MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 19, 2003
(Fourth in a series on stewardship)
The past few weeks we have noted that if a person is not generous with their money, it is a spiritual problem. We have seen that we must look inside our hearts, NOT inside our checkbooks if we are not generous. Up to this point, we have not been very specific as to what particular sins might be hindering us from being as generous as God would have us be. If, in the course of this emphasis on stewardship, the Holy Spirit has pricked your heart, perhaps you have already been alerted as to what are your specific areas of sin in this area of financial stewardship. On the other hand, maybe you're a person who knows there is a problem, but you're not sure what it is. It would be incomplete for us to not look at some specific sins of the heart that can hinder our capacity to be generous. Fortunately, the Bible doesn't just make vague statements about heart issues. It is very specific and this area of stewardship is no different. Today we hope to give some biblical answers to the question: What are some of the specific sins that can hinder us from giving generously to the Lord? Though the four answers we are going to give this morning are by no means exhaustive these can poison our hearts against generosity and cause us to be poor stewards of God’s money.
The first hindrance to generosity is: Excessive financial DEBT. Excessive long-term debt is a way of life for Americans in the 21st century. A recent book reviewed in TIME Magazine found that the average American spends 50% of their income on their home mortgage. If last week, God moved in your heart to begin to tithe your income but 50% of your income or more is tied up in only one line item of your budget, would you be able to immediately obey? Perhaps. Reasons for a lack of generosity like, "Well with all our other debts, we just couldn't afford to give much away” are simply not valid. Many of us need to take downsizing, cross-bearing measures in this area in order for us to honor God in our giving. We will need to downsize our houses or get rid of other commodities that we are making monthly payments on.
A few years ago the Barna Research group reported that 33% of born again Christians said it is impossible for them to financially get ahead in life because of the financial debt they have incurred. How do you suppose that will affect a person's generosity? The crushing weight of personal indebtedness is why so many people today look at being biblically generous as being totally unrealistic. They hear a message on even tithing and wonder what planet the preacher flew in from. In this era of big ticket purchases, we must first ask the question, “Would God, who commands his people to be generous, lead us to buy a house or other costly item that would put us in the kind of debt that significantly disables our capacity to be generous?” Your BANKER may tell you that you can afford it, but when they tell you what you can afford, they don't figure in generous giving or even a tithe. When Michele and I started house shopping 13 years ago, the bank told us we could afford a house in a certain price range. We even looked at a few in that range and then went back and figured out what we could afford, given our financial priorities. Needless to say, we had to begin looking at houses in a lower price range. The truth is--if WE don't set our financial priorities in such a way that will allow us to live generously and allow those priorities to influence what we spend our money on, someone else (probably a person without kingdom priorities) will do it for us. The question is ultimately one of control. Who will control what your level of generosity and giving is—you, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, or the realtor or the car dealer or the hot tub salesman? Who’s dictating our level of generosity?
Think about how this affects us. Suppose a family you know is experiencing a financial crisis and they come to you and ask for financial assistance. You want to help them, but you look in your checkbook and every dollar is spoken for because your expenses are almost totally predetermined by all the things you are making payments on. With deep regret, you turn the family away with a promise to pray for them. Is that right? In light of what we have been seeing in the Scriptures, is that God's plan for us? NO, the Scripture says being in that situation is "bondage" because someone else, not you and certainly not the Lord is in control of your finances.
Seventy percent of credit card holders carry a monthly balance, which averages over $3000 and many people carry much larger balances. As they sit down every month to pay the bills and try to plan for the future—much less give anything away, it’s pretty depressing because such a large chunk of their spending is pre-determined by purchases they charged months or even years ago. This kind of problem doesn't just affect our ability to be generous--it breaks up marriages. Larry Burkett found that 80% of divorced couples between the ages of 20-30 state that financial problems (like excessive debt) were the primary cause of their divorce. God knows every problem this kind of debt can cause and that's why he is so clear in His statements about it. Proverbs 22:7 gets to the heart of the matter. "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender."
