Before we look at the text we need to say that there is a particular context for Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He did not write this as an overall guide to giving. This is not Paul’s philosophy of giving but his response to a particular gift for the church in Jerusalem. You know there was quite a bit of tension between Paul and the Church fathers over his work with the Gentiles. In fact, early on he had been brought in to explain why he was focusing on the Gentiles and even allowing them to become believers without becoming Jewish converts first. Paul was anxious to show he was not a heretic and after meeting with the council he was given permission to continue his work.
He was also determined to show the church at Jerusalem that the Gentiles were supportive in other ways and were not separating themselves from the Jerusalem church. After an initial but short-lived success, the church in Jerusalem was suffering from both persecution and economic distress. These were bad times and many people were leaving Jerusalem to live elsewhere. Paul was intent on providing some relief from the Gentile church to the church at Jerusalem. It was extremely important to him to provide that support.
So, these two chapters are directly related to the collection he is taking from the Gentile churches. It is a particular project and not to be read as a standard for all giving at all times. Paul is not talking about general stewardship here as much as he is a one time gift for the poor in Jerusalem. There are many different examples of giving in the New Testament and throughout the rest of Scripture and there is no one style. The illustration of the Good Samaritan is different from the Widow’s Mite and different from the Rich Young Ruler. The New Testament has an overall attitude toward giving and an overall attitude toward the dangers of being rich. In fact, some have said the Old Testament tells you how much you have to give while the New Testament tells you how much you should keep.
There are other changes that influence our giving.
The church has changed considerably in 2,000 years. Where in the beginning it would have been a house church with virtually no expenses it is now an institution with staff, programs, facilities and an operating budget. What Paul is describing is relief giving but not regular giving to the church.
As well, society has changed. Where the church would have once been the only institution available for the relief of the poor there are now many options – not only for relief but for specialized work of the church. There were no social service agencies like PATH or Salvation Army. There were no ministries like Young Life, World Vision or Campus Crusade.
That said, let’s look at the text.
1. While this is a free-will offering, Paul is not reluctant to apply pressure. In a number of places he says this is a test of the sincerity of your love or it is proof of your love. While he says he wants them to excel in the grace of giving he clearly is comparing their giving to the church at Macedonia. While he is not flogging them about the gift he is certainly not shy about putting pressure on them to dig deep and be generous. This is sometimes overlooked because we are anxious to skip to the part about our determining what we will give with no compulsion but Paul is not letting them off the hook. In fact, he tells them he does not want to be embarrassed in front of the other churches if the Corinthian church does not live up to what they have pledged and what he expects. That is why he is sending two men ahead of him to make sure the offering is ready and completed by the time he gets there. He doesn’t want to be disappointed in them. He wants to make sure they live up to their commitment. We sometimes need the same because we forget or we put it off or we are tempted to change our minds about our commitments without someone being there to remind us.
So, for Paul, this is not altruistic giving nor is it “do whatever amount you like”. As in everything else, Paul is very focused and intense. He is making them accountable to finish what they have promised. I suspect we might not respond well to that pressure today because we have made giving such a voluntary and private matter. We might actually be irritated at the tactics Paul is using here but Paul is insistent on their responsibility to give to the relief of the church in Jerusalem. It is expected and is part of being the church. It is not a choice whether or not to give.
2. He says they first gave themselves and then to the fund. While it is not possible for some because of the amounts and number of gifts made, I think it is true that the best kind of giving is done when giving follows engagement. My friend Curtis Meadows always taught “the gift without the giver is an empty gift.” In other words, it is one thing to write a check but the best kind of gift is one that involves you in other ways as well. There are people who give a little to many causes or they give what are sometimes called “nuisance gifts” but the people who seem to grow as givers are often those who become knowledgeable about the organizations to which they give. I don’t think that means becoming expert but it does sometimes mean finding ways other than money to contribute.
3. The size of the gift does not matter – but that doesn’t let us off the hook. This time of year there are countless articles on the giving and philanthropy of the richest people in the world. We are sometimes left with the feeling that the little amount we have to give will not make much difference and making a difference or an impact has become almost as important as making the gift. So, we do not give to organizations where our gift will not make a difference or we at least want some recognition for the gift. Organizations don’t tell us this but very few of our gifts make a significant impact by themselves. In fact, I think we have begun to overemphasize the whole notion of making a difference with our gifts because it makes us look for things that “matter” or making sure we only give to direct services and not to overhead. It also puts the organization in the uncomfortable position of having to assure us that every gift makes a difference. It tempts them to hide their administrative expenses or lump everything under direct services because we don’t think overhead makes a difference. Paul is saying we can stop worrying about how big the gift is or whether it will make a difference but we cannot take that to mean we just put a dollar in the Salvation Army pot and that takes care of our giving.
4. Paul talks about the importance of equality. In 8:13-15 he says, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”
I don’t think he is talking about income leveling or getting rid of the unequal distribution of wealth. While I do think he is clear about the need of the church in Jerusalem he is not using that need to generate guilt on their part. In fact, while we are almost hardened to pictures and stories about starving children around the world, Paul does not describe the hardship of the people in Jerusalem. He doesn’t talk at all about their suffering and play on the emotions of the people in Corinth. He does not idealize or romanticize the poor. He simply says they are to see each other as equals – and that is different from equal wealth distribution or forced equality.
It is more like something I read about this week in a story about the Mars candy company. One of the five principles of Mars is what they call “mutuality”. It means they have relationships with their sources, suppliers, customers and vendors that is based on mutual benefit. They do not do traditional corporate philanthropy (or very little) because they would rather invest in the lives of the people with whom they do business. It is not part of their marketing department but mutual benefit has become a part of their corporate structure.
