This article is adapted from a sermon Sam Storms gave on November 30, 2008.
The biblical fact of the matter is that, ultimately speaking, God has no need of us.
I know this cuts deeply into our sense of self-importance, but look closely at what the apostle Paul said to the Athenian philosophers: "He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:25). In another text, Paul extols God precisely because "from him and through him and to him are all things" (Rom. 11:36). If God already owns everything and is in himself perfectly complete, what do we think we could possibly add to his already immeasurably sufficient being? The truth is that the God of the Bible is the kind of God whose greatest delight comes not from making demands but from meeting needs.
Yet, tragically, many Christians exhaust themselves in trying to shore up what they think are deficiencies in God. Their approach to the Christian life is to give to God what they evidently think he lacks. But God is most honored not when we strive to bolster what we mistakenly think is his diminishing supply, but when we come to him humbly to receive from his mercy and goodness what only he can provide. Contrary to what some have said about Christian Hedonism, that in all its talk of seeking pleasure and happiness it is man-centered, it is actually profoundly theocentric. Here's how.
Consider the description of the spiritual dynamics involved when David undertook what may have been the largest building program in history. In 1 Chronicles 29:6-20, we read of the wealth that was raised for the construction of the temple. From a purely human perspective, it would appear that David and the Israelites are to be congratulated for giving so generously to the work of the Lord. But we must look beyond what can be seen and discern the hand of God at work.
It's truly a remarkable story. "With all my ability" (29:2) and "in all my delight" (29:3), says David, "I have provided for the house of my God." The people likewise "offered willingly" (29:6) and "with a whole heart" (29:9) to supply the resources necessary for this massive undertaking. Again, "in the uprightness" of his heart David "willingly" (29:17) offered all these things. No one gave under compulsion or out of fear or guilt. They rejoiced in the freedom and opportunity to participate.
But there is more to this story than meets the eye. In order that we might see what the naked eye cannot see, the Holy Spirit has inscripturated for us David's prayer. Behind the scenes of glad, willing, happy human endeavor is the hand of an all-sufficient God who overflows in abundance to his people.
We first see it in the fact that David immediately blesses God (29:10). His response to this tremendous influx of earthly wealth and riches is to bless God, not men or women. This blessing takes the form of a dozen affirmations concerning who God is and what he does, all of which are revealed in the willingness of his people to give so much to the building of the temple.
In verse 11, David states that "all that is in the heavens and the earth" belongs to God. This is why giving is all about God: He already owns everything. He owns your clothes and your car and your bank account and your body and your house and your books and your jewelry and your television set(s) — he owns it all. He owns your mind and your emotions and your spirit and your eyes and your ears and your hair and your blood and your toenails. He has graciously and freely given us these things to use and enjoy for his glory, and he may take them back anytime he wishes. We are trustees or stewards of what God possesses. He also owns every dime (or sheckel) that we might willingly and joyfully choose to give him.
The ninth of these twelve declarations is no less stunning in its ramifications. In verse 12, David says of God that "both riches and honor come from you." God is no usurper of things that are not rightfully his. From a purely human point of view, the money and wealth given for the building of the temple seem to come from the work and energy and savings and investments of the people. Perhaps some of them had profited from shrewd business transactions. Perhaps a few had turned an incredible profit on the sale of some land. But no matter, David says that all riches come from God. Whatever anyone worked for, earned, invested, sold, and then gave, they first got it from God.
Again in verse 12, David asserts that it lies in God's hand "to make great and to give strength to all." Whatever energy or accomplishments may be traceable to the people that accounted for what and why they gave, all of it ultimately came from God. Power, influence, ingenuity, success, commitment, whatever it might be, are the result of the gracious and kind operation of a benevolent and giving God working in and through his people for their welfare and his own glory.
The eleventh thing David says comes in the form of a question: "But who am I and who are my people that we should be able to offer as generously as this?" This is David's way of saying that God is the one who enables us to do what we do not deserve help to do. Who are we, asks David, that we should receive the help of God that would mobilize us to produce this wealth and then stir our hearts to give it away? We are sinners. We deserve nothing but judgment.
