“Where your treasure is,” Jesus said, “there will your heart be also.” A recently published survey questioned members of low, middle, and high income groups about their personal values, asking them to rank eighteen according to their relative importance. All three groups, low, middle, and high, agreed in giving “a world at peace” and “family security” the first two places, though the low and high put peace first, the middle family security. But then the relative values shifted sharply. The low income group placed “salvation” third, but the middle income put it ninth, behind such concepts as “happiness,” “equality,” and “self-respect.” For the high income group, salvation dropped to fourteenth place, followed only by “an exciting life,” “a comfortable life,” social recognition,” and “pleasure.” In what is perhaps a related finding, recent IRS statistics reveal that among those itemizing deductions—generally the taxpayers with the higher incomes—church and other charitable giving hovered around 2.9 per cent of gross personal income.
On a world-wide scale, compared to what people from other affluent, industrial nations give, 2.9 per cent does not look so bad. (Of course, God, according to the most reliable reports, does not grade on a curve, so this relative “generosity” may not impress him.) But if we compare our charitable giving to luxury expenditures, such as those for alcoholic beverages, entertainment, and vacations, to name but three, we find the figure less impressive.
It would be difficult to determine how Christians compare, in average giving to the Lord’s work, to the 2.9 per cent figure for all contributions for all Americans. The Old Testament explicitly taught that the first tithe of an individual’s income belonged to the Lord; over and above the tithe, there was also a responsibility to be generous to the needy and afflicted. The New Testament does not specifically call for tithing, but the standard it sets and the examples it gives imply that a tithe should be a lower, not an upper, limit: “Freely have ye received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8).
Christians in America have more money to handle than those in any other country. But the demands on us to spend it are also great. Many of them are largely psychological, it is true. The New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse is correct in calling them “false needs,” artificially aroused by advertising manipulation, and affording us little genuine satisfaction when fulfilled. “You deserve the best,” the advertiser tells us, but if we know ourselves, we realize that we deserve something rather different. Nevertheless, as long as the proffered product does not obviously violate some clear canon of Christian faith and morals—and sometimes even when it does—Christians are gradually softened up by the constant barrage of hidden and not-so-hidden persuaders.
Christians may abstain from the ancient and traditional forms of riotous living practiced by the Prodigal Son, but our modern world offers an unheard-of variety of luxuries, many of them apparently quite innocent, designed to consume our resources and absorb a vast portion of the material goods with which God has entrusted us. Last year the leading evangelical seminary in India dedicated a men’s dormitory which, half-finished in 1956, could not be completed until 1971, sixteen years later, because no funds were made available till then. The amount in question, eventually contributed through an American mission, was less than ten thousand dollars. That is, we have heard, the amount of the purse paid a Christian celebrity to accompany over three hundred tourists on a jumbo jet to Israel: “the largest airborne pilgrimage in history.” The profit from this pilgrimage, after all expenses have been met, will, indeed, go to a worthy cause. Yet it should give us pause to note that a spiritual / touristic pilgrimage, the total cost of which must approach half a million dollars, could be successfully conceived, organized, and achieved within a short time while much smaller projects—such as the dormitory in India—languish, not for months but for years. We realize that many missionary needs go unmet simply because people are not aware of them. And of course it is natural and proper to publicize a money-making venture with an intensity that would seem quite strange in the solicitation of missionary funds. But on the other hand, even if we have not circled the globe as tourists, many if not all of us who have lived in our affluent United States for a number of years know that we have, in the course of time, disbursed a small fortune on projects that range from the merely superfluous to the totally frivolous.
We Americans are a rather self-conscious people. And right now, we are deeply aware of how much everything costs us, from meat to German marks. But we should also remember that of all the world’s major nations, we have been entrusted with by far the most wealth, individually and collectively. Perhaps we are losing some of our comparative advantage; there are signs that this is happening. And yet in every way, we still have much. The Lord’s observation holds: “To whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48).
It seems not unlikely, despite optimistic predictions by government economists, that America is in for some economic stringency. And if we allow ourselves to be fascinated by our own appetites, stimulated by all the wonderful and innocent things that sophisticated media can suggest to us, what we will have left over for “religion and other charitable purposes” may well dip below the present, none too commendable national average of 2.9 per cent. This is a time for Christians to take stock, not of what we may still want, but of all we have, and to consider more carefully than the world would have us do how our abundance can be put to uses that will please the Lord and count for eternity.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more