[note]Warning: This post is about money.

Further warning: Money is probably the most powerful idol in your heart.[/note]

I’ve written this post because money is an important topic for Christians to talk about, but many of us pastors are afraid to talk about it because of the sins of those who have gone before us. We are afraid. But, alas, some things must be said, even at the risk of being lumped in with the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world.

In the interest of full disclosure, part of my motivation to write this post is the financial state of Ember Church. However, I have no intention of trying to motivate people in my own congregation to give so that the church can be rescued. If you were at church last week when we publicly discussed our financial circumstances you know this. (If you attend Ember and missed this information, but would like to know more, please let me know.) What Ember needs is for me to find a full-time job somewhere else in the city, something I am trying to do in earnest. However, what I’ve written below still needs to be said. As usual, I’ve tried to state things as clearly and frankly as possible.

I’m convinced that the reason we don’t like to talk about or hear about money at church is because we love money, put our faith in it, and wrap our identities around it. Let me be plain. Money is an idol. The more viscerally you respond to a sermon on money, the more likely it is that you are harboring money as a powerful idol on the throne of your heart. I know those are strong words, but I believe them, and I believe they need to be said. God hates all of our idols because they steal his rightful place in our lives, and they ultimately make us less than human.

Last week at Ember I mentioned, while talking about the church’s finances, that part of why we tithe–give to the local church–is to wage war against the idol of money that captivates our hearts. If greed is the idolatry of money, then generosity to God’s work is the antidote to our greed.

What does the New Testament say about tithing?

Oddly enough, the NT does not mention tithing, though for the earliest Jewish Christians it seems likely that they would have continued to tithe to the Temple, and then given an additional amount for the work of the Church. The Gentile Christians did not have to pay a tithe (which was really closer to a national tax for Israel) for the upkeep and operation of the Temple. So what drove them? Here is a sampling of some Scripture from the NT. (Thanks to a commenter at the Jesus Creed named Amos Paul for compiling these.)

1 Corinthians 16:1-2 • Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

Romans 15:27 • They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:11 • If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?

1 Corinthians 9:14 • In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

2 Corinthians 8:12 • For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.

2 Corinthians 9:7 • Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Notice that there is no set sum, like a tithe (10%), for the NT churches. Rather, giving is governed by the principles of grace, willingness, and generosity. C.S. Lewis noticed this absence of specific direction, and concluded thusly:

“I do not believe that one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid that the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

In other words, give until it hurts. Make sacrifices for the work of God, and especially for the local family of God to which you belong. The church’s responsibility is not to make its pastors rich, but to make their work possible, and a joy. God takes very seriously the work to which he has called ministers, and his will is for them to “receive their living from the gospel.”

Should I tithe when I am in debt?

I hear this question from time to time. “Isn’t it God’s will for me to be out of debt? Shouldn’t I put that ahead of giving to the church?” In fact, it is God’s will for you to be out of debt. However, if you’re not going to give to the church because of your debt, then neither should you buy any new clothes, eat out, go to the movies, buy Christmas or birthday presents, or do anything else than the absolute, bare minimum required to survive until you have successfully paid off your debt. If you’re so concerned over your debt (and you should be concerned over it) that you would withhold from the work of God in your midst, then you should also withhold from yourself every blessing of life in modern America. No cable. No Netflix. No internet. No cell phone. And you should probably sell as much as you possibly can in order to speed up the repayment of your debt.

Have I overstated things? Maybe I have. But is it right to withhold from God’s work and indulge yourself? A cell phone might not feel like an indulgence, but when you’re giving $100 to Verizon every month and $0 to your local church, and you claim that you’re too in debt to tithe, perhaps something has gone awry in your heart. Perhaps there is an idol on the throne of your heart, the throne that rightfully belongs to Jesus.