Make no mistake about it, if you are in debt you are in some sense enslaved to the one you owe. The person or company we owe is our master in that area. If we are in that situation we are not free--you are under obligation to your creditors. Paul says in Romans 13:8 “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” The context of that verse is not personal finances so we know that Paul’s purpose is not to make a blanket statement forbidding all borrowing. On the other hand, when the apostle says, “Owe no one anything” we have no right to completely gut the relevance of that statement to our financial situations.
Deuteronomy 15 tells us that God's plan for his covenant people is, "...you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none." If that text says anything, it tells us that God wants people to live in such a manner that they will primarily be givers, not borrowers. These texts weigh heavily on me when I think about the possibility of Mount of Olives going into deep debt for our new ministry expansion. As I indicated in a recent Pastoral Epistle, if we raise only the minimum $1 million dollars before ground breaking, that will put our church in a huge hole that will for the foreseeable future decapitate any hope for expansion in missions or other ministries. The problem with church mortgage debt is that it is so easy to assume that it is an unpleasant necessity. Let me give you an example from this church’s past. In the 1980’s this church, along with many churches in the Twin Ports experienced a significant financial shortage. The local economy tanked and that had a significant impact on local churches.
As I have heard folks who lived through that era describe those tough times where our church was forced to cut back on missions and make other agonizing decisions, I have heard many reasons for those cutbacks. The local economy, the loss of good givers, the area wide taconite collapse—but no one has ever listed as one of the reasons for the cut backs, “We had a $1,200 a month mortgage.” My strong impression is those times would have been much easier if there would have been an extra $1,200 a month around here but since we just assume debt is a part of life that thought doesn’t even occur to us. The point of that illustration is not to second-guess decisions made 30 years ago. The point is--it is very easy to just assume that a significant long-term church mortgage payment is as much a necessary part of the church budget as the line item for Christian Education but that’s simply not a biblical assumption. In light of the fact that God’s blessing for his obedient people is that they will “lend to many nations but will borrow from none” and these other texts on debt I don’t see how we can claim that God will certainly provide for us to pay off big debts. In light of what Jesus says in Luke 14:28 when he says, “For which of you desiring to build a tower does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough money to complete it” is there a valid biblical promise for us to claim that He will pay our debt? We must have faith, but that faith is to be anchored in the word of God, not wishful thinking. As we move forward with this project, we must be very careful about going into long term bondage as a church. It seems much more safe to trust God to miraculously meet our biblical needs, rather than help us pay our all too explainable debts.
Does that mean that the bible teaches that debt is always wrong? I don’t hold that view. But it certainly means that if we are in debt to the degree where our creditors are heavily influencing how much money we can give to the Lord, then we are in bondage—they are our masters and we need to get out of debt as soon as possible.
One reason why people get into debt is a second hindrance to generosity. That is: CARELESSNESS in managing God’s money. Some people don't have money to give to the Lord NOT because they haven't earned enough and NOT because they are compulsive spendthrifts, but because it just seems to disappear. The question they habitually ask themselves is, "where did it all go this month?" They don't throw their money away on extravagant purchases, it just seems to slip unnoticed through the cracks, somehow. They are poor money managers. Is poor financial management a sin? Jesus says it is. Remember the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. In the parable the servant who took his talent and buried it in the ground is called by the master, "wicked and lazy." The reason he is called “wicked and lazy” is because he didn't at least put the money into the bank where it could draw interest. Jesus says because he was a poor financial manager, he was wicked and lazy.
As we've said before, that money, which mysteriously slips through our fingers, is NOT ours, but the Lord's. If you gave a family member $25,000 of your money to manage for a year and at the end of the year, they said, "Gee, there seems to be about two thousand dollars that just disappeared...I just don’t know where it all went." how should you respond to that? Should God be any less grieved by that than we would be? Granted, God doesn’t NEED the money, but if a family member pulled that on you, you would probably be more grieved by the fact that he/she assumed on and abused your relationship than by the fact that you were out two grand. When we mishandle God’s money, we are assuming on and abusing our relationship with him.
