‘Tis the season to test your treasure.
Not only are we on gift-expectation overload with Christmas, but then comes the year’s end and that one last chance for tax-deductible charitable giving. December bids us dig deeper in our wallets than any other season.
Which may be a great annoyance for Scrooge — but it is a great opportunity for the Christian. It’s a time to check our spiritual pulse, and to open our hearts to blessings from God that money can’t buy.
Here, then, are five truths to rehearse for Christmas spending and year-end giving.
1. Money Is a Tool
Money itself is not evil. It is not wealth per se that is sinful, but the “desire to be rich” (1 Timothy 6:9). It is not money, but “the love of money” that is “a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10), from which we should keep our lives free (Hebrews 13:5). It is “this craving” (1 Timothy 6:10) in our sinful hearts which is so dangerous.
With all the strong warnings in the Bible about how we orient toward money (like the condemnation of luxury and self-indulgence in James 5:1–6), it can be easy to forget that the problem isn’t money, but our hearts. Finances, salaries, and budgets are an important part of the world our Lord created and entered into as a creature, with all its limitations of space, time, and finitude.
When they asked about taxes to Caesar, Jesus didn’t decry the evils of money, but relativized its role in relation to God (Matthew 22:21). When they came looking for his temple tax, he made (miraculous) provision for both himself and Peter (Matthew 17:27). He even commended, in the face of Judas’s objections, Mary’s lavish display of love in anointing his feet with expensive ointment (worth more than a year’s wages). Jesus would have us go so far as to “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). In other words, money is a tool that can be used for long-term Godward goals, not just short-term selfish purposes.
And tools are made to be used. Holding onto money will not satisfy our souls or meet the needs of others. And Christmas is a good time to put it to work in the service of love.
2. How We Use Money Reveals Our Hearts
Matthew 6:21 holds an important reminder for every December: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Hoarding our money says something: that we fear not having sufficient funds at some point in the future. Parsimony betrays our unbelief in the provision of our heavenly Father (Matthew 6:26) and his promise to “supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
Giving it away also speaks. It is an opportunity to show, and reinforce, the place of faith and love in our hearts. It’s a chance to gladly pursue the first and second greatest commandments through our giving, and to cultivate the mind of Christ through our spending: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). It’s telling that Paul would couple “lovers of money” with “lovers of self” (2 Timothy 3:2).
But the greatest test of our treasure is not whether we’re willing to spend it, but who and what we spend it on. In particular, Christmas generosity is an occasion to look past the small joys of self-oriented spending, and pursue the greater pleasures of spending on others. And so a good instinct to develop on the threshold of significant purchases is to ask what this expenditure reveals about our heart. What desire am I trying to fulfill? Is this for private comfort, or gospel advance, or expressing love to a friend or family member?
3. Sacrifice Varies from Person to Person
But hoarding and giving aren’t the only options. For most of us, the vast majority of our spending goes to meet our own needs and the needs of our families. That kind of spending is inevitable and necessary. It is a good thing. God provides us with income for those purposes. And to many of us, he gives resources beyond our needs and enables us to join him in the joy of giving to others.
This raises the question of how much is enough for “our needs.” Is it simply food, clothing, and shelter in meager proportions? Where is the line between righteous and unrighteous spending on ourselves? Are there any standards to help us know how much to keep and how much to let go to others in generosity?
Augustine offers a standard in “the needs of this life,” which is
not just what is necessary for bare subsistence, but also what is necessary for living a life “becoming” or appropriate to human beings. The point is not to live on crusts of bread with bare walls and threadbare clothes. The point is that a fully human life is lived in a way free from being enslaved to our stuff. Our possessions are meant to serve our needs and our humanness, rather than our lives being centered around service to our possessions and our desires for them. (Glittering Vices, 106)
No doubt, discerning what is, and is not, “a fully human life . . . free from being enslaved to our stuff” will vary from place to place and person to person. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). We all do well to be critical of ourselves on this, rather than others — and to remind ourselves how prone we are to be easy on ourselves and hard on others when it comes to money.
It’s difficult, and probably unwise, to prescribe particulars, but we can create some helpful categories, and describe errors to avoid, like “being enslaved to our stuff.” One thing to note is that “a fully human life” is not a static existence. God made us for rhythms and cadences, for feasting and fasting, for noise and crowds and silence and solitude. There is some help, even if minimal, in identifying and naming the extremes of sustained opulence and austerity. We need a place for both financial feasting and fasting. We should abhor the prosperity gospel, and not be snookered by stinginess masquerading as Christian stewardship, and beware that running up large credit-card debt is likely giving beyond our means.
While discerning precisely what’s too little or too much from person to person is no easy task, John Piper wisely observes: “The impossibility of drawing a line between night and day doesn’t mean you can’t know it’s midnight.”
A final thing to note in terms of standard is the test of sacrifice. Do you ever abstain from something you’d otherwise think of as “the needs of life” in order to give to others?
Nothing shows our hearts like sacrifice. When we are willing not only to give from our excess, but to embrace some personal loss or disadvantage for the sake of showing generosity toward others, we say loudly and clearly, even if only to our own souls, that we have a greater love than ourselves and our comforts.
4. Generosity Is a Means of Grace
Such sacrifice raises the question that has been under the surface all along with giving: Is there any reward for generosity and sacrifice — whether we’re giving Christmas presents or year-end donations — other than our own existential release and sense of joy from an act of selflessness? Is giving to others, in God’s economy, a channel for our own receipt of grace from above?
While the New Testament does not promise physical rewards in this lifetime for our giving, it does teach that generosity can be a means of grace for our souls, and that God stands ready to bless those who give from faith. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). And the promise appears even stronger in 2 Corinthians 9:
- Verse 6: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
- Verse 8: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
- Verses 10–11: “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”
It is the grace of God that frees a soul from selfishness and empowers not just generosity, but sacrifice. And such sacrifice God will not overlook. In faith, our giving to meet others’ needs becomes an occasion for more divine grace to flood our souls.
5. God Is the Most Cheerful Giver
In the end, as cheerfully as we may give, we cannot out-give the truly Cheerful Giver. Willingly, he gave his own Son (John 3:16; Romans 8:32), as he had decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, but with joy.
And Jesus himself was willing from the heart, offering himself in his own eternal spirit (Hebrews 9:14) and sacrificing the truest of riches to meet our greatest need. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
God loves a cheerful giver because he is one, the consummate one. And every gift we give in Christ is simply an echo of what we have already received, and the immeasurable riches to come (Ephesians 2:7).
Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines is a call to hear God’s voice, have his ear, and belong to his body.
Though seemingly normal and routine, the everyday “habits of grace” we cultivate give us access to these God-designed channels through which his love and power flow — including the greatest joy of all: knowing and enjoying Jesus.