The Generosity MATRIX, part 1

Here is the beginning of a blog I posted almost two years ago. The issue of generosity seems to habitually come up as we become immersed further in the truths of the gospel. For a number of years God has really been dealing with me on what generosity needs to look like in the life of my family and our church.

There seem to be 2 extremes when it comes to how Christians view their relationship with their possessions.

Extreme #1: God wants 10%; after that you can do whatever you want with your money. After the tithe, you’ve done your duty. In fact, many Christians believe that giving 10% is a key to getting God to make you even richer. If you will honor God with 10%, they say, He will heap more and more riches upon, all of which you should enjoy as His thanks for your obedience. This position is not just wrong; it is unchristian, for two major reasons.

1) This position turns God into a servant that you use to increase your wealth. You tip God, not worship Him.

2) This position sanctions a lifestyle directed at acquisition of stuff for yourself. People who believe this about money are not living as disciples of Jesus.

Extreme #2: God’s only intention for our money is that we give it away to the poor or for world evangelization. Thus, if there’s something you could give away and still survive, you should give it away. Each of your “luxuries” is the blood of the poor. After all, Jesus gave up everything for us, did He not! Are you giving up as much for the nations as He gave up for you? Those pictures on your wall? Could have fed 10 orphans in India for a month. The $87 you spend a month on AC in your home could have clothed 132 kids and put a roof on 6 African churches. Do you really love your AC more than you love the orphan’s life, you glutted, overfed, disgusting, materialistic American?

I’ve heard this described (by some) as a “wartime” mentality. In war, it is said, you strip yourself of all luxuries to provide resources for the battle, and you and melt down all your “metal” for bullets.

Do you remember that really stirring scene in the movie Schindler’s List where Liam Neeson looks at his watch and remorsefully says, “This watch… this watch could have freed 2 Jews…” This position sees the only value of its possessions as what it can do for the poor or for world evangelization. Proponents say things like, “If your kids were starving, wouldn’t you liquidate your retirement to feed them? If your children were sold in the sex trade, wouldn’t you give up everything you had to rescue them?”

I find this position inspiring (and MUCH better than the first position, to note), but ultimately also out of balance. It led me to despair, and gave me a constant, unbiblical guilt angst about my stuff. Let me explain:

  • First, I don’t know where you “end” this kind of thinking. I feel like I could always have given more. Think about it-in war, if I had no bullets and the enemy was coming for my family, I would melt down all my spoons and eat with my hands so I could have bullets to defend them. Well, in this “war” I’m in on earth, there are always more lost people and the “poor we have always with us” (John 12:8). In other words, there are always more bullets “needed.” If my children had been sold in the slave trade, and giving up my last meal and starving myself so that they could be fed and free, I would gladly do it.

But most proponents of the view, I have noticed, still have spoons. Do they really care more about their precious spoons than they do lost souls in the Sudan? If not, why not do without them? They could survive without spoons!

Sometimes this group will say “live on necessities, and give away any excess.” But then I think, “What exactly is excess? Who am I comparing myself too? Anything but unheated rice and beans, twice a day, would be excess compared to a kid in India.” If you had a turkey and desserts for Thanksgiving dinner, then you ate, by a lot of world standards, excessively! If you take a hot shower each morning, or if you have a Christmas tree, or are getting your kids anything for Christmas, you have not really “given your excess.”

500 years ago John Calvin noted the never-ending trajectory of this type of thinking: “If a man begins to doubt whether he may use linen for his sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs, and napkins, he will afterward be uncertain also about hemp… For he will turn over in his mind whether he can sup without napkins, or go without handkerchief. If any man should consider daintier food unlawful, in the end he will not be at peace before God, when he eats either black bread or common victuals, while it occurs to him that he could sustain his body on even coarser foods. If he boggles at sweet wine, he will not with clear conscience drink even flat wine, and finally he will not dare touch water if sweeter and cleaner than other water.”[1]

  • Secondly, I find this position to be out of sync with a number of places the Bible teaches about possessions, and even assumes a God-like role in regards to the poor. I’ll get to that more below.
  • Thirdly, this position ends up being, for all its spiritualized language, a form of “compulsory” giving, which Paul says is not God’s way of motivating us to give (2 Cor 8-9). When you say, “good, radically generous Christians give,” and people go out and give because they want to feel like good, radical Christians, they have given under compulsion, the compulsion of wanting to earn the identity of “good Christian.” When you say, “only radically generous Christians are really saved,” and people rush out to give to prove they are saved, they have given under the worst possible compulsion: the compulsion of works-righteousness.

In contrast to both of these extremes, I think Scripture teaches us to view our possessions through a matrix (cue now your ‘red pill’/’blue pill’ imagery and a disturbing mental image of Laurence Fishburne with that gap in his teeth). What do I mean by matrix? A matrix is a set of principles we must hold in tension. We like rules, formulas, and black and white prescriptions. Instead, the Bible gives complementary values we should prize in our hearts. Individual decisions arise out of processing them through that matrix. Stay tuned to view the actual matrix (not the movie) in part 2.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (1559, reprinted Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:839.

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