Perhaps the most instructive thing David says comes next in verse 14. "For all things come from you, and of your own we have given you" (or, in the NASB translation, "from thy hand we have given thee"). He doesn't say "to thy hand," as if it originated with us and ended with God. Rather, it is "from thy hand." In other words, whatever they gave, they first received. He says much the same thing in verse 16: "O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided to build thee a house for thy holy name, comes from your hand and is all your own." We do not offer to God what he lacks. In giving we do not add to his resources or increase the balance of his bank account. How can you increase the wealth of someone who already owns it all? Our giving is but a reflex of God's giving.
Twelfth, and finally, David prays that God would "keep [preserve] this forever in the intentions of the heart of thy people, and direct their hearts toward you, and give to my son Solomon a whole heart to keep your commandments" (verse 18). God's enabling in this matter is not simply that he makes it possible for us to work hard, not simply that he bestows riches on whomever he pleases, but that he actually gives us the willingness to give. Yes, the people did the giving (verse 9). They gave willingly, of their own accord, and with joy. It was genuine giving, freely chosen, joyfully engaged. They made decisions. Real decisions. Sacrificial decisions. Decisions that make a difference. Decisions without which the temple would not have been built. But mysteriously, in ways that you and I will never fully understand, beneath and behind these choices was the gracious, enabling work of God.
What all this means is that our God is a God of infinite, immeasurable wealth. He owns everything that is. He does not stand in need of gifts or offerings or contributions as if he were poor and helpless and dependent. We are the poor, the helpless, the dependent ones. God is always the giver. We are always the getters. We simply must understand this if we are to progress in growth in our Christian lives and in our pursuit of holiness.
From Chronicles to Corinth
Let's take a leap of several centuries from 1 Chronicles to 2 Corinthians and note that the service of God on behalf of his people doesn't diminish with time (or with the change of testaments).
Paul's passionate appeal in 2 Corinthians 8-9 to give generously grew out of the poverty of the church in Jerusalem (see 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-27). The reasons for this crisis are numerous: in addition to overpopulation, there was social and economic ostracism, disinheritance following conversion, disruption of family ties, persecution, and the lingering effects of the famine of A.D. 46 (cf. Acts 11:27-30). Paul's efforts to raise money to help the saints in Jerusalem were obviously justified. This was a concrete expression of his resolve as stated in Galatians 2:10: "They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do." By pointing to the example of sacrificial giving set by the Macedonians (the Christians in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea), Paul hopes to stimulate the Corinthians to complete their efforts at contributing to their poverty-stricken brethren in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Cor. 8:10-11).
Yes, Paul appeals to what believers in Macedonia had done. But like David in 1 Chronicles, he is quick to acknowledge that what they did in serving their brethren is the fruit of what God had done in serving them. If the Macedonians "gave themselves to the Lord" in this ministry (verse 5), it is because God had first "given his grace" (verse 1) to them. Whatever achievement on their part is praised, it is ultimately attributed to the prior activity of divine grace. Here we see the harmony between the antecedent presence of divine grace and the moral accountability of human decisions. In verse 3, Paul says they gave "of their own free will," while in verse 1 their willingness is traced to a gift of God: grace. The same principle is found in verses 16 and 17, where Paul says God put "earnestness" in Titus's heart, who in turn went to the Corinthians "of his own accord."
They didn't give because God had prospered them financially. He hadn't. Financial blessing didn't lead to joy. Rather, joy led to a financial blessing (for the saints in Jerusalem). Their joy, therefore, was not in money, but in God and the experience of his grace. John Piper explains:
How did such countercultural and counter-natural behavior come about? How were the Christians freed from the natural love of money and comfort? Part of the answer in verse 2 is that their abundance of joy overflowed. Joy in something else had severed the root of joy in money. They had been freed by joy to give to the poor. But where did this powerful, unearthly joy come from? The answer is that it came from the grace of God. … What the Corinthians (as well as you and I) are supposed to learn from this story is that the same grace that was given in Macedonia is available now in Corinth (and in whatever city you live, in whatever church you call home).
Don't miss the spiritual dynamic at work here: Grace comes down, joy rises up, generosity flows out. It is because of divine grace that they experienced joy, and because they experienced such joy in grace that they gave so generously.