My family is in debt. We have a mortgage. We have a car payment. We bought a new HVAC system in 2010 that we’re paying off. We had our basement waterproofed. We have a significant chunk of debt to pay off. But, despite our debt, and even though I’m the pastor of the church to which we tithe (Yes, pastors tithe too!), we give sacrificially to Ember Church. We do it because we love the local church, and believe in the power of the community of Jesus and the necessity to fund it. (Incidentally, our giving has not increased since planting Ember. We give the same percentage to Ember that we gave to Heritage.)

To answer the question, Yes, you should tithe even when you are in debt. For many of us, we are in debt because money has been an idol. Paying off your debt will not solve the idolatry problem. But I believe that generosity will.

How much should I give to the local church to which I belong?

There is no definitive number for this. Let the principles of grace, willingness, and generosity guide you. You need to work out with God just how much to give. But don’t ask, “How much can I afford?”; ask, “How much, God? How much must I give to kill the idol of money in my heart? How much will it take to starve the beast within me?” I know a family that gives 10% of their pretax income to the local church. They do pretax income because they want to make sure that God and the Church gets financial resources before the Government.

Here are some more tithing tips:

  • Don’t chop up your giving. If you’ve decided on a certain amount to give to the local church, don’t reduce that amount to support missionaries or do other charitable giving. Let the local church be your first commitment, then support missionaries from your abundance, if you are able. Also, trust the church to be able to responsibly direct the funds.
  • Never tell your pastor, “My tithe pays your salary.” If you still consider it “your tithe”, then you haven’t been gracious, willing, or generous. When you put it in the basket, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Just as “your taxes” don’t pay for every single thing the government does, so “your tithe” doesn’t pay for everything the church does.
  • Don’t withhold tithe to make a political point or express your dissatisfaction with the pastor. This is childish. Don’t let your money do the talking when you’re perfectly capable of doing the talking yourself.
  • Trust that God will provide. My family has consistently given more than we can afford, and we have consistently seen God come through for us. Because of God’s faithfulness in the past, we have faith for his continued provision in the future.

Tithing is, in the end, a discipleship issue. Tithing calls us to fully root ourselves in a particular faith community, and to follow Jesus in the most sensitive of areas–our bottom lines. It is an act of war with the idol of money. It is an exercise in faith, and God will prove himself faithful.

N.T. Wright stated something in his book Simply Jesus that I thought was quite profound. Christians talk about how Jesus is Lord, how God is in control and sovereign, but there is plenty of evidence in the world that seems to point to the contrary. “If Jesus is Lord and God is control,” the skeptic might ask, “then why Katrina? Why AIDS? Why genocide? The world sure doesn’t look like a place where God is King.”

The story of Jesus’s resurrection and his going into “heaven” are only the beginning of something new, something that will be completed one day, but that none of the early Christians supposed had been fully accomplished yet.

The early Christians were, after all, a small minority, staking their daring and apparently crazy claim about Jesus from a position of great weakness and vulnerability. They were perceived…as a threat to the established order…. But their threat to the present world was not of the usual kind. They were not ordinary revolutionaries, ready to take up arms to overthrow an existing regime and establish their own instead. Celebrating Jesus as the world’s rightful king…was indeed a way of posing a challenge to Caesar and all other earthly “lords.” But it was a different sort of challenge. It was not only the announcement of Jesus as the true king, albeit still the king-in-waiting, but the announcement of him as the true sort of king. Addressing the ambitious pair James and John, he put it like this: “Pagan rulers…lord it over their subjects. …But that’s not how it’s to be with you” (Matt. 20:25-26). And, as he said to Pilate, the kingdoms that are characteristic of “this world” make their way by violence, but his sort of kingdom doesn’t do that (John 18:36). We all know the irony of empires that offer people peace, prosperity, freedom, and justice–and kill tens of thousands of people to make the point. Jesus’s kingdom isn’t like that. With him, the irony works the other way round. Jesus’s death and his followers’ suffering are the means by which his peace, freedom, and justice come to birth on earth as in heaven.

Jesus’s kingdom must come, then, by the means that correspond to the message. It’s no good announcing love and peace if you make angry, violent war to achieve it!

