The church does a lot of things well, but one area where we sometimes drop the ball is money.
I have seen rich leaders use threats to extort money from poor people. I’ve encountered churches that publicly name and shame non-tithers. And I know struggling families that borrow from loan sharks to pay their tithes and avoid being named and shamed.
None of this is new.
Remember how Jesus marvelled at the widow who gave her last two coins to the temple treasury? It wasn’t her generosity that impressed him, but the power of religion to extract every last penny from our pockets.
She put in all she had to live on. (Mark 12:44)
Which brings me to today’s scripture. You’re sitting in church and it’s time to take up the collection and you hear the following:
He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully (2 Corinthians 9:6)
In context, Paul is talking about financial giving, so it’s perfectly legitimate to use this scripture when asking for money. But here are three takeaways that Paul never intended:
Bad takeaway #1: “Give financially, and God will bless you financially.”
In other words, you can purchase God’s favor. Nothing could be further from the truth. The blessings of God are not for sale but are freely given on account of his grace.
“Give and God will reward you.” Although there are rewards to giving, it is wrong to suggest that God will supply all your needs according to the size of your contribution. Read Philippians 4:19 if this is news to you.
Bad takeaway #2: “You can’t out give God, so expect a big payback!”
“Give to God (i.e., the church, my ministry, my Bible theme park) and you will get a 30-fold, 60-fold, even a 100-fold return.” So if you give $10, you could get $1000 back in a divine wealth transfer. What a terrific investment!
Honestly, it’s a wonder the Federal Trade Commission doesn’t clamp down on claims like these.
Sidebar: Have you ever wondered why those promising big returns for giving don’t follow their own advice? If they did and it worked, they wouldn’t have to ask for money. And it didn’t work, they have no business making these promises.
“Okay, Paul, but what about Malachi 3:10 where God says ‘Test me in this and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing’?”
See the cross. God has already opened the floodgates of heaven. They could not be more open than they already are. They are not open because you gave, but because he did. Every blessing is ours in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Thank you, Jesus.
Bad takeaway #3: “Sow generously, even if you can’t afford it.”
In other words, widow, hand over your grocery money. The exploitation of the poor by religion is an ancient disgrace. As Jesus said, “Beware of the chief priests who devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40).
If you give your food money to a rich minister because you have been led to believe you will magically end up with more money, you are in for a rude surprise. Yes, I know there will be some who say, “I gave all I had and God blessed me!” But those are exceptions to the rule, and this is not what Paul is talking about here. He is not encouraging hungry widows to give what they can’t afford.
Sparingly means spare
Let’s take another look at 2 Corinthians 9:6. A key word in this passage is sparingly. “He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly.”
Picture a farmer who has a ton of seed but only sows a tenth of it. He is left with a lot of spare seed. What’s going to happen at harvest time? He will have a tiny harvest. If he had sowed the lot, he would’ve reaped ten times as much.
The point is this: the more you sow, the more you reap. Pretty obvious, right?
In context, Paul is talking about giving to the poor. I appreciate that’s not obvious at first glance, but when Paul speaks of “your service to the saints” and “supplying the needs of the saints” (see 2 Cor. 9:1, 12), he’s talking about giving to help the starving Christians in Jerusalem.
So this has nothing to do with building cathedrals or buying a jet for your favorite evangelist. It’s about helping starving widows, some of whom were hungry because they had put all their food money in the temple treasury!
Okay, next verse:
And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)
Note the order: God blesses you abundantly, then out of that abundance you are able to bless others. God leads and we respond. I know that’s deep theology right there. Some people can’t see it because they read it backwards, as in, you give abundantly then God will bless you.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Back to the farmer. The farmer’s job is to sow the seed, but where does the seed come from?
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Corinthians 9:10)
Are you getting this? God gives you seed and then you choose whether to sow that seed sparingly or bountifully. It’s up to you. It’s your seed.
It’s very important that you get this lest you find yourself at the temple treasury giving your food money away in the hope of winning a pay out from that divine slot machine in the sky.
In context, Paul is talking about giving to poor Christians, but the principle of sowing and reaping is universal. In much of life, you get back what you put in.
Let me give you two examples. Example 1: I once gave fifty bucks to a ministry that shelters and cares for victims of sex trafficking. Example 2: I helped fundraise over a hundred thousand dollars to build a kindergarten in Mongolia that provides hot meals and health care to under-privileged kids in the impoverished ger district of Ulan Bator.
Both were legitimate and important ministries, but guess which investment had the bigger payback for me personally? You got it – it’s the one where I was more deeply invested.
To recap, Paul is not saying “give out of your poverty and God will be obliged to repay more than you gave.” What a greedy, selfish message! He’s saying, “If you think raising funds to feed starving saints in Jerusalem is a worthwhile project, then give out of your abundance and don’t hold back.”
What’s in it for me?
Okay, all well and good. But I know what you’re thinking. “Where’s the payback? What do I get out of this?” Paul tells us:
Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. (2 Corinthians 9:13-14)
When you give out of the grace that God has given you, the result is praise to your heavenly Father and gratitude for you. If that is not a worthwhile return, I don’t know what is.
I like to imagine the Corinthians responded enthusiastically to Paul’s message. “Brothers and sisters are starving? Let’s help!” But who knows. The Corinthians were famously stingy. Paul had to appeal to their better nature and competitive instincts (see 2 Cor. 9:2-4).
We live in a world full of needs and we have to choose wisely how we respond.
Perhaps your church is pivoting to adapt to a post-Covid world.
Perhaps your neighbors are struggling because they’ve lost their jobs.
Perhaps you have been moved by the healthcare disasters unfolding in India and Nepal.
There are so many worthy opportunities out there that it’s easy to go numb and lock the wallet. But no one will praise your heavenly Father if you do that.
We need to give – it’s in our DNA. And there will be times when you encounter an opportunity to help others while making an impact for the gospel.
When that happens, follow Paul’s advice and sow generously.
Give out of your abundance and don’t hold back.
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