Stuff

This is arguably the longest thing I have ever written. Be forewarned or skip all together!

Did you catch those last two lines?

“What are you without your stuff?”

“Or better yet, without your stuff, who are you?”

I don’t think I have to try very hard to make a convincing case that we have a grossly unhealthy philosophy of “stuff” and a hugely distorted perspective of our possessions. I would assert that at the core of this dysfunction is a dreadful misunderstanding of the role that money plays or should play in our lives.

If you were to Google search the phrase “Things not to talk about in polite company” you would get a number of results, but without a doubt the issue of money would be present. We don’t talk about money well and the church is no exception.

There is a story about a fifth grader named Billy who was sitting in math class one day when his teacher called on him. “Billy” she said. “If you had two dollars and you asked your father for four dollars, how many dollars will you have?”

Billy thought about the question for a moment and then responded, “Two dollars.”

The teacher replied, “Billy, you don’t know your math.” To which he responded,  “You don’t know my father.”

We’re taught at an incredibly young age that our stuff is to be hoarded, conserved, and protected. Our knuckles are white from the grip we often hold on the material things in our life. We often have a very difficult time letting money go or even sharing possessions with those within our community. Many of us (myself most certainly included) often hope that no one ever asks to borrow our favorite tool or instrument in the fear that our selfishness will be exposed.

And I think the writers of Scripture were absolutely aware of these predisposition that oppose generosity and giving.

In fact, the following may surprise you.

The Bible mentions:

  •  The words “pray” or “prayer” 289 times
  • The word “love” 363 times
  • And the words “give” or “giving” 1,043 times.

In fact, there are 2,350 passages that deal explicitly with the issues of money and material possessions.

Former U.S. Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson puts it brilliantly:

“Jesus Christ said more about money than about any other single thing because, when it comes to a man’s real nature, money is of first importance. Money is an exact index to a man’s true character. All through Scripture there is an intimate correlation between the development of a man’s character and how he handles his money.”

This is really a penetrating paraphrase of the famous statement found in Matthew 6, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

And I would say it this way:

What our hands do with our money shows what our hearts are doing with God.

Or maybe even more precisely – what we do with our money shows what we believe God is doing with us. At our core, I believe that most people know this to be true. And yet there so are many wealthy Christians who I believe are suffocating under the weight of the American dream.

There is a scene in the 1978 classic “The Ending” where a character played by Burt Reynolds decides that he wants to commit suicide. Maybe someone insulted his mustache. Unlikely, but certainly possible.

So he decides that he’s going to swim as far out into the ocean as he can and simply let the water take him over, but when he gets out there and sees the sunlight shining through the water, he has a change of heart. As he bursts out from underneath the water he exclaims “I want to live! I want to live!”

Seeing how far away he is from the shore he starts to bargain with God. “if you get me out of this, God, I’ll obey all the 10 commandments” he says. He then realized that he doesn’t know the 10 commandments and promises to learn them. As he grows tired in his furious attempt to swim back to safety, his bargaining continues. “God if you get me out of this I’ll give away 80% of all I own”.

As he nears the shoreline, however, he begins to realize that he had a lot more strength than he previously thought and adjusts his proposition. “If you bring me to safety, I’ll give 10% of my earnings to the poor”. When he was just a few feet away from shallow waters he makes one final statement: “You know what God, let’s forget about it. I think I got it from here”.

Like Reynolds, our posturing towards giving is often obligatory at best, as if we’re paying some sort of celestial dues. I would assert, however, that when our attitude shifts from obligation to that of worship, everything changes.

There is one pivotal passage in Scripture where we see a profound transition of the Old Testament principle of “tithes and offerings” and see Paul setting a radical new standard.

5So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given.

Generosity Encouraged

 6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9As it is written:   

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
   their righteousness endures forever.”

