So there is unbelievable poverty in the world. But most of us who live in the West have enough to satisfy all our needs and many of our wants.
And, often, the disparity gnaws at us.
How much should we give away?
We feel sad about the suffering of the poor. But we live in the West, we take on the coloration of the West, and our needs become Western, including the need to take a break from the pace of life (our children’s frenetic pace of life, if not ours) and escape distraction by distraction, in Eliot’s phrase. For instance, I don’t particularly covet things any more, but I do enjoy working hard/playing hard, and I love travel and exploration.
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To think what you spend on coffee each could send an African girl to school; your holiday in Europe could support an African family for a year could poison your life with guilt—particularly if you do not in fact give away the money saved (which, I suspect, is often the case!)
But how much should we give away?
The Apostle Peter asked for a concrete figure to appease his conscience.
“How many times should I forgive my brother if he sins against me. Seven times?” he asks magnanimously.
But Jesus does not fall for this. When can I stop forgiving? he hears Peter asking
So he gives a rhetorical, hyperbolic figure, impossible to track. 70 times 7.
(And I must say that I have probably forgiven Roy and my children that often!)
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Giving away a large percentage of our money, something we have toiled for, worried about, and greatly desire because of the worlds and opportunities it opens to us, is as difficult as forgiveness perhaps.
And so those who lived under law were given a convenient, easily calculated figure–ten percent as a minimum. And then something over that, as their conscience led them, “offerings.”
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For us, under grace, no figure has been given. No easy: “Okay then, ten percent is God’s, and 90 percent all mine.”
But giving ten percent is a useful rule, and will probably unleash much blessing in your life. I have read it in biographies, been told so by friends, and most persuasively, giving 10 percent has always unleashed miracles, windfalls, and unexpected blessing in my life.
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I read in late 2003 in the World Vision magazine, about struggling cherry farmers in Washington State, who wanted to do something about world poverty. They decided to tithe to World Vision, though their business was precarious. And then increased it. Soon, the amount they gave away in tithes each year was the same as their annual salary the year they had started giving. Their income had increased ten-fold, and they were giving away substantial sums! God blessed their business because he trusted them to be a conduit of blessing.
I was so inspired by the fact that ordinary individuals could dent poverty on a small scale, that I decided to increase our base tithe by a percentage point each time we got a financial windfall, a grant, a cash prize, a cash gift. So we were giving 16 percent by the time we left America in 2004. The generosity unleashed blessing.
And then we moved to England, and money was tighter—significantly higher house prices, taxes, and we went private for schooling. Though we had tithed for all our Christian lives, we stopped. We gave, of course, but not ten percent. I led Bible studies as my service to the church.
And we financially struggled for the first two and a half years that I ran my small business–and for the only time in our lives. I wonder now what would have happened if we had tithed!! It wouldn’t surprise me if God would have blessed us with good ideas and good luck, and the tide would have turned sooner.
But there is a toughness and tensile strength of character which is best forged in the school of suffering, and so I do not regret its lessons.
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Though the Old Testament tithe is no longer a requirement to us who are redeemed by the blood of Christ, and live under grace, it is a good starting point. Easy to calculate, and not difficult for almost everyone in the West, and many people in the majority world too. And then, offerings over that, as our heart is moved by specific needs.
I think world poverty would be significantly dented if Christians tithed.
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But we do need to tithe way beyond our little church. The Old Testament tithe supported widows, orphans and aliens in addition to the Levites (Deut 14:28).
If we all gave ten percent of our income to the church we attend, we’ll soon have obscenely overpaid fat-cat pastors in affluent areas, and the money would provide a show on Sunday to rival a concert, and the church could become a club with aerobics classes, weight loss classes, coffee mornings and pamper evenings, being ever more appealing and ever richer, while the poor in the majority world become poorer and poorer. As Larry Burkett points out, tithing in rich, inward-focused, growth-focused churches is essentially tithing to yourself and your church family!!
Not every pitch you hear from the pulpit is motivated by real need. Some are motivated by the pastor’s ambition for glory. Learn to distinguish between what pastors legitimately need to preach the gospel, and which appeals are motivated by ambitious profile-boosting and empire-building. For these sort of appeals will never end.
On the other hand, if we followed the Old Testament model and ensured that 2.5 percent of our income goes to support the local church, and 7.5 goes to support the poor, including “aliens,” our economy will be closer to the one God envisioned, and perhaps there would be few poor among us.
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We ourselves, of course, may have less money than if we did not give. Though not necessarily. Gretchen Rubin, a secular writer who writes on happiness, cites studies that the more one gives, the more one’s wealth increases—perhaps because of the positive feelings that giving and generosity provide, and other people’s respect for the generous. Roy and I first started tithing in 1990, and were amazed at all the little miracles of financial provision which suddenly followed us, seemingly as a consequence.
And if tithing leaves us with less money than we would have had? So what? Less money=less stuff, less distraction, more simple pleasures, and a quieter life. Money truly does not buy happiness beyond a certain point, and most of us, if we track our times of deepest happiness, may discover that they were times of simple pleasures which did not require very much money at all.