Generous Giving (2 Cor 8:1-5)
I’ve already devoted two meditations to the opening verses of 2 Corinthians 8, but there is yet more to mine from this deep well of spiritual riches. Let’s look again at Paul’s words as he seeks to stir the Corinthians to a generosity equal to that of the Macedonians:
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints – and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us” (2 Cor. 8:1-5).
I once heard John Piper sum up the spiritual dynamics of this text by saying: Grace comes down, Joy rises up, and Generosity flows out. The sequence is crucial.
Grace must initiate all giving that glorifies God, otherwise we would take pride and praise for our support of others. This grace alone accounts for genuine joy. Otherwise joy is misplaced and degenerates when circumstances turn bad. Finally, grace-given joy is always other-oriented. Having germinated in the soil of grace, it blooms in generous bounty to those in need. Such is the nature of true love. Again, Piper put it best:
"When poverty-stricken Macedonians beg Paul for the privilege of giving money to other poor saints, we may assume that this is what they want to do, not just ought to do, or have to do, but really long to do. It is their joy – an extension of their joy in God. To be sure, they are 'denying themselves' whatever pleasures or comforts they could have from the money they give away, but the joy of extending God's grace to others is a far better reward than anything money could buy. The Macedonians have discovered the labor of Christian Hedonism: love! It is the overflow of joy in God which gladly meets the needs of others” (Desiring God, 104).
Two prominent features of godly giving have already been noted: it is rooted in grace and revels in joy. There is yet a third characteristic of the giving that was generated by grace in Macedonia: it was extraordinarily generous.
But wait. How can poor people be generous? Is Paul merely playing with words when he speaks of a “wealth of generosity” flowing out from the Macedonians to the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem? What are we to make of this?
Needless to say, if the monetary gift of the Macedonians were measured strictly in quantitative terms, it would fall far short of what other churches, including the one in Corinth, might provide. $100 will always be more, mathematically speaking, than $10, and Paul is not so dull as to deny this obvious truth.
What made the Macedonian gift so generous, such that it could rightly be called “wealth”, was the fact that it came from people who themselves were in the very depths of poverty. When measured proportionately, that is to say, in the light of how much was available to them, it far exceeded what anyone might have expected.
This, of course, is precisely the point Jesus was making in the famous story of the widow and her two copper coins:
“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on’” (Luke 21:1-4).
A further word of explanation is in order here, for Paul’s language is nothing short of outrageously provocative. The word translated “poverty” in v. 2 is ptocheia and of itself signifies extreme destitution. But Paul doesn’t stop there, adding the stunning qualification kata bathos, which means “down to the depth” or “ever-deeper poverty” or “rock-bottom poverty” (Barrett, 216). The “severe test of affliction,” most likely a reference to persecution, had undoubtedly contributed greatly to their extreme financial plight.
This oppressive suffering, far from crushing their hearts or creating despair or cultivating bitterness, became the occasion not simply for “joy” but “abundance” (!) of joy. When they chose to participate in this ministry of mercy, it was no grudging concession to a moral obligation but a spontaneous eruption of delight.
When Paul says that “they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means” (v. 3a), he is telling us that they looked at their ability to give, took into consideration both their present situation and their future needs and obligations, and then showed total disregard for both!
This is not because they were foolish. Undoubtedly they knew the consequences for themselves and willingly embraced them. In all likelihood, they first determined what they could reasonably give and then went above and beyond that amount. They were able to take this approach because grace was operative in their hearts. Whatever financial lack their giving might have induced would be more than compensated by an abundance of grace and spiritual joy. And if you are tempted to dismiss this as so much religious hyperbole that ignores the harsh realities of physical deprivation, I can only say that you have not yet seen the eternal beauty nor tasted of the sweetness of the Savior as the Macedonians obviously had.
And again, attributing this marvelous act of beneficence to divine grace in no way diminishes the moral value of what was done, for Paul insists that they gave not because they felt compelled or coerced but “of their own free will” (v. 3b), that is to say, voluntarily and without any coercion from Paul or the people in Jerusalem.
They didn't contribute out of greed, as do so many in our own day, having been assured by some unscrupulous evangelist that giving guarantees a multiplied return. It wasn’t a guilty conscience that drove them, as if great monetary sacrifice might somehow make up for sins previously committed. And it certainly wasn’t because Paul intimidated them or employed manipulative tactics of pressure and fear. In fact, to make this point with crystal clarity, Paul tells us that he refused to ask them for money for the collection, knowing full well their financial condition. He would never have dreamed of taking up an offering.
Permit me to speculate, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that as he was on the verge of closing the meeting with prayer (well, that’s the way we’d do it today), loud shouts of urgent and insistent protest would have come from these Christians: “No, Paul, you can’t stop now. You have to pass the plate! Please, we beg you; don’t deprive us of the inestimable favor and joy of giving to our hurting brethren.”
Amazing! Most people beg to get money; the Macedonians beg to give money! Grace giving, indeed!
But the extent of their generosity was also to be measured by the depth of love and zeal in the hearts of these people for their brethren in Jerusalem, as seen in their sense of profound spiritual unity with them. The phrase translated “taking part in the relief of the saints” (v. 4b) is more literally, “the fellowship (or koinonia) of the ministry unto the saints.” They gave because they envisioned themselves as one people with the Jerusalem saints, a common body united by the indwelling Spirit through faith in one Lord Jesus Christ.
The wealth of their generosity was also measured by the extent of personal consecration: “they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us” (v. 5). They surrendered themselves wholly to God and then said to Paul, “We are at your disposal. Use us as you see fit to facilitate this collection. There is no way you can ask too much of us. How can we help?”
Let’s be honest. Our joy too often fluctuates in proportion to the size of our bank account. We’re happy to give ourselves to the Lord and to others when we’re healthy and all is well with the world. Severe trials and deprivation are interpreted as signs of God’s disfavor and the withdrawal of his grace. The Macedonians would beg to differ. Paul prayed that the Corinthians would learn much from their example. We can hardly afford to do less.