In the most severe trial their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. (2 Corinthians 8:2-3)
Stewardship and generous giving is one of the most important ways we know that the grace of God has taken hold of us. Paul says this repeatedly in 2 Corinthians 8-9. In 9:13 he writes, “Through this service, which proves who you are, you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others; while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God in you.” This is a theologically rich and dense statement! Paul speaks of ‘acknowledging’ the gospel of Christ, a word that means to constantly seek to bring your actual life practices into accord with it. It means to ask, “If Jesus sacrificed everything for me, if I am now loved and secure in him, if I am saved by grace—how should that affect the way I live?”
Here Paul claims that a grasp of the gospel naturally produces financial generosity in us. This is so much the case that Paul can say that financial ‘service’ (the Greek word diakonia, that means humble, costly service to the practical needs of others) actually ‘proves’ that we are Christians. It also attracts people in the world to us and and ultimately to our God.
That’s well and good, some might say, but what about times of scarcity? What about times like we are facing now, in what might be a protracted economic downturn? Let me speak personally. My greatest asset, my Presbyterian ministers’ retirement fund, took an enormous, breath-taking hit this year. And I’m not 35 years old. So, just like everyone else, I don’t feel nearly as financially secure about the future as I used to. Money ultimately is a form of power, and diminished funds make you feel much less in control of your environment and much more vulnerable to circumstances. So, just like everyone else, I come to the end of the year with all its opportunities and needs for generous giving with butterflies in my stomach.
That is why I am finding 2 Corinthians 8:2-3 so challenging. Here Paul describes the response of the Macedonian Christians to the news that there had been a famine in Judea and many were in need. Now the Macedonians themselves were facing ‘extreme poverty,’ sharp scarcity through some sort of ‘severe trial.’ We don’t know what it was. They may have faced famine themselves, or flooding or war—the ancient forms of ‘recession’. But despite the shortages in Macedonia, they gave radically and generously to the needy. Why? Paul says that it was a chemical reaction. When their gospel-born, super-abounding joy came into direct contact with extreme poverty, an explosion of sacrificial giving ‘welled’ up into rich generosity. Poverty plus gospel joy produced riches.
Paul isn’t using these words lightly. This isn’t hype. When we feel secure and prosperous, when we have money to spare, giving arises either out of mild guilt, of having more than others, or out of a desire for self-esteem. (I once heard Jerry Lewis in a fundraising telethon say, “If you send us $100 you can look yourself in the mirror and know you are a good person.”) When we feel vulnerable and financially insecure, however, both of those motives vanish. We Christians who habitually give out of guilt and pride are then forced to look deeper. And Paul tells us where to look, in his most famous words on the subject: “See that you also excel in this grace of giving….For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:7,9.)
There it is. Jesus did not give out of what he could spare. Jesus did not give out of his riches, he gave away his riches. Jesus didn’t give because he had power to spare, he gladly lost all his power and became completely vulnerable, for us. What a challenge! Gospel-shaped, Gospel-proportioned giving doesn’t even begin until it entails sacrifice and scarcity. That makes you nervous and presses you to look at Jesus’ cosmic philanthropy for you. That humbles us, making us ask how we can accept this kind of generosity and not pass it on to others? But it also comforts us, showing us our inheritance in heaven that can never fade or be lost. All other inheritances (and retirement funds) pale before that.
We usually give out of what we can spare. When we do that we are not tapping into the resources we have to give sacrificially out of the joy of the gospel. Fortunately, this year, our economy is giving us a push in the right direction! Even our money says, “In God we trust.”