 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

 12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! – 2 Corinthians 9:5-15 

So here’s the situation: In Acts chapter 11 a prophet by the name of Agabus predicted that a great famine would strike the land while a man named Claudius sat on the imperial throne of the Roman Empire. During this famine Paul has been going around boasting to the Macedonian churches of the great generosity in Corinth. Here in 2 Corinthians 9 Paul is giving the Corinthian church instructions for the relief of the Jerusalem church and in doing so we outlines a brand new philosophy of giving that would replace the previous Old Testament principles in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

He’s moving them out of a mindset of hoarding to one of absolute magnanimity.

It’s reminiscent of Exodus 16 when the Israelites are wondering in the Sinai Dessert and God provides them Manna bread from Heaven. They are given the instruction to take only what they needed for the day, but those who tried to store up more found rotting and maggots in its place the next day. It’s a message Christi reiterates over and over again in the New Testament:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” –Matthew 6:17

It’s like the man who died and asked St. Peter if he could go back and bring some things to Heaven with him. Peter said “We don’t normally do that, but you seem like you may be from Detroit to I’ll cut you a break. Whatever you can get into this briefcase in 24 hours you can bring in. Don’t be late”.

So the man went back to Earth and began selling all that he owned. His friends occasionally bumped into him, saying “Hey, didn’t you die”, but he didn’t have time for such trivial questions. After he sold everything he had, he bought a massive, briefcase-sized block of pure, solid gold. With a twinkle in his eye, he placed the shimmering block he purchased into the briefcase and went back to Heaven.

As he was about to enter Peter stopped him and said, “I don’t mean to be so nosy, but we’ve never done this before and I’m just ding to know what you put in the briefcase.” With eagerness in his hands, the man agreed, put the briefcase on the ground, and with a huge smile on his face, opened his briefcase to reveal the flawless gold.

Peter looked at it for a moment a little confused and finally asked “That’s great, but why would you bring pavement up here?”

This is exactly the heart behind what Randy Alcorn said:

“You can’t take it with you – but you can send it on ahead.

When we understand the nature, position, and true value of “stuff”, we stand to learn a lot about how we are called to use it.

Most churches that I’ve attended encourage their congregant to give God their “Tithes and Offerings” but I would argue that, while this wording isn’t particularly wrong, it does often lead us into a theology of giving rooted in Old Testament Law rather than the new principle of grace-giving found in the New Testament.

Let me unpack this a bit.

OT Law established a concept of tithing that is relatively simple:

Lev 27:30-33 – “a tithe of everything from the land” was to be set-aside for God.
Numbers 18:21-32
  – tithes were to be used for the support of those dedicated to serve God.
Deuteronomy 12:5-14
  – the 10% was brought to a central sanctuary, later established by David, for distribution.

This is essentially a tax paid to God as “landlord” of the Promised Land. This is why the land redistribution and debt forgiveness found in the principle of Jubilee is so profound. It was a regular, mandatory reminder that everything belongs to God in he first place and it s merely on loan to us from Him.

However – Deuteronomy 14:27-29 introduce ANOTHER tithe – every 3rd year – distributed to local needy.

In addition to the tithes that Israel owed God, the Law established a principle of voluntary contributions called “freewill offerings” giving spontaneously out of love. No duty. No bribery for divine favor. Merely an extension of their love to one another. So even though roughly 23% of their property was already owed to God, many could not simply stop there. Their love and gratitude for who God was and what He was doing in their life led them to even greater generosity. This is stated so beautifully in Deuteronomy 15:

However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. –Deuteronomy 15:4-5

And all throughout this story the deeper the love is for God and others, the more unrestrained the grip on possessions became. The knuckles fade from white to pink again as the blood rushes in once more.

But when we move into the New Covenant, it is particularly significant to not that the notion of tithe isn’t mentioned once in the Epistles. I think because honestly, they NT church sees that principles as too limiting. In fact, it appears that the offering God seeks now is the entire person (i.e. Romans 12:1 “we are living sacrifices”)

I love the encounter with Jesus in Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

I don’t mean to take too many liberties, but can’t you imagine Jesus pointing to this coin asking “Who’s image is that? Than give to him.” And then he looks at those gathered right in the eye, points right at them and asks “And who’s image do you bear?”

