A bold bumper sticker on the Camry ahead of me in traffic: “If Money is the Root of All Evil, Why Do Churches Want It So Much?”
We can shake our heads at this miswording of 1 Timothy 6:10, but our culture’s receptivity to messages like this speaks to a deep bitterness of soul that many of us hold toward God—and specifically toward sacrifice.
God directs us to give him (or, you might say, return to him) a tithe, or gift, from our goods. He promises that he will give us prosperity in due time for our faithfulness (Malachi 3:10; Proverbs 3:9-10). Modern Christians interpret the tithe as ten percent of our income given to our local church, separate from any time or resources we devote to ministry. This teaching often draws the cynicism of observers who believe most pastors are greedy and churches are embezzlement machines for dupes. Even among insiders who are actual members of the church, tension and reluctance can surround the issue of giving. They know all the good their church does, maybe, but still, in the cash registers of their hearts, they add up all the goods they could purchase with the money they surrender each month.
What people don’t realize is that the primary reason Christians should give to their churches has nothing to do with the temporal blessings that result from giving. We should tithe because making a regular sacrifice to God is a matter of spiritual urgency, for two reasons.
First, giving something real and physical to God will destroy the hold that earthly goods can have on us and put God rightfully on the throne of our hearts. In ancient Israel, this truth meant that priests offered livestock on the temple altar. God, who owns all things (Psalm 50:10-11), has no need himself to be fed or to receive tribute (v. 12-13). The real reason that Israel gave its choicest livestock to God is that those animals were important to the people themselves, as a source of food and wealth. But God is our ultimate wellspring of sustenance and riches, both earthly and spiritual. The willing loss of other, subordinate resources thus forges a clearer recognition of our reliance on God. Our life must not consist in tallies of personal accomplishments, bank account balances, or even bodily necessities like clothing and food (Mt. 6:25). All these goods are gifts from God, given with the intention that we keep him supreme in our lives.
A regular offering to God disciplines our tendency to declare ourselves aloud as one thing (a follower of Jesus) while permitting the true allegiances of our soul and mind to wander elsewhere. I can attest from my own experience that a commitment to giving will temper both your desire to accumulate wealth and your anxiety over losing what you’ve gained.
The second reason that sacrifice is a vital spiritual practice is the nature of God’s true desire for us. What he really wants is our love, not our things. “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,” God says in Hosea 6:6 (NKJV). In repenting for his sin, David writes, “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17).
Giving our things to God while withholding ourselves from him is like knocking on the door of our dearest friend, shoving a bribe into his arms, and fleeing from him. But God wants us. Because he is so wise, so understanding of our weaknesses, so aware that the only way to real contentment is to love him above all else, he commands us to give—a fraction of our wealth for the present, and all of our heart for eternity.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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