Proverbs 27:23 says to people in an agrarian economy, "Know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds;” Updated for today's industrial economy, that could be translated, "Pay attention to your finances, carefully manage your assets." Planning and budgeting are keys that enable YOU to establish your financial priorities instead of someone else. Proverbs 21:5 says, "The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance; everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty." Discipline and planning lead to abundance according to the Proverbs. If how you spend your money is not a product of discipline and some sort of formal planning process you are NOT being a good steward and you will be unable to be as generous as God would have you be. Jesus, in Luke 14:28 asks a very prudent question as it relates to finances about counting the cost first. He assumes it to be common sense that people will do careful planning and deliberating about their finances--looking ahead to the future. Does that describe how you manage God's money? Carelessness with God's money is sin and is a serious hindrance to generosity.
A third hindrance to generosity is simply unbelief. To put it directly, we are often not very good at trusting God. When we worry about money, we are showing our unbelief. We really don’t trust God to provide for us the way he does the ravens and the lilies of the field so we worry. Most of us would rather walk barefoot across burning sands of the Sahara rather than to be forced to trust God for our daily bread. As a family, we are reading through the biography of George Muller, a man God used mightily in Bristol, England in the 1800’s and who trusted God for a huge ministry to orphans. Muller made it a matter of policy to never ask anyone for money. He prayed it all in because he was convinced that God was able to provide. He lived by faith. I have had to force myself to not quit reading that book in the middle. Frankly, it bothers me because it brings so clearly into focus my own unwillingness to trust God.
Unbelief kills generosity as fast as anything and the reason is because God often does not wait until our bank account is full before he asks us to give money away. When God calls us to be generous—to give money away, our first look is often to our bank balance and the first question we ask is, “Can we afford this?” Although God does not sanction recklessness, God doesn’t want our first look to be to our bank balance—he wants it to be to Him and he doesn’t want our first question to be “can we afford this?” He wants it to be, “God, do you want me to do this?” Because if He does, He WILL provide the money. Unbelief causes us to be more like an accounting firm rather than a money distribution center, which is what faith causes us to be. Sound accounting and management are a must--we have talked about the wickedness of being careless with God’s money and we must admit that sometimes there is seems to be little distinction between being full of faith and being reckless. Sometimes God will call you to do things that are reckless and stupid in the eyes of other people. I give you Noah or Abraham or Gideon or anyone else in the Bible who did things that seemed to their contemporaries stupid, but they did what they did because they trusted God.
The question we must answer in every situation where we have an opportunity to be risk-taking in our generosity is: “Is what I feel like doing an act of faith or recklessness?” Here are four biblical diagnostic questions to ask yourself that will help you find the answer. First, “Is the need or ministry I’m thinking about giving to biblically valid?” If a drug addict wants you to give them 50 dollars, it is in reckless to just hand them the money because you will be financing their destructive habit. We must be as “wise as serpents” and that often takes work and investigation on our part. Not all Christian ministries are worthy of God’s money but because they are good at marketing themselves and people are naïve and theologically shallow, many continue to survive and receive generous donations. We must ask about the worthiness of what we are giving to. A second question is, “Have I earnestly prayed about it? God says in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart,” God will show us the truth if we seek him with all our hearts. Our problem is we don’t like doing that because its hard work. This is earnestly praying about a need, not casually “checking in” about a need.
