by James A. Fowler
If Christian giving is the grace-flow of God's givingness in Christian people, are we to expect anything "in return?" Are we to anticipate any benefit accrued? Are we to look forward to what comes back to us?
To the Corinthians Paul writes in II Cor. 9:6, "he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; and he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully." Paul uses the horticultural imagery of "sowing and reaping," planting and harvest, in reference to Christian giving. He seems to be saying there is a "return" on Christian giving. What kind of return? Before we answer that question let us consider several other Scriptures that seem to indicate a "return" on our giving:
"You shall generously give to (your poor brother), and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings." (Deuteronomy 15:10)
As you might expect, there are those who take these verses which seem to indicate a "return" on our giving, and they encourage others to "give in order to get." They often encourage such by saying, "You can't outgive God!" or "God's shovel is always bigger than your shovel," etc. Sometimes they indicate that if you give to them, God promises to give back ten or a hundred times as much.
"Honor the Lord from your wealth, and from the first of all your produce; So your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine." (Proverbs 3:9,10)
"There is one who scatters, yet increases all the more, and there is one who withholds what is justly due, but it results only in want. The generous man (lit. "soul of blessing") will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered. ...He who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like the green leaf." (Proverbs 11:24,25,28)
"He who sows iniquity will reap vanity,...He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor." (Proverbs 22:8,9)
"Sow with a view to righteousness, reap in accordance with kindness.... It is time to seek the Lord until He comes to rain righteousness on you." (Hosea 10:12)
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse...test Me now in this, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until there is no more need." (Malachi 3:10)
"When you give alms...your Father who sees in secret will repay you." (Matthew 6:4)
"Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For whatever measure you deal out to others it will be dealt to you in return." (Luke 6:38)
"If I give to the poor, and do not have love, it profits me nothing." (I Corinthians 13:3)
One fellow received an appeal letter from a religious organization which read, "If you will just give us $100, God will give you back ten times as much, $1000." The man responded by writing to the organization: "If you really believe what you say, then you send me the $100, and you can keep the $1000." What a way to expose the fraudulence of such a fund-raising scheme!
In their attempts to legitimize this idea of a ten or hundred-fold "return" they usually refer to what the Scripture says about "sowing bountifully and reaping bountifully." Some have referred to "seed-faith" giving, indicating that the seed-money you give will produce a hundred-fold harvest. The only problem is that it is a mutant seed that is sown! It is seed mixed with sinful, selfish desires of the flesh which produces only a crop of corruption as Paul expresses in Galatians 6:7-10.
There is no way that we can "prime the pump" and bribe God into giving us more "things" or everything we might want. Such a self-indulgent, "gimme" religion that promises health, wealth and success is foreign to the Christian gospel!
When Jesus was telling the parable of the sower and the soils recorded in Mark 4:3-20, He did speak of the seed which grew up and increased thirty, sixty and a hundred-fold. But He explained that the reason the seed does not increase in harvest is due to "the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things" (Mark 4:19). The "seed" He was referring to was not "seed-money," but the gospel of Jesus Christ!
There are an abundance of profiteering promoters promising people that if they will give to them, God will make them rich. "God wants you rich!" "Prosperity is your Divine Right!" "Live like a King's Kid!" They often use verses from II Corinthians 8 and 9 to "proof-text" their appeal. Does it not say that Jesus did what He did so you "might become rich?" (8:9) Does it not say that such giving "is to your advantage?" (8:10) Does it not say that you will "reap bountifully?" (9:6) Does it not say that "you will be enriched in everything for all liberality?" (9:11)
Paul was not referring to becoming rich or reaping a "return" materially or monetarily. If Paul had used the reasoning to these promoters why did he not just tell the poor saints in Jerusalem to give until it hurts out of their poverty, and God would make them rich? There would not have been any need for Paul to receive gifts from other Christians on their behalf. Such profiteering false-prophets today apparently presume that Paul was engaged in the same kind of "scam" they are involved in.
The Bible never says that God wants us rich materially or that wealth is some sort of slide-rule for measuring spirituality and God's blessing on our lives. On the contrary, God warns us about the "deceitfulness of riches" (Mark 14:8). Jesus said that you cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve God and mammon (riches)" (Luke 16:13). On another occasion Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:25). Paul advised Timothy that
"those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang. Flee from these things, you man of God; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness." (I Timothy 6:9-11)
The only riches God wants us to aspire for are the "true riches" (Luke 16:11), the "treasures of heaven" (Matthew 6:20), the "unfathomable riches of Christ" (Ephesians 3:8), the "riches of His grace" (Ephesians 1:7), the "riches of His glory" (Romans 9:23; Ephesians 3:16; Philippians 4:19; Colossians 1:27). When Paul writes that "we become rich" (II Corinthians 8:9), he is referring to the richness of the fullness of the character of God in the Christian. When he says "you will be enriched" (II Cor. 9:11), he is referring to "the harvest of righteousness" mentioned previously, the continued conformity to the image and character expression of Jesus Christ in the Christian. So the "sowing and reaping" imagery that Paul employs is not a "giving in order to get" or giving in order to get rich.
To "sow" in Biblical times was to take some seed in one's hand and to "let it go" and thus scatter it in the places where it might grow. To "sow" is to "let it go," give it up, and it appears that it is lost forever. The growing of that seed and the harvesting of that seed is not our business; that is the business of God's grace. We simply choose to "let go" of that which we know is God's already.
As noted, the principle of "sowing and reaping" and the idea of getting a "return" on our giving is so easily perverted by those who think with merely a temporal perspective, those who think only in terms of tangible things and dollars and cents. The Scriptures do not indicate that our giving will elicit from God a re-compensation, a re-payment or a replenishing in direct proportion, or in greater measure, than that which we have given. The Scriptures do indicate that the spiritual derivation of our sowing will determine the spiritual derivation of our reaping. If we plant, sow, give in accord with His character, then we will reap, harvest and be supplied in accord with His character. If our giving is an expression of God's character of grace and love, and expression of His "good blessing," then the return will be likewise, the "good blessings" of His character of righteousness and holiness and godliness.
The return of Christian giving is a spiritual return, and not necessarily a material return. The return is the continued receipt of God's grace that prompted genuine Christian giving in the first place. It is not for us to be overly preoccupied with the "return" anyway. We are just responsible to be available channels of God's grace by faithful receptivity of His activity. We just "sow," let it go, and what comes up is God's business. It is impossible for us to evaluate the proportionality of the "return," especially if we do not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:3).
The return on Christian giving is a continued and fuller appreciation of the fullness of blessing that we have in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3), the joy of being vessels through whom God is working and fulfilling His intent for the functionality of our humanity.
©1999 by James A. Fowler
This is a sequence of articles. Though they were intended to be read in order, each article also stands alone. We've numbered them below so that you may choose to read them in sequential order.
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