Spiritual Practice #7: Move Towards Greater Financial Integrity and Generosity

blessedLet’s talk about money. We all know that money is necessary – for all sorts of things. I think we also know that money can be dangerous. It can put our spiritual lives, our relationships, and our emotional, mental and physical lives at risk. The apostle Paul isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know when he says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

But money can also be a very good thing. It can serve good and even holy purposes. Generous giving is even mentioned as one of the spiritual gifts (Romans 12:8). So while money can become a curse, it can also be an incredible blessing.

This week’s practice for building up the body of Christ is: “Move Towards Greater Financial Integrity and Generosity.” The word “integrity” suggests that for a follower of Jesus our relationship to money isn’t only about what we put in the offering plate on Sunday. Integrity suggests character. What we do with our money all through the week can either build our character or undermine it.

The word integrity can also mean wholeness. It’s the opposite of living a compartmentalized life. Positively, money can help us live lives that are holy and whole.

Let’s hear more of what the apostle Paul has to say about money:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:6-10).

Paul reminds us that we don’t need a lot of money to get ahead in life. In kingdom terms, getting ahead has more to do with “godliness with contentment” than owning the latest iPhone. Godliness is a God-centered, God-engaged, God-shaped life. In other words, godliness is getting back to how life was designed to be lived. Godliness, not money, says Paul, is the key to our flourishing.

Because God is love, godliness is ultimately about love. Money can be a great resource for love, but as Paul says, it can also become the object of our love – “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” We’re tempted to love money because it can make us feel in control, because it presents us with a vast array of choices, because it can fulfill many of our desires and dreams. This is all at a surface level, of course. The downside is that money can distract us from developing our inner life and our relationship with God, not to mention our other relationships.

How would you describe your relationship to money? How does the question itself make you feel? I suspect that a number of us feel some guilt around money, and a fair measure of anxiety. Different spending habits and money management styles is one of the leading causes of divorce, for example. Having integrity around how we make and spend money can seem like a pipe dream. Many of us would be happy with just being able to keep our heads above water!

Like with all the spiritual practices, we’re talking about progress here, not perfection.

So what prompts our overspending? What emptiness are we trying to fill? What pain are we trying to medicate? What assumptions do we have about “the good life?” What are we looking for money to do for us? At what point does money becomes Mammon – Jesus’ word for when money becomes an idol?

Paul says that part of the righting of the ship when it comes to our relationship to money is learning contentment. Being content is that space in which we can enjoy and be grateful for what we already have and what we can afford. Contentment is the opposite of anxiety. Contentment enables us to live well within our means, which creates less anxiety. Contentment frees up time to be with family and friends, without the anxiety of having to impress. Contentment makes it more likely that we will actually want to be with God – in all sorts of ways – and be free to use our talents, spiritual gifts and yes, financial resources, for his mission to bring flourishing to the lives of others.

Jesus said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” That’s pretty counterintuitive. Receiving seems like the more obvious and logical way to feel blessed. But that’s the old Adam talking, the Adam or self that has fallen short of the glory of God. We were made in God’s image. That means we were made to be generous. It is this continual self-giving within God that makes it possible for three Persons to be one God. It’s the self-giving nature of God that created this world and, after we made a mess of things, sent Jesus. It’s the self-giving nature of God that brought Jesus to the cross on our behalf, and wants the likes of us (go figure) to spend the rest of eternity with him.

That’s the God whose image we share. That’s how we’re wired to live, too.

So we are by design, as people made in God’s image, meant to be generous not only with our money but with our entire lives. It’s part of our DNA – a DNA that’s mutated because of our exposure to the sin disease. But Jesus came to heal that. We’re in Christ now, and he’s in us.

But old ways die hard. That’s why commands can be helpful. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” At first, loving others like Jesus loved us feels unnatural. It just doesn’t feel natural to be that selfless and that sacrificial. So at first we have to do something that goes against our nature until it starts to become second nature.

Soren Kierkegaard uses the example of teaching our children how to say thank you. He suggests that children who receive gifts don’t by nature say thank you, as they don’t naturally feel gratitude. So parents “command” them to say thank you. But as children grow older and absorb the truth behind the command, they develop gratitude that naturally expresses itself by saying thank you. It becomes automatic and even heartfelt and no longer needs to be commanded.

So generosity is both part of our nature, as people made in the image of God, as well as an acquired taste. It’s like someone who’s had a stroke having to relearn how to walk or talk.

A biblical command that’s often mentioned in the context of financial integrity and generosity is the command to “tithe,” or to give 10% of one’s income to God. For example, Malachi 3:10 says:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.

Sometimes people use passages like this to show that tithing is a good investment: ‘You’re bound to get back more than you put in. You can’t out give God.’ I’m sure that’s true – and in more ways than money. But we should remember that God is speaking to the people as a nation. I think what’s being said is that when tithing becomes standard practice among Israel’s citizens, the nation as a whole is going to experience great blessing (which, no doubt, spills over into the lives of individuals and families as well).

So there are a couple of things to be noted here. While our life in the New Covenant doesn’t require us to regard the laws of the Old Testament as absolutely binding, they’re still available to us for our instruction and good use. Without being legalistic, I think tithing is still a good “command” for those of us who need help curbing our natural spending habits. Sharon and I have certainly found it helpful. It also points us in the right direction as we think about what we do with the rest of our income, which also actually belongs to God.

The other thing we want to pay attention to is the corporate nature of giving. Each of us is part of a body. The body functions best when all of us are generously giving of our time, spiritual gifts and financial resources. Bottom line, a church like ours that’s blessed with such an amazing facility and engages in as many ministries as we do requires a significant portion of its members to tithe – and the rest of us to be generous relative to our particular circumstances. Whether we tithe or not, no one’s gift is more important than another’s. Jesus said that the widow who he saw put a halfpenny into the temple treasury gave more than the rich folks who deposited their bags of coins with self-satisfied smirks on their faces – because she gave all that she had left.

The more “godly” or Christlike we are, the more generosity is going to be a way of life. And that’s a beautiful thing. I see the many beautiful ways so many of you are choosing to be generous in offering who you are and what you have to our life and mission at BRC. And I see it making a difference in the lives of our children and our neighbors’ lives (some of whom have joined us in both worship and ministry). I see it making a difference in your lives as well. I also know that your generosity spills over into those places you live, work, play and learn; it spills over in ways that most of us never see. On this Thanksgiving Eve, I feel very grateful for what you’re teaching me about generosity. May gratitude rather than guilt be the primary motivator as we reflect upon our relationship to money this week and in the coming year.

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