Third, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I a person who naturally tends toward recklessness?” Proverbs 23:1-2 says, “When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite. The broad application of that verse is know your weaknesses and allow that self-understanding to inform you before you make decisions. Some people are just more “adventurous” in their personalities and with their money. These folks are more apt to err on the side of being reckless. If you are careless with money then you better be extra careful about going far out on a limb financially for God because your track record indicates that you can easily mistake recklessness for faith. On the other hand, if you are fastidious—very careful about your money and you sense God might be, possibly, perhaps calling you to do something big for him—there is a better chance that is of him because it’s probably not something you would generate independently. Fourth, we must ask, after we have spent time praying and seeking and probing, “Do I have a sense of peace about this?” Philippians 4:6-7 “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” God promises peace as we pray.
If we struggle with unbelief in this or any area, relief from that struggle will come as we soak our head in the faith-inducing word of God. We must allow texts like Psalm 37:25 “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread” to fuel our faith. We must allow texts like Second Corinthians 9:8 “ And 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.” We must allow that text to buttress our weak faith if we will meditate on it and store it in our hearts. We must integrate into our hearts the truth of Philippians 4:19 “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” We must allow those precious truths to shape our unbelieving hearts—an unbelief, which the bible refers to as “rebellion.” We must repent of the sin of rebellious unbelief if we are to remove a major hindrance to generosity.
The hindrance the Bible speaks most frequently about is one we have discussed before and that is our fourth point. A fourth hindrance to generosity is GREED or COVETOUSNESS. Greed and covetousness are used more or less interchangeably in the Scripture. When we think of a greedy person, we think of someone who is constantly cooking up "get rich quick" schemes so they can have their first million by the time they are 30. That’s not a biblical understanding of greed. As we’ve seen before, the Greek word translated "greed" or "covetousness" literally means, "have more." The definition of greed according to the Bible is the failure to be content with what we have. Hebrews 13:5 says, "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you; nor forsake you." We rightly treasure that promise about God never leaving or forsaking us, but we often fail to realize that the context of that verse is money and our relationship to it.
What the author is saying is, "What enables us to be content with what we have, be it large or small, is the reassurance from God that He, who alone can bring you contentment, will never leave us." That’s what that verse means. The reason we don’t need money or what it can buy in order to be content is because we already have the assurance that the one necessary ingredient for contentment—the enduring presence of God will never leave us. God is saying, "You have ME and when you have the LORD of the universe living in your heart, there is no need to strive after the cheap toys this world has to offer." If you owned a fleet of Rolls Royce cars, would it make sense for you to go to the junkyard and drool over a rusted out 79 Pinto?
This issue of covetousness and idolatry is clearly bigger than this topic of generosity. Ephesians 5:5 tells us the gravity of greed in God's kingdom. Paul writes, "For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God." If you are greedy--that is, you put the things of this world above God, you have no place in heaven. Paul is saying by implication if the reason we are not generous is because we are covetous of the things of this world, then we have “no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” It’s easy to see this issue of stewardship as a peripheral one where our salvation is concerned. That’s simply not the case. As we’ve said before, our giving and stewardship are a barometer of our spiritual condition.
Greed or covetousness, which is idolatry, is in many cases the rotten root from which the other hindrances to generosity grow. We are greedy for things we want but can’t afford now, so we go into debt to get them. The root sin isn’t excessive debt, its idolatry because we crave the things of this world so much we are willing to sin against God to get them. Some times the reason people are careless with God’s money is because they want things more than they want to be careful with God’s money. We are often guilty of unbelief because we really don’t want to trust God because if we do, we know that we may have to give up some of our idols. We worry and get anxious about money because we have idolatrously placed our security in our bank account or retirement account them rather than in God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The root sin in all those examples is covetousness, which is idolatry.
Those are four hindrances to generosity. There are doubtless more. As we leave this time devoted to biblical stewardship I encourage you to continue to search your hearts and respond in generosity not only to Mount of Olives, but to all the ministries God where wants to use you as a funnel for his money. May God give us the grace to be a supernaturally generous people and in so doing reflect his incredible generosity to us through Christ.
Page last modified on 10/21/2003
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