How Much Do I “Owe” God, Anyway?

When I first started out in a Lead Pastor role (ha! – I talk like this was decades ago, but we’re talking mid 2012) I naively assumed that as long as you cast vision, people will tithe.  This may be true of most followers of Christ, especially if they’ve been around church long enough to know the unspoken subculture.  New believers can’t possibly know these things, and we shouldn’t expect them to.  These things must be taught, modeled, encouraged, and — important — explained.  Like any formative spiritual discipline, the practice of giving takes time to develop.  Giving time to the Lord, volunteering to serve in the Kingdom, and most certainly giving away cash (!) isn’t always easily embraced by people who are new to the faith.

All of us are growing, and anybody who follows Jesus can feel the tension between where they are and where God is taking them — myself included.  How do we talk about the formative practices of following Jesus so that we become more like Him?

I kept thinking about this idea of the tithe and how it would sound to new ears.  I present three scales, acknowledging them as black and white possibilities with plenty of shades of grey in-between.  If nothing else, this helps me understand the process of spiritual formation as it relates to stewardship of what God has given us.  By the way: for simplicity sake, I want to define our terms by saying that God gives us timeabilities (talents) and $$$$$ (treasures), all framed within His greatest gift to those who say “yes”: salvation.  Salvation comes with a purpose, as we’ll see soon.  But first, with blessings being from God and stewardship being about giving back to God, here are some possibilities:

Possibility 1: Greed

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This is where we begin in the journey of following Jesus.  We have an eye-opening epiphany to God’s provision, gifting, and generosity in our lives.  We see the free gift of salvation from God and are amazed at his love and grace.  We see, too, that God blesses us with time, abilities, and material stuff.  It’s all from his hand.  The risk lies in staying here: knowing God has given us all this stuff but not making the stretch to give back — to let Him redeem our time, talents, and treasures for His glory and thus be used to spread Jesus.

Now — we need to stop here because my internal comment generator just spit out a very good example of pushback to this idea.  It goes like this: The idea that we need to pay God back or do something to earn or keep salvation is heresy, and I will now tell you what a heretic you are, etc…

Please understand me on this: Salvation is free, but the piece we often forget is that we are saved to do something.  Otherwise, the moment of salvation would include a sudden evaporation a la Left Behind.  Why does God leave us here?  He leaves us here as citizens of His Kingdom whose job is to help advance the healing of Jesus to the broken world.  And guess how we do this: through letting our time, talents, and treasures belong to God, who uses them to change the world through the message of the gospel tangibly lived out through us.

Possibility 2: Burnout

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This is what happens when a newer believer or an established believer feels compelled to sacrifice common sense and spiritual wisdom by burning out for Jesus.  I’ll call it unnecessary martyrdom.  It’s what happens when someone gives beyond God’s resource flowing to and through them.  As an example, I’ll use my vocation: pastoral ministry, though I should point out that this can and does happen with followers of any station in life, whether preaching or changing diapers in the nursery.  A person can actually destroy themselves by doing too much good stuff.

I have gotten some seriously important nuggets of wisdom from mentors and leaders in years past.  While presiding over Spring Arbor University, Gayle Beebe said something to me that has continually proven to be helpful and freeing, which I will paraphrase here: The difference between a cabinet maker and a pastor is this: a cabinet maker can get to the end of the week and, looking at a workshop full of finished cabinets, see all that he has accomplished.  A pastor often cannot.  It is difficult to discern what, exactly, has been done, since so much of ministry is intangible.  So true.  Much work was done, but we don’t have the measurables.  There is no stack of cabinets to look at and think “I’m ready to put my feet up!”

Anybody can burn out for the sake of Jesus.  I think of cousin Eddy from National Lampoon — remember that scene where he talked about the fact that his family was broke because he sent all that money to the Televangelist?  I’ve known a few folks who have given beyond their means and beyond what is conventional, even when we’re talking about giving by faith.  Here’s a great way to get your kids to hate you and Jesus: give so much to the church that you have nothing left for them.  Ever.

What I’m trying to say is this: it is possible to give beyond what God is calling you to give.  I want to make sure I present these possibilities (greed & burnout) to make sure people don’t hear me preaching a message of self-destruction.

Possibility 3: Balance

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This is the place where we see that all we have is God’s, and, therefore, all we give is for His glory.  We give to God, we give to our families, we give to our communities — but all for God’s glory.  As a citizen of the Kingdom, I have a continual sense of God’s blessing balanced with a good perspective of my role in all of it.  All I have is His.

So… how much do I “owe” God?  I mean, I know I don’t owe Him anything because salvation is free, but I also see that I’m supposed to be generous, not greedy; intentional but not burned out — tell me what to do!

I will!  Next week!  First — I want to make sure we’ve got the right framework.

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