Friday, April 1, 2011

poverty and generosity

After preaching on principles of generous living last Sunday, I received an email from a friend encouraging me to remember those who have been stretched thin by the economy. That is, as we talk about greater giving, remember those who have been hit hard by the recession. Some have lost their jobs. Some people have urged me not to make poor people feel guilty for not being able to give.

I appreciate my friend's compassionate caution. In fact, as I started our series, I made four promises including a promise to be gracious. When it comes to money, no one wants to be kicked when they're down. So, let me offer a few guiding principles to those who may feel they have nothing to give or to those who are searching for answers on how the teaching of Scripture applies to those who are financially low.

First, there is a difference between those who must unfortunately adjust their standard of living to fit unique circumstances and those who are actually below the poverty line. A family who lives on a double income totalling $80,000, and faces the loss of one job [ie, $30,000], will certainly have to reset their bill structure, cut out entertainment and not be able to sign their kids up for two soccer leagues. That change will be very difficult, no doubt. But, a $50,000 household income still puts that family in the top 1% of the richest people in the world [see]. The problem for many [guilty here, too!] is that we increase our standard of living to meet our income rather than set a modest standard of living and give the rest away. So, when we face financial loss, we also face emotional and living loss too.

Second, those who are not financially well-off will often experience greater joy in the Lord's reward when they give than those who are wealthier. When I attended seminary, our household income was less than $20,000 a year. Tiffany took advantage of the seminary food pantry each week and she shopped for clothes at the seminary clothes closet. Even by economic standards of the early 1990s, we were considered to be at lower end of the financial food chain. Still, we gave 10% of our income every week. We chose to eat rice and beans rather than rob the Lord of what was His. And, the reward was extraordinary. We eagerly looked for God's blessing and, when we received it, we celebrated greatly realizing that faithfulness pays spiritual dividends.

Third, for those who are truly impoverished, the Bible welcomes you to receive rather than give. According to my calculator, 10% of 0 = 0. So, if a person has no income, God expects no tithe. In fact, the tithe was collected from God's people who did enjoy an income in order to support those who were impoverished. When a person ends up at rock bottom, the church becomes the Lord's grace to them.

Fourth, generosity is somewhat relative to our present circumstances. While the Bible taught a specific tithe (10%) in the Old Testament, the concept is not prescribed in the New Testament. To be fair, the responsibility of God's people to contribute to God's work never changed. The principle of generosity never changed. Neither did the importance of trusting God with all our resources. But, a single mother making $15,000 a year may express generosity by giving $65 a month (5% of her income). But a couple making $175,000 may need to give $2000 a month (13.7%) to truly express generosity. In the end, God isn't operating with a magical formula as much as He is expecting a spiritual response.

Finally, in God's mind, there is no line of financial security by which a person should begin tithing. Sometimes, when we engage in the conversation about "Not talking to Greg and Marcie about tithing because Greg has been without a job for 6 months," we sound like we think giving is only a responsibility for those who live above the line and can afford it. This natural, but unbiblical, thinking completely misses the point of the financial stewardship. God commanded His people to trust Him with their finances all the time. If we only give when "we get back on our feet," then we've put our trust in ourselves and will only give God His due once we've been able to manage things to a level where we feel comfortable. For this reason, poor people end up with some of the greatest testimonies through their giving.

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