That’s a long quote, but he’s saying simply this: The cross of Jesus characterizes the rule of Jesus. His rule and reign is spread, not through violence or war, but through proclamation and agape love. In fact, Christianity grows best when it is oppressed and persecuted–in other words, when the powers of the world do to his followers what they did to Jesus.

Now, here’s the point I want to make, and this applies to many Christians, particularly to those who are Reformed. The cross of Jesus replaces everything we thought we knew about what it means for God to be “sovereign” and “in control”. The iron scepter that Isaiah talked about, the one by which the Messiah would rule, turned out to be the two wooden beams on which the Messiah was crucified. The sovereignty of God is most clearly visible at the cross, where the Son of God was murdered by Roman soldiers under the command of the Roman Governor, Pilate, and at the behest of the Jewish leaders. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, the strength of God looks like weakness to human eyes.

If you don’t perceive God’s sovereignty through the lens of the cross, then you fail to perceive it at all. God does not rule with an iron fist, like a great army general; he rules like a sacrificial lamb. The rule and reign of Jesus the King is extended, on earth, through the same means by which it was inaugurated–self-giving, life-losing love. That love, the agape love of the cross, is the one force on earth that no king or general or president can ever stamp out!

C.S. Lewis writes, “In Christianity God is not a static thing…but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” If we press out this metaphor of dance a bit further, we can understand Father, Son, and Spirit as each dancing, orbiting, around the others. They each give unconditional, infinite agape love to the others. They each give glory to the others. There is an eternal dance of glorifying love going on within the Trinity.

Tim Keller writes, “Because the Father, Son, and Spirit are giving glorifying love to one another, God is infinitely, profoundly happy. …The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are pouring love and joy and adoration into the other, each one serving the other. They are infinitely seeking one another’s glory, and so God is infinitely happy. And if it’s true that this world has been created by this triune God, then ultimate reality is a dance.”

Ultimate reality is a dance. We are meant to dance and move and orbit around the Trinity, our triune Creator God. We are not meant to be still, meaning we are not meant to be the center of the universe. Hell is stasis. Hell is ordering your life around yourself, and demanding that others, even God, dance around you.

But God himself, within his internal dynamics, does not even do this. God is three-personal, and each person of the Trinity orbits around the others in a dance of glorifying agape love.

Have you ever wondered why God created humans? Was he lonely? No, he wasn’t lonely, because he is three-in-one. He didn’t lack for relationships or love. Did he have needs? Like, was he hungry? No, he had no needs. He wasn’t hungry, and he didn’t need to create humans to bring him food. Some ancient religions taught that. But not ours.

What compelled God to create humanity was desire, his desire to extend the divine dance from 3 to infinity. God’s desire was to spread the other-glorifying dance of self-giving love within himself to an infinite number of beings created in his image. As Tim Keller says, “You were made to enter into a divine dance with the Trinity.” This does not mean that you or I will ever become divine. We will not. But we will become the closest thing possible: The Bride of Christ.

There is a wedding at the end of Scripture, the marriage between Christ and the Church. We, the Church, will become Christ’s everlasting companion; and so the dance will grow. We will be invited in. As the prophets so often put it from God’s perspective: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Your destiny is to join the dance of the Trinity as a full member of the Church, Christ’s Bride.

But this, of course, is not a dance that we must wait for. You are invited to participate now, today. If all of life is a dance, if ultimate reality is a divine dance, then you need, more than anything, to join the dance today. What bride would show up to her wedding not knowing how to dance?

So the onus is on you to learn how to dance. You must learn humility. You must learn agape love. You must commit yourself to seeing the Gospel happen in your heart, in your relationships, and in your community. You must learn to dance with Jesus as a part of a community of faith. You must learn to live within the agape love of the Trinity.