This began years ago with an internal discussion about how much money is enough. They began to see that Milton Friedman’s philosophy of the free market was not adequate. “There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud” Simply making profits and providing value to the shareholders was not enough. Of course, because it is a privately held company they could make this decision.
However, the important thing is they did not see people as objects of charity but as partners in the work. There are no tee shirts that read “We work with the poorest of the poor.” There is mutual respect because there is mutual benefit. The people are not charity cases because they bring something to the table that is important.
A few years ago when the church began thinking about how to engage with non-profits in the community I encouraged them to only work with those who had something to give to the church in return. Otherwise, it was a one way street and non-profits would continue to see the church as a resource but not as a partner. As well, the church would only continue to see non-profits as people looking for something free. If the church provided money or volunteers then there had to be a benefit to the members of the church. Agencies that provided screening would provide free screening for church members. There had to be mutuality. It took time and there was considerable resistance because we were thinking of ourselves as doing good instead of having a partnership with mutual benefit.
I think that is what Paul is describing here. If all we see in people is their poverty and what they are lacking then we will never have respect for them. We will always have a mind set of superiority and pity instead of beginning to see them as partners with something to bring to the table.
5. The gift is clearly motivated out of love for Christ and others but it also demands reason. It is not impulsive giving. It is prepared giving. That is what the word determined means. It doesn’t mean over analyzed or after doing as much research as possible. It means after prayerful consideration and preparation.
This is probably a good time to distinguish between impulsive giving and intuitive giving. There are people who are extremely effective with their intuition. That does not make them impulsive. They have a particular kind of discernment about people and requests for money that makes them invaluable. In fact, sometimes the intuitive giver has advantages the analytical giver does not. The intuitive giver is just as much prepared for giving as the one who labors over every request. It’s a different kind of preparation and mind-set.
It is the difference between giving that is done out of compulsion – either internal or external – and what is done out of conviction. Conviction is not the same as guilt. It is the Holy Spirit telling you this is something you should do. I’ve told you about my turning down Doug McSwane when he asked for help around the issue of mental illness three years ago. One night before going to bed I had the clear sense that this was something God wanted me to do. It was not guilt or pressure. It was conviction that came with assurance. You should avoid compulsion but never avoid conviction. You will miss an opportunity for joy if you do.
There is one other phrase here that is often misunderstood: “the Lord loves a cheerful giver.” We’ve all heard it said that we get our word “hilarious” from the Greek word for cheerful but that is not what the original word means. When we do something like that it is called an “etymological fallacy.” In other words, we take a word in Latin or Greek and twist it to mean something else. The word “hilaro” does not mean “extremely funny” at all. Rather, it describes someone who is already inclined to do something and does not need more persuasion. The cheerful giver is the one who has the ability to finish what his enthusiasm started. They are prepared to give. We don’t need to be tickled to give!
6. Paul goes out of his way to be trustworthy and to recognize the importance of trust and integrity. He does not make them feel badly about asking questions. In fact, he emphasizes how important it is to have a reason to trust the people who are in charge. The church had a problem with teachers, prophets and evangelists who would roam from city to city and take advantage of people and their desire to support God’s work or play to their desire for God’s blessing. Widows were (then and now) especially susceptible to men who were adept at taking advantage of them. But there were all sorts of schemes for getting rich by believing God would bless Christians or failing to ask questions because people were Christians and it would be impolite to question them. Paul expects the people to give but he also has high expectations of himself and makes sure to surround himself with people who can be trusted. He knew that trust takes a long time to build but is destroyed in a moment.
7. It is 9:6-11 that is easily misread. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 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. 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. As it is written:
“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever.”
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. 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.”
I want to say this carefully but I don’t agree with those who say “You cannot outgive God” in testimonies and fund-raising. This passage is often used and blatantly misused to say that if we sow money we will reap money and that whatever we give financially will be returned to us.
That is not what Paul was saying to one poor church giving to another poor church. He was not preaching the gospel of financial abundance. He was not holding out the carrot of being rich.
He is saying that there is a return on gifts to the poor but the return is righteousness – not riches. I’m not saying God does not bless people financially but it’s not accurate to use this passage as an argument for the financial benefits for giving.
The return on giving is the opportunity and the desire to be even more generous. The return on giving is an enlarged heart and becoming a more generous person in every way. Giving changes your life. “You will be made rich in every way SO THAT you can be generous on every occasion…” In other words more generosity and a life of generosity is the return on giving – not more money.
We’ve talked before about the difference between wealth and riches. Wealth is becoming a person of substance – what the Old Testament calls “weight”. Rich is simply a description of an amount of money. You can be rich and not be wealthy. You can be wealthy and not be rich. The reward for giving is wealth. It is becoming a person who grows in the ability to be generous and the enjoyment of generosity. This is why I think regular giving is so important. God is not primarily interested in your being able to make the largest gift possible at the end of the year. He is interested in your becoming a generous person. Saving your giving until the end of the year is like exercising for one day or one week at the end of the year. You don’t become a healthy person that way. Becoming a generous person is a discipline and a process that is incremental. Saving our giving until the end of the year puts the focus on the wrong thing.
8. Finally, Paul says that the end result of true generosity is always thanks to God. “This service you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men 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.”
Genuine generosity is motivated by and results in thanksgiving to God – even if we never hear about it. It is not just relief of suffering or meeting needs but God receiving the praise I for our generosity. We may never know the effect of our giving but if it results in praise to God then it has been a good gift.