As they looked at their ability to give, they no doubt took into consideration both their present situation and their future needs and obligations. Having done so, they then showed total disregard for both. This is not because they were foolish. Undoubtedly they knew the consequences for themselves and willingly embraced them. In all likelihood, they first determined what they could reasonably give and then went above and beyond that amount. They were able to take this approach because grace was operative in their hearts. God was serving them so that they could gladly serve others. That alone can account for this remarkable demonstration of love and earnestness on their part.
And again, this in no way diminishes the moral value of what was done, for Paul insists that they gave not because they felt compelled or coerced but of their own accord — freely and voluntarily (verse 3). They didn't give out of greed (thinking that by giving they would eventually get back more in return), guilt, fear, in response to an apostolic command, or any such reason. In fact, Paul refused to ask them for money for the collection, knowing full well their financial condition. They were forced to urgently plead, indeed, beg Paul for the opportunity to participate in this ministry. Amazing. Most people beg to get money; the Macedonians beg to give money. Again, from Piper:
When poverty-stricken Macedonians beg Paul for the privilege of giving money to other poor saints, we may assume that this is what they want to do, not just ought to do, or have to do, but really long to do. It is their joy — an extension of their joy in God. To be sure, they are 'denying themselves' whatever pleasures or comforts they could have from the money they give away, but the joy of extending God's grace to others is a far better reward than anything money could buy. The Macedonians have discovered the labor of Christian Hedonism: love. It is the overflow of joy in God which gladly meets the needs of others.
Paul puts all this in perspective in chapter nine with two statements that are relevant to our discussion. First, he declares that "God loves a cheerful giver" (verse 7). Needless to say, if God loves a cheerful giver, he is displeased when people give but don't do it gladly, even if their giving is generous in terms of quantity. Piper writes, "When people don't find pleasure (Paul's word is cheer.) in their acts of service, God doesn't find pleasure in them." Does that mean if we don't have joy we shouldn't give at all? No. "Though joyless love is not our aim, nevertheless it is better to do a joyless duty than not to do it, provided there is a spirit of repentance for the deadness of our heart."
Then note also the promise of abundance in verses 8 through 11, a passage that has been sorely abused by many who advocate a crass form of prosperity gospel. In effect, God says to those who gladly and generously give: "Okay, I see that you're going to take this seriously. Good. You mean business. Well, so do I. I'm going to make a promise to you. As long as you are willing to give (a willingness that we saw in both 1 Chronicles and 2 Corinthians 8 flows first from God's antecedent activity of gracious enablement), I will never leave you without the resources to do it. I will never let you give yourself into poverty. That's a promise."
Clearly, God promises to supply abundantly those who give generously. Paul wants the Corinthians to be free from the fear that generous giving will leave them impoverished. But for what purpose or with what goal in mind does God cause the generous Christian steward to abound? Why does God promise financial abundance to those who cheerfully and freely give to others?
Before I answer that, did you see Paul's unapologetic use of universals in verse 8? "God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed." You'd almost think he was trying to make a point.
Now for the answer to the question: God promises to continue serving you financially in order that "you may abound in every good work" (9:8b). Again, it is in order that he might "multiply your seed for sowing" (9:10). Finally, it is in order that you might be enriched in everything "for all generosity" (9:11). Paul's point is that God will never stir your heart to give and then fail to supply you with resources to do so. But the idea that we should give so that God will then enrich us personally with a view to increasing our comfort and convenience and purchasing power is foreign to Paul's teaching. Personal wealth is here viewed, not as an end in itself, but as a means to a yet higher goal: generosity to those in need.
Finally, verses 12 and 13, remove any vestiges of doubt as to whether this entire scenario is the result of God's serving his people. There Paul says that this ministry of giving evokes gratitude to God, for all giving has its source in his grace (verse 12b). Then again in verse 13, as they contemplate your giving, says Paul, they will be prompted to glorify God (verse 13a), something that makes sense only if it is God who is ultimately serving us by supplying the resources to give.
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Christianity Today also published two articles today on giving trends:
Why we're not putting more in the offering plate. And what we can do about it.
Some Boats Stay Afloat
An economic downturn isn't always bad news for giving.