Well, Jesus was never ashamed to tell his disciples, or potential disciples, to liquidate their assets and give away all their cash first. This gives rise to today’s question, from a college student named Noah. “Hello, Pastor John and Tony! I’m a Christian Hedonist at Stanford University, finishing my third year of undergrad. I just finished reading the chapter on money in Desiring God and I’m faced with a question: Why should I not give all (or a significant portion) of what I earn to the Lord?
“Most teaching I’ve heard on money and tithing has pretty much said, ‘Give! And give generously!’ I want to give as generously as possible and invest eternally. But at what point does my giving to the Lord become irresponsible? Right now, I don’t earn very much. But I also don’t need much. Of the $10,000 I earn, I only spend about $2,000. After giving over 20 percent to God and investing the rest, I still can’t help but feeling like my reward would be greater in heaven if I gave more, which I’d happily do.
“The problem is, I think I would feel the same way after giving 30 percent or 50 percent or 80 percent to God, too. But is that a problem? Wasn’t the widow commended for giving everything? Aren’t we told not to worry about what we will eat or drink or wear? Jesus said, ‘Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old’ (Luke 12:33). And you said in Desiring God, ‘Jesus is not against investment. He is against bad investment — namely, setting your heart on the comforts and securities that money can afford in this world. Money is to be invested for eternal yields in heaven’ (193). So if God has given me a generous heart and blessed me beyond my necessities, why should I not give everything?”
Give Away Everything?
Well, I’m not going to tell Noah not to give away everything. I don’t know what God may be calling him to do. Jesus certainly called on the rich young ruler to give away everything. Jesus said to the rich young man, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).
As Noah observed, Jesus commended the widow:
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41–44)
I don’t know what measure of sacrifice financially Jesus may call Noah or anyone to undergo. I don’t know. I’m not assuming he shouldn’t give away everything, but here’s what I will do. I will say that I cannot biblically tell Noah that this is his duty. I can’t say this is his biblical obligation from the Lord or that it is the biblical obligation or duty of Christians in general to give away all that they have. There are reasons, and I’ll just list seven.
As You May Prosper
First, Jesus and the apostles never made giving away all our possessions a duty for all followers of Christ. The command to the rich young ruler was not a command to all.
Second, Zacchaeus was commended for giving away half of his riches to the poor: “‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham’” (Luke 19:8–9). In other words, he saw in that kind of generosity — namely, 50 percent plus — that salvation has come. He’s showing he’s really saved.
Third, Barnabas was admired as a son of encouragement in the early church. When the believers were selling their lands and houses to gather money for the poor, it says, “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36–37). So he gave one field — no doubt a very significant gift, but not everything.
Fourth, when Paul was taking up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem among the churches, he said to the Corinthians, “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:1–2). The idea seems to be this: to the proportion that you prosper, put more aside — not everything, just more for those who earn more, less for those who earn less. Put something aside.
Work, Have, Give
Fifth, Paul says, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12). It seems that in the ordinary life of the church, day in and day out in the world, we should at least seek to have a stream of income that keeps us from lazy mooching. That’s what he says: “so that you will be dependent on no one, work.” That means you need to have enough to pay your bills. You don’t give everything away. You invest and create a life that keeps you from being dependent on others.
“The normal pattern is to make a living, pay your own way, and turn your whole life into a ministry.”
Sixth, Paul said, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). There are three options here: (1) you can steal, (2) you can work to have, (3) or you can work to have to give. The assumption is that as the money passes through our hands into productive uses — whether for the poor, or invested in some way to help society — we are not dependent on others. Enough of our income is supporting us so that we can give and give and give as well as not be moochers off of others.
By the way, that does not mean it’s a sin for churches to support missionaries. That’s another whole Ask Pastor John. We can look at how Paul, in fact, took money from churches in order to make it free for others. That’s a parenthesis, and I’ll just stop there.
Seventh, Paul speaks of his own pattern of partially foregoing the right of support:
With toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:8–12)
The normal pattern in the early church — and in Christianity — for day-to-day life is to make a living, pay your own way, and turn your whole life into a ministry.
People and Percentages
Now, lots of other passages could be brought in to show that owning nothing and giving away everything was not, in the New Testament, the way Jesus and the apostles conceived of the ongoing corporate Christian life. I’ll just mention two things in closing that might give Noah some guidance against this background.
First, don’t think just of percentages for how much you give away. Think of concrete people and concrete needs as you live your life, and see if your heart really loves people. Here’s what I mean.
“Remember that all of your money is God’s, not just what you give to the Lord.”
The good Samaritan was commended that he stopped and helped the wounded man on the road. He had some wine to give him. He had a donkey that he would let him ride. He had money for paying for his lodging (Luke 10:30–35). Jesus didn’t question him, saying,“Hey, why do you have a donkey? Why do you have wine? Why do you have money? You’re supposed to give everything away.” The point was, Do you love the person in front of you at a cost to yourself? Shift your way of thinking. Do not merely think, “What percentage can I get rid of?” but rather, “The people that I deal with and that I’m aware of — do I love them as I ought with my resources?”
Here’s the second thing I would say: remember that all of your money is God’s, not just what you give to the Lord. This means that we should think of every expenditure in a kingdom-advancing way, not just what we give away. It is all Christ’s. He owns you. He owns it. Every single thing you spend and what you give is ministry and should be designed to magnify Christ.
Noah, I’m with you in the struggle just as much now, at age 73, as I was when I was 23. Let’s pray for each other that we not be taken captive by our possessions.