I stopped tithing a few months ago. Okay, no scandal here. I got married in September, and my husband and I moved to a new area and wanted to find a church. As we slowly combined our finances, it became painful. (He's a cheapskate, and I didn't want him to see every pair of earrings I splurged on.)
Within a few months we found a church that we really liked for various reasons. As the new year approached, we resolved to streamline our finances. Eager to get in our giving before 2009 ended for tax purposes, we talked about back-tithing. We decided to tithe the four months we had been married, which felt like a lot of money. It was daunting to put the check in the offering plate and watch the money pulled from our bank account. I then vowed to talk with someone about having our tithing automatically deducted from our account so we wouldn't think twice about it.
On one hand, you could argue, "It's not your money to begin with, so pretend like you never had it." On the other hand, there's something psychological about physically writing a check and putting it in the brass plate. If we all paid our taxes once a year instead of having them automatically deducted from our paychecks each pay period, we would probably feel the pinch much more. I often wonder whether I should stop the deduction so I could invest the money during the year and then pay up later. (But that, of course, requires some self-control.)
The authors of Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, report that economist Milton Friedman came up with automatic tax withholding from employees' paychecks. Americans weren't paying their income taxes, as I would imagine it's hard to remember to save up a huge chunk every year. Levitt and Dubner also write a lot about the importance of incentives: We need a really good reason to eat our vegetables (think Vitamin C) and to resist the temptation to speed (think a $100 ticket).
In college, I was amazed at the lengths to which ministry groups would go for fundraisers. Sure, I'll give $20 to a ministry for the Dalits if it comes with a free dinner. But doesn't that eat up a lot of the money that would have gone to the people we're helping? After the Southeast Asia tsunami in December 2004, we were allowed to forgo our cafeteria meal so we could fast and give. That's called killing two birds with one stone, my friends.
Mixing up spiritual disciplines aside, why do we feel like we must get the most bang for our buck? Why do we tend to only give if we get something in return? When was the last time we gave just to give? Eric Felten writes in The Wall Street Journal today about the quandary that stores put people in when they ask customers who are checking out to give a few bucks to local charities:
[P]utting the touch on people in semi-captive situations such as the grocery-store checkout line isn't necessarily a good thing for charity. Perhaps I'm wrong, and quotidian solicitations will make us more mindful of the plight of others and more open to helping the sick and the needy. But I suspect that the growing number of stores asking customers to chip in may end up creating a backlash. There was a time when telephone solicitations for charity worked—and so they proliferated. But after a while, people became ever more practiced at saying no.
Going back to tithing, I think there's something to be said for physically putting in that check, even though it's probably more convenient to have it electronically deducted. In some ways, writing that check solidified my commitment to the church. People like Douglas LeBlanc have done a lot of thinking in this area. His book Tithing: Test Me in This comes out next month. Here's an excerpt:
For [John and Sylvia] Ronsvalle [founders of financial ministry empty tomb, inc.], tithing is not only a matter of obeying God. It is also a conscious way to resist the self-worship that accompanies greed and stinginess. In one essay they have published online, the Ronsvalles quote a fellow Christian as asking them, "If I'm not trusting God with my money, am I really trusting him with my eternal salvation?"
Perhaps it's time to reexamine our incentives, whether it's in tithing or giving just to give.