Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Too Much Month at the End of My Money

[This entry follows a sermon titled "The Conflict We Must Win," the second in a three-part series on financial stewardship.]

This past Sunday, we looked at the parable of the rich fool and the text that follows it in Luke 12, and we thought about the way we must battle against the sin covetousness.  "Covetousness" may seem a strange word to some, but it essentially means greed.  It means that I will see my life as better or more fulfilled as I accumulate things or money. Quite frankly, we live in an economic culture where covetousness is not a sin but a standard way of operating.  It is a culture that thrives on greed, advertises greed, and exalts greed.

At the same time, though, we tend to limit our perspective of where greed resides.  We may reserve the word "luxury" to describe the purchases and activities of the richest Americans...not regular Joes like me.  We tend not to see greed both in the protesters of the recent "occupy" movements and the banks and corporations against whom they protest.  Or, to use a less volatile example, owners of sports teams are often called the greedy ones, while the players demanding millions more in salary are just trying to get "what the deserve."  Truth be told, covetousness can be found in highest of the upper class and lowest of the lower class.

The more personal point is this: when we hear talk of greed, we are always more likely to think of the attitudes and actions of other people rather than ourselves.  "They" are the greedy ones!  I'm just trying to get what I deserve and need..."they" are living in luxury.  Now, before moving on, pause and remember this...there are genuine financial needs in our world, and they are needs we should work to meet.  Jesus said the poor will always be with us, and He indicates that true Christians are men and women who use their resources to meet the needs of the poor (cf. Mark 14:7; Matthew 25:31-46).

Having said all of this, one of the ways that we battle covetousness is by fighting greed and fueling generosity.  Fight greed by asking yourself if you genuinely need what you are about to purchase.  Why am I buying it?  What purpose will it serve?  Am I making this purchase to meet a genuine need or to satisfy other cravings...sinful cravings...cravings that look more like the world than Christ?  The two extremes here are (1) becoming legalistic regarding spending and (2) never asking any questions about spending.  When Paul writes that everything in our lives should be aimed at honoring and glorifying God (1 Cor. 10:31), do we assume that this should not include how we use our money?  We must fight greed.

Fueling generosity means giving, and according to Luke 12:33, it's not giving what's left over.  It's giving in a way that we sacrifice for the good of others...we sacrifice to give for God's glory...we sacrifice to advance His kingdom.  Here's a question we asked ourselves during Sunday's sermon: "When was the last time I sacrificed anything to meet the needs of someone else?  When was the last time I sacrificed anything to give?"  These may be difficult questions, but they challenge us to grow in trusting grow in the grace of giving.

In response to this biblical call to generosity, I have often been approached by men and women who want to be generous, but they feel they cannot.  I have received questions like this: "How can I give if I don't have enough to give?"  Or to put it another way, "How can I give when there's too much month at the end of my money?"  These are great questions, and if that's what you've been thinking, I want to respond in ways I hope are helpful.

First, praise God that you want to give...that you want to solve this problem...that you want to be generous.  However, beware the deception that you cannot be generous...beware settling for the desire without purposing yourself to act on it.  I once read a story about a children's Sunday school class in which the teacher asked, "How many of you would be willing to give $1 million to missions?"  The whole class eagerly said, "Yes!"  Next, the teacher asked, "How many of you would be willing to give just $1 to missions?"  Most of the children responded the same way, but one little boy remained silent and looked down at the floor.  The teacher stopped the class and inquired of him, "What's wrong?  Why didn't you say yes that time?"  The boy responded, "Well, that question's not fair because I actually have a dollar!" 

It's a funny story, but it has a serious lesson to be learned.  You see, when the desire to be generous met the opportunity, the desire turned out to be faulty.  We can all imagine being generous if we had more money, but the truth is that if we are not generous when we have little, we will not be generous when we have much.

Secondly, it is often helpful to take a close look at our budgets.  When we lived in Nashville, a man came to me after a Sunday morning service with his electric bill.  He said, "Pastor, I know I should give, and I want to give.  However, I have this electric bill for $150.  It's either pay that bill or give that money to the church.  Which do you think I should do?"  That seems like quite a quandary, doesn't it?  I mean, it was wintertime, and he couldn't afford for his family (i.e.- wife and two children) to go without electricity.  If it was just him, he could freeze, but he needs to care for his family.  What would you tell him?  Well, what if I told you that these weren't the only options (i.e.- either pay the electric bill or give to the Lord)?  Consider this response: "Wow, Bill (fake name)! That's quite a decision to make.  Let me ask you a much is your cable bill this month?"  [Insert long, awkward pause here.] 

Do you see how there are more options?  Of course, I could have asked him about a number of things, but the point is that there is typically more wiggle room in our monthly budgets than we see at first glance.  The real question I willing to sacrifice what is a genuine luxury in order to give to the Lord?  To advance the gospel?  To meet the needs of others?

Third, you may say, "Ok...but that's not me.  I don't have cable.  I've wiggled all the luxury out.  What should I do?"  Well, dear friend, I would say what I probably should have said in the first sentence.  Giving is an act of faith.  It is an expression of our trust that God will take care of our needs.  When Jesus says to seek God's kingdom and all these things will be added to you (Luke 12:31), it is the call and command to stop seeking for yourself and trust the Lord.  God feeds the birds, God clothes the field with flowers, and God cares about His children more than all can we not trust Him?

Even for the one who needs to wiggle the luxury out of the budget, finding spare change to give to God is not the kind of giving God desires.  In Luke 21, Jesus sees people giving offerings.  He notices rich people giving, and He sees a poor widow giving.  The rich give a large amount.  The poor widow gives two small copper coins...the last two coins she could rub together.  Who is the greater giver?  It is the poor widow.  Jesus says as much when he points out that the widow "put in all she had to live on" (21:4). 

It's one thing to do that when you have a steady job and can expect another paycheck.  But it's another thing altogether is you're a "poor widow."  In Jesus' day, being a poor widow meant that others had to care for you...whether it was your children or your grandchildren or God's people.  So, when this poor widow gives all that she has to live on, she is giving in such a way that she must be dependent on God.  He must give her this day her daily bread.  He must add all these things to her.

Wow!  What an expression of faith!  For some of us, there is money at the end of our month and we feel we can afford to give some of that extra cash in the weekly offering.  For others, there is more month at the end of our money, and we don't feel we have any extra to give in the weekly offering.  Whichever category fits your situation, remember this.  The Lord has not called us to find extra so that we may give.  He calls us to give in such a way that it expresses our faith...our dependence on Him...not just for our eternal souls, but also for our daily bread.