Not a Tax or a Tip but an Act of Trust
Christian churches typically have an offering as part of their worship services, with the Reformed tradition including this as a key part of the liturgy as a way to respond to God’s grace in our lives. In many ways, this offering (and the Christian discipline of giving tithes and offerings) is a radical act -- some might even think it’s strange. Because it is so radical, it can be misunderstood, as we might think about it akin to paying taxes or giving tips. Thinking of it these ways cause us to miss out on experiencing the benefits that God offers to us in this action, so it is important for us to consider how our offerings are not taxes or tips, but rather acts of trust that draw us closer to God.
Not a Tax
One danger could be to look at tithes and offerings as akin to a “tax” that we pay back to God -- Uncle Sam gets his portion of our paycheck, and God gets His. This is not surprising, as God commanded His people in the Old Testament to give the first 10% of their crops (their income at the time), which sounds a lot like a tax (for more on the practice of tithing in the Old Testament and how it relates to Christians today, see this blog post from 2016). This attitude is not helpful for a number of reasons.
First of all, I have never heard of someone who was excited and thankful about paying their taxes; it is something that we typically do begrudgingly! Proof of that is the fact that we often try to legalize deductions to lower the amount of tax that we pay. Similarly, I hear Christians debate and discuss whether they should tithe based on their net income or their gross income (with a common answer being whether we want God to bless our net or our gross!), as if we are trying to lower our “tithable” income. Some people do not like to pay taxes because they feel they have earned the money and thus should be able to keep it; others do not like to pay taxes because they think the government does not spend it wisely. Do we carry the same sort of perspectives towards our offerings?
Second, this attitude to giving also is very complicated when we start to think about how to do it correctly. It is not uncommon to discuss gross vs. net income and tithing, but I haven’t heard as much attention to other forms of income one might have as part of their compensation package. Should one tithe a portion of their retirement contributions from their employer (as this is basically deferred compensation) and the capital gains from these investments each year? Or do we wait until we withdraw these gains -- does God care if it is a Roth IRA or a normal IRA? What about HSA contributions or other benefits? Are those “tithe-free” benefits? In some ways, this perspective seems to be what the Pharisees had during Jesus’s ministry, as they were tithing on even the smallest crops (see Matthew 23:23) -- perhaps for fear that God would do an audit on them! If we view our tithes and offerings the same way, we may be so focused on giving enough to God that we no longer focus on doing what is right for our neighbor.
It is tough to be the cheerful giver that God intends for us to be (see 2 Corinthians 9:7) if we view our offerings like taxes. We will then likely give “just enough” to make sure we don’t get into trouble because we still think our money is ours and we are in the best position to judge how it should be used.
Not a Tip
While I have often thought about how Christians can view tithes and offerings akin to taxes, I recently talked with someone who noted that many Christians view their offerings like a tip. If we receive services and things are going well for us (i.e. we are able to pay our bills), we might throw a few dollars into the offering; if things are going really well and/or we really like what we have received, we might give a bit more. However, if the service is not quite up to our tastes, we are inclined not to give (or at least not as much). If we do not use a service, we likely wouldn’t leave a tip or gratuity, so if we miss a few weeks of church, we don’t feel the need to give while we were gone. This is similar to how we might give to other organizations as well; if things are good, we are in a good mood, we might give to the student from the local school or the Boy Scout or Girl Scout when they come to our door. We might view ourselves as being generous people as we give a little bit more than the average person, but it really has no positive effect on us or how we view our life (and finances).
God is not a dispenser of things that we want and need, but rather the one who has given us all things and enters into a relationship with us.We do not give “tips” to our family and friends, the people who care about us and love us, so we should not feel like we are “tipping” God.
An Act of Trust
The discipline of giving is not like a tax or a tip but rather an act of trust. In giving to God a portion of what we He has blessed us with, we say that we trust God and not ourselves or our money. While we think that finances can provide safety and security, we know that ultimate safety and security come through God- - therefore, we proclaim that God, not money, is our Lord (Matthew 6:24). As we give money, we ask Him to continue to provide for us as He has in the past (2 Corinthians 9:7-11), knowing that our strength to earn money is given to us by Him (see Deuteronomy 8:17-18) and that ultimately, everything in this world belongs to Him (see Psalm 24:1).
We also give our money away because we know that riches and money have a way of stirring up sin in our hearts (see Matthew 13:22; 1 Timothy 6:9-10); we can’t necessarily trust ourselves when we have money, which is why Jesus says it is hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom (Mark 10:24). The offering thus is a way to “free us from the love of money” and remember that it is God who promises to never leave us nor forsake us (see Hebrews 13:5-6). What we do with our money is a reflection of what our hearts desire (Matthew 6:21), and when we give our riches away, we reflect a heart that not only desires to know God more, but also to become more like God of Jesus Christ, who being rich became poor for our sake (2 Corinthians 8:9). When we give our money away for the sake of the gospel, we give away what will perish to see things happen that will last into eternity -- it is the ultimate investment!
So let us view the offering not as a place to pay our taxes or give a tip but rather as an act of trusting God to continue to provide for us and to be at work in the world in making people whole again.
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