Your bank balance hovers near zero. Your job feels like it’s hanging in the balance. You can’t see how you’ll pay those bills. And yet you just heard your pastor encourage the congregation to think hard about how much they should give. By which he meant everyone, not just the wealthy. So how on earth can you think about giving money away when it seems like you can’t hold onto enough of it in the first place?
That is such a common scenario for Christians—and has been for as long as there have been Christians. It’s a recipe for a lot of guilt, a lot of anguish, and a lot of doubt. But that’s not how the Bible speaks of giving, is it? “God loves a cheerful giver,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:7. The Bible’s teaching about giving is about opportunity, joy, and faith—not guilt, anguish, and doubt. So how should we think about giving during financially tight times?
God Cares about the Why
The answer to that question begins in the verse I just cited: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). What a fascinating statement! The Red Cross doesn’t care why you gave so long as you clicked “donate” on their website. But God cares about the why. In fact, he cares about the why so much that, according to 1 Corinthians 13:3, if you give away everything but have not love, you gain nothing.
Why is the why so important? Because God doesn’t need your money! He doesn’t care about the money you give to your church because his plans are somehow on hold until you cough up some cash. No, he cares about your giving because of what giving says about him. Cheerful giving proclaims God is so good that putting money toward his purposes is a great and exciting thing to do. On the other hand, begrudging giving says that there was a better use of your money, but your greedy God wants it, so you’ll comply. Do you see the difference? God’s grand aim for this universe is to show off how good and delightful he is, and giving is an important piece of that.
The Giving Heroes of the Bible were Poor!
Now, think for a moment. Is it the giving of the wealthy or the giving or the poor that makes a more beautiful statement about the glory and goodness of God? You might think that giving only matters if your gift is big enough to make a big splash, but that’s not how God sees things. After all, the giving heroes of the Bible (freed Egyptian slaves in Exodus 36, the widow in the temple in Mark 12, impoverished Christians of Macedonia in 2 Corinthians 8) were mainly poor! Take those Christians in Macedonia, for example, who we read about in 2 Corinthians. If they’d been wealthy, I don’t expect their giving would have been noteworthy. But precisely because they gave “in a severe test of affliction” (2 Cor. 8:2), we are still reading about their example of joyful giving two millennia later.
What is most scarce is most precious. For example, gold is worth more than iron because it’s less plentiful. Someone with a lot of money but very little discretionary time will be willing to spend a lot of money to free up a little bit of time (think of house cleaning services, grocery delivery, even private jets). And that means that for those of us who don’t have much money, what we do with our money is a particularly powerful statement about what we value and what we believe.
So let’s say that one day you are reading in the book of Matthew and you come to Jesus’s invitation to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:20–21). And when you read that, you get excited. You get excited to take the money in your pocket that is of passing value and use it to gain something in heaven that can never be taken away, because you believe what Jesus says. You get excited to use your money to set your heart on the things of heaven, because you believe Jesus that this is what’s good for you. In fact, you believe what Jesus says so much that you do this cheerfully, joyfully, because you have faith that what he says is true and what he has for you is worth far more than the things your money can buy. That is how giving shows off how faithful and delightful God is. That is how giving pleases God.
Do you see then why giving when times are tight is especially pleasing to God? Giving out of scarcity declares in an especially profound way that God is better than money.
Getting to the Heart of Your Giving
Now, none of this answers the question of how much you should give in your present circumstances. But it answers the question of why you should give, which is where you need to start. We give to show off the goodness and faithfulness of our Savior. We give to proclaim that God’s promises are solid and the promises of money (to bring comfort, control, and confidence) are empty and corrupt. We give because we want what God has promised—eternal reward—more than the things our money can buy here on earth. And the fact that God has provided precious little detail as to what that reward entails means that giving to get it proves out our faith in his goodness and faithfulness even more.
So with all that as foundation, let me guide you through this question of how much to give with five questions.
1. Are you giving enough that your giving draws your heart toward heaven?
It’s easy in times of financial uncertainty or financial need to decide “I’ll give just enough to check the box on this spiritual discipline.” But that attitude falls short of really believing what Jesus said, that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). When you don’t know how you’re going to pay the rent, or how you’re going to fix the car, or what you’ll do if your husband gets laid off from his job, your heart is especially drawn to the concerns of this world. And so it is precisely in those times that you most need your heart drawn back toward heaven.
What we do with our money is a particularly powerful statement about what we value and what we believe.
2. Does your use of money show that you fear God or poverty?
God does not say that if you give he will keep you out of poverty (contrary to what many preachers on TV will say). The fact that we serve a Savior who spent his earthly sojourn in poverty should be enough to puncture the lie that real faith brings earthly wealth. But God does promise that even if he calls you to your worst-case financial nightmare, he will be with you and he will provide all that you need. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Isa. 43:2). Better still, he promises to use that hardship for your good (Rom. 5:3–5). If your financial fears are dictating your use of money, then you have made money to be master over your heart just as much as the wealthy man chained down by greed. Money is a cruel master, and it is never satisfied. So, free yourself from its grip through generosity so that you will fear God rather than poverty.
3. Do you have any income?
First Corinthians 16:2 teaches that we should give to the extent that God has entrusted us with money. If you have a lot, you should give a lot. If you have a little, you should give a little. That means that both opportunity to give and responsibility to give depend on whether or not you have any income right now. If you have no income, then most likely God, in his providence, has not made it possible for you to give in this season, and you can be content with that (Job 1:21). On the other hand, if you have income—however meager—you should most likely be giving some of it to your church (Gal. 6:6), barring some exceptional set of circumstances. Discover the blessing that comes from honoring God even in scarcity.
4. Have you spoken with anyone about this decision?
How strange it is that we talk with friends at church about our struggles with ambition and laziness and purity but never about money—when Jesus taught so much about money! There is no reason for you to make these decisions without the advice of others.
5. Do you want to give?
That question can cut through the cloud of conflicting factors that confront us during times of financial hardship. Do you want to give? If your honest answer is “no”, then make that a regular matter of prayer. Pray through passages like Matthew 6:25–34 and 2 Corinthians 8–9 that teach us about God’s purposes for our money. Talk about this struggle with a friend in your church whom you trust. And give by faith, trusting that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Do You Need Joy?
Perhaps the most realistic reason we miss out on the joy of generosity during times of financial hardship is fatigue. Life is hard and stressful. Who has the luxury to think about giving? After all, does it really matter if I give since I can’t give much anyway? That’s where we need faith to believe in the promises of God. God loves a cheerful giver because cheer in giving shows that we believe his word. That is especially true when cheerful givers are poor and prone to worry about the future.
Those Macedonian Christians of 2 Corinthians 8 were in a hard place. They were in “a severe test of affliction,” Paul says. And yet “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (2 Cor. 8:2). Do you need that joy? Then, my dear brother or sister, follow their example.
Jamie Dunlop is the author of Why Should I Give to My Church?
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