Why we give
Stages of Christian giving
Giving is fundamental to the Christian life because it is fundamental to God’s own nature, in whose image we are made, and it is our way of acknowledging God’s claim on all that we are and have. It can truly be said that even the very poorest of people always have something to give, and that the person who cannot give cannot be a Christian.
Giving to obey God
The first stage of a giving life is to give so as to obey God. God tells us that he has a special claim on the first 10% of what we earn (within all that we have, which belongs to him). Its special destiny is to be given back to him, and it is our responsibility to do that. This first stage corresponds to the little child’s trying to ‘be good’ and do what Mom or Dad tells him or her to do. It’s simple and clear – follow the directions, and just do it!
Giving to imitate God
As we grow, however, mere obedience is supplemented by a wish to imitate God, as the growing child tries to imitate loving parents. After all, the most characteristic way we know God, the giver of all good gifts, is in his giving – and fulfilling the image of God in each of us requires doing as God does, behaving with his generosity and compassion, even if the only way we can do this at this stage is ‘go through the motions’ of genuine compassion.
Giving to repay God
Later still, we begin to see that since we have been on the receiving end of that generosity, it behoves us to try to repay God for all he has done for us. As the adolescent gets a job and begins to contribute to the family that cares for him or her, so we give to acknowledge God’s loving care and make a contribution to him in return – again, even if this intention isn’t really possible to carry out except in our imaginations.
Giving to work with God
And then, as we grow still further, we begin to want not only to act like our elders, or to pay our debts to them, but also to join them. What matters to them begins to matter to us also. Here we give because we want to work with God – to ‘join the family business’ of giving oneself away, and taking responsibility for our own part in it instead of depending on others to tell us what to do or do it for us. This is the place where we become ‘stewards’ of resources that we know aren’t really ours, just given to us to ‘manage’ in the interests of the real owner, God. This is giving for grown-ups – hence the usual name for ‘stewardship’ campaigns. It’s a good idea.
Giving to enter into God’s presence
But there is a still more excellent way, beyond ‘stewardship’, even beyond ‘giving for grownups’. That is the way Jesus offers the rich young man in the gospel story. He was obedient; he tried to live his life as an offering to God; perhaps he even envisioned himself as helper or co-worker with God. But he was stalled at the last stage of growth – giving in order to enter into God’s presence. His wealth got in the way of the trust and delight in God that we are meant to live in – he couldn’t see God through that solid mass; he couldn’t let go of its pleasures and responsibilities long enough to realize that, if he did, he’d be perfectly safe in the Father’s love. Giving so as to enter into God’s presence is giving – not carelessly of where our resources go, but careless of whatever false ‘security’ they represented, trading them in for the real security of life close to the Father’s heart.
So at the end of our pilgrimage, we find ourselves back at the beginning, little children looking up to One who loves us entirely and wants all that is best for us. In our first childhood we had nothing to give; in our grown up ‘childhood’ all that we do have seems once more like nothing in the face of God’s wondrous love. Before the cross of Jesus ‘the whole realm of nature’ seems ‘a present far too small’. Thoughts of obedience, of living up to something, of repaying God, even of managing God’s resources with him, seem far away and irrelevant in that spot. It is, instead, where ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all’, as simple and glad as being born again.