divine design and, therefore, becomes an opportunity to magnify the Lord.

And, worship is never a waste.