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.

The view we find in the NT of possessions is that those in Christ are not to trust in possessions. We’re told that one cannot “serve two masters” and that our love for God is reflected in how loose our grip on our stuff is.

17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. -1 John 3:17-18

For John he sees it as unreasonable that we could add up our transactions from the week and not have a clear picture of what we truly value.

Paul says to Timothy: 17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. –1 Timothy 6:17-19

Have you ever wondered if the life your living is the fullest it could be? Ever the deep desire to truly live and not just exist? Have you ever longed for the kind of life that Paul mentions above? The life that is truly life? For Paul, there is a direct correlation to the level of living we encounter and the level of stinginess we exercise. It’s not a matter of setting a giving amount greater than your neighbor or even that you think you can comfortably manage. C.S. Lewis puts it brilliantly, as he often does:

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. – C.S. Lewis

The composite we draw suggests that worldly riches are not in themselves evil – the issue is how the affect our values and choices. Does God come first? Does he direct our choices? Are we making a kingdom impact with what God has blessed us with? The model outlined all throughout Scripture is that we are blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. God always initiates. Always.

So why is 2 Corinthians 9 so important?

Paul encourages the Corinthians church to give generously in VS 6, which literally means to sow “bountifully” or “with blessing.” He’s introducing a Harvest Philosophy. You would never see a farmer scattering seed murmuring to himself, “Well, I’m never gonna see that seed again. Farewell forever, old friend.” The farmer understands that one seed carries the potential to produce far more than simply a small seed. This is why I believe John Calvin said:

“Whenever fleshly reason calls us back from doing good from fear of loss, we should immediately oppose it with this shield, “But the Lord declares that we are sowing.”

Yet, for a lot of us, whenever we give, whether to a local church or an organization, often our thought is “That could’ve been a car payment” or “I would’ve loved to done my hair up like Beyonce this week.”

When we’re tempted to think in these terms we can remember that God was not sparing with His Son:

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? –Romans 8:32

We worry that if we give, we won’t be able to make ends meet. That God is somehow less present in our generosity than our stinginess. In fact, we often come up with other words to soften the blow in our own minds. We call ourselves “frugal” or “penny-pinchers”, yet God says that those who are not giving their firstfruits (Proverbs 3:9) are literally robbing God. Consider –

“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.” But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ “In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. – Malachi 3:8-10

Did you get that? God says to test Him in this! It seems to me that it is a borderline taunt to see just how much His people with actually trust Him. Just a few chapters earlier He is calling out those who bring God their “leftovers” and calls this practice evil. Not just merely inadequate, but evil.

Francis Chan speaks to this in his book Crazy Love:

The priests of Malachi’s day thought their sacrifices were sufficient. They had spotless animals, but chose to keep those for themselves and give their less desirable animals to God. They assumed God was pleased because they had sacrificed something.

God described this practice as evil.

Leftovers are not merely inadequate; from God’s point of view (and lest we forget, His is the only one that matters), they’re evil. Let’s stop calling it “a busy schedule” or “bills” or “forgetfulness.” It’s called evil.

God is holy. In heaven exists a Being who decides whether or not I take another breath. This holy God deserves excellence, the very best I have. “But something is better than nothing!” some protest. Really, is it? Does anyone enjoy token praise? I sure don’t. I’d rather you not say anything than compliment me out of obligation or guilt. Why would we think God is any different?

Two verses further on in Malachi, God says, “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the gates, that you might not uselessly kindle fire on My altar! I am not pleased with you—nor will I accept an offering from you.” God wanted the temple gates shut. The weak sacrifices of the laid-back priests were an insult to Him. He was saying that no worship is better than apathetic worship. I wonder how many church doors God wants to shut today.

May God continued to transform our hearts and help us to loosen our grip on the “stuff” in our lives. May the whites of our knuckles return to pink with the blood of Christ who redeemed us when we were lost and wandering – deserving of death. May the soil of our lives be rich with the harvest of Kingdom generosity.

Let the rains fall.

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