Last year, for the first time in my life, I started a Bible reading plan that I actually finished. It was the M’Cheyne reading plan, and it takes you through the Old Testament once, and the New Testament + Psalms twice in a year. I started the plan on January 1 last year, and, by the grace of God, finished it on December 31. I got behind a lot, especially after Bexley was born, so there were many days of no reading and many days of lots of reading. I had to make up over 20 missed days at the end of the year!

Despite my inconsistencies, it was a very rewarding experience. Though it’s indiscernable to me, Breena has noticed a difference in my character. She could always tell, with a fair amount of accuracy, the days I had done my reading and the days I hadn’t. (Apparently I’m crankier when I don’t read the Bible.) But beyond what this discipline has done to my character is what it has done to my mind and my spirit. I sense deep internal change going on. Fewer impure thoughts. Shorter bouts of despair. Greater attention to the things of God. More passion for Jesus. Order where there was chaos. Clarity where there was fog.

There were many times I wanted to quit. I felt it becoming routine. Mundane. Obligatory. But instead of giving it up so that I could be wholly authentic and not hypocritical at all, I pressed through those emotions and came out the other side. And you know what? There really is a far side of mundane and religious obligation. At first I wanted to do it, then I felt like I had to do it. But instead of giving up at that point, I persevered through it and came to a place where I both wanted to do it and knew that I had to do it. And that was okay.

If you’ve tried to start a Bible reading before and failed, don’t give up. I tried many times and failed. I failed many times in 2011. Just don’t give up. Get back on track. Use one of the many plans on YouVersion to keep yourself on pace in 2012. They even have plans as short as one week, so that you can ease your way into the discipline of daily Scripture reading. Just 10 minutes a day in the Word really can change your life!

A lot of folks at Ember are also involved with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), which just had their annual Christmas Conference in Indianapolis. It was, as usual, awesome. I can’t wait to hear about it from more of my friends!

I also attended a lot of conferences and retreats as a college student. These were, what I called, “Mountain Top Experiences”. They are spiritual highs. You come away from these events highly-motivated, deeply-passionate, and just overall on fire for God.

Typically, however, the fire would die down and the passion would fade, and I would return to “normal”, which basically meant I became a shy, timid, cynical person again. I would berate myself for not being able to sustain the spiritual high I got at the conferences and retreats. I thought this was a mark of my being immature and weak. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things about myself and about life with God since then, so I’d like to share a few of the things I’ve learned here.

First of all, The spiritual high is designed to fade. The mountain top experience is emotionally and spiritually unsustainable. And that’s okay. What’s most important is not what you do or believe on top of the mountain, but what you do and believe in the valleys. You are far more dangerous to the devil in the valleys, if you persist through them with faith, courage, and obedience, than you are on the mountain tops. Anybody can get excited about God for a weekend, but one of the distinguishing marks of a true disciple is that he or she remains faithful to God within their times of spiritual and emotional discouragement.

Secondly, Follow through on whatever commitment you made. Keeping your promises to God is vital to fostering a good relationship with him. You might have been in the heat of passion and fire for Jesus when you committed to him a year of overseas ministry (or whatever), but you still made the promise. Keep it. The devil will do whatever he can to get you to break your promises to God. Remember that when you start rationalize your way out of keeping your commitments.

Lastly, Focus on keeping your trajectory upward. If you could graph your spiritual life, how excited and passionate you are about Jesus, what it would look like? Yes, you will have peaks and valleys. But is it moving in a general, upward (meaning more encouraged and more passionate) trend? To accomplish this, you’re going to have to participate in spiritual disciplines. You have to get the things of God firmly rooted into the soil of your heart. So I say, start a prayer journal. Use youversion.com (or their smart phone app) to start a Bible reading program. Spend 10 minutes today completely disconnected from all media, in total silence. Raise your hands in worship even when you don’t necessarily feel like it. Force yourself to engage with God beyond how you’re feeling in the particular moment. Push yourself. If you do that, you’ll look back on your spiritual high in ten years and think, “Wow. That’s my normal, now.”

I hope this helps. If you have any other tips, leave them in the comments section.

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