Giving that Gets in order to Give (2) (2 Cor. 9:7)
What thoughts fill your mind as you sign a check made payable to your local congregation? When an offering is collected for support of a church planting effort in Thailand, do you give grudgingly (“I’m getting tired of them asking me for money; they must think I’m a millionaire”), from guilt (“The last time I said no, and used the money on a new car”), or gladly (“Praise God for this glorious expansion of the gospel where it has yet to be preached!”)?
When you heard of the massive needs of Christians in New Orleans, devastated by hurricane Katrina, was your heart paralyzed with fear that excessive giving might cast you into the throes of poverty? Could you think only of that new computer that would now be out of your financial reach or that family vacation that would have to be postponed?
These are uncomfortable, but unavoidable, questions. There’s no escaping the fact that when it comes to money, motivation matters.
Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 9:7 may well be the most famous of all biblical texts on the subject of giving and Christian stewardship. If so, it is certainly deserving of this honor. “Each one must give as he has made up his mind,” writes the apostle, “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (v. 7).
In the previous meditation we saw that one of the primary factors in determining whether or not a gift is bountiful and generous is the mind of the giver, which is to say, the spirit or intent or attitude that moves one to give. Here in v. 7 Paul provides an explicit explanation of what that mind must be. But first we must take note of two preliminary points.
Observe first that giving is a universal responsibility. “Each one,” says Paul, which is to say every one, should be energetically engaged in this act of stewardship (see also 1 Corinthians 16:2). No one is exempt. Indeed, why would they want to be?
Second, the phrase “as he has made up his mind” employs a verb found only here in the NT. Its focus is on personal deliberation and freedom of choice. Giving is never to be impulsive or careless or lacking in preparation and planning. Think about what you are doing. More importantly, think about why you are doing it. Pray about it. Plan it. Pursue it in a calculated and intentional way.
We now come to the three critical elements in all Christian giving, the first two of which are negative in force while the third is more positive.
First, sowing a bountiful seed, the sort that reaps a corresponding bountiful harvest, must be devoid of reluctance. Others translate this word “with regret” or “grudgingly” or “out of sorrow.” Paul’s point is that our giving must never be accompanied by a sense of loss or by the sorrow that comes from thinking about what we otherwise might have done with the money. If your giving is characterized by grief over what you might have gotten had you kept the money for yourself, God is not pleased. If your giving is accompanied by fantasies of the physical and material comforts that might otherwise have been obtained, God is not pleased.
Second, neither is God pleased when we give under the gun, or to use Paul’s phrase, under compulsion. Are we concerned about what the church treasurer will think when he issues our end-of-year giving statement? Do we give to impress pastoral leaders and others in the church with our generosity? Do we give in the same way we pay our income tax, from a sense of legal obligation or even fear of criminal prosecution? Do we give because everyone else does? Paul doesn’t want the awkwardness or pressure of the moment to influence their decision. He doesn’t want the weight of his apostolic authority to exert undue influence on their choice.
One would almost think that such factors ought to be irrelevant. After all, what’s important is that the people in Jerusalem are helped. What’s crucial is that they receive the monetary aid that will alleviate their suffering. What does it matter what those who give are thinking? Is motivation all that important? Does the intent of the heart really affect the moral value of the act?
The only way to answer that question is by looking at the third characteristic of Christian giving. We must be diligent to avoid monetary regret when we give and we must never contribute under compulsion “for God loves a cheerful giver”!
The word translated “cheerful” has been the basis for countless sermons and extravagant illustrations. Yes, as you have no doubt heard, it is the Greek word, hilaron, from which is derived the term “hilarious”. No, you cannot use the meaning of our English word “hilarious” to interpret Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 9:7. In other words, you can’t define the Greek hilaron in light of the English hilarious. This would be to commit a fallacy known as semantic anachronism. This is when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature. Semantic anachronism would be interpreting the meaning of the first century Greek word, as used by Paul, by an appeal to the meaning of the twenty-first century English word, as it is understood by you and me.
Unfortunately, preachers also make this mistake with the Greek word for power, dunamis, from which is derived the English term dynamite. No, you can’t appeal to what dynamite means or how it is used in our language to provide insight into what it meant in Paul’s language. But we must move on.
Needless to say, if God loves a cheerful giver, he is displeased when people give but don’t do it gladly, even if their giving is generous in terms of quantity. “When people don’t find pleasure (Paul's word is ‘cheer’!) in their acts of service, God doesn’t find pleasure in them” (John Piper, Desiring God, 104).
Does that mean if we don’t have joy we shouldn’t give at all? If I’m grumpy next Sunday or depressed or feeling especially guilty for sins committed, do I have a legitimate excuse not to give? After all, I don’t want to incur God’s displeasure! No.
Whereas joyless giving is certainly less than ideal, it is better than not giving at all. But don’t stop there. Never be content with fulfilling a duty in the absence of delight. Let me suggest a few steps you should take.
First of all, confess the sin of joylessness. Joylessness, writes John Ortberg, “is a serious sin”(The Life You’ve Always Wanted [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997], p. 68). Acknowledge the coldness and indifference of your heart. Don't pretend that it doesn't matter how you feel. It matters not only to you but especially to God.
Second, pray earnestly and passionately for a revelation of God’s splendor and beauty and majesty and sweetness and all-satisfying, all-sufficient goodness. Plead with the Holy Spirit to grant you spiritual ears that you might hear the Father rejoicing over you with loud and boisterous singing (Zephaniah 3:17). Ask the Holy Spirit to grant you spiritual eyes that you might again see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Third, map out a biblical strategy for renewing your joy. Or, as Jonathan Edwards once said, “Lay yourself in the way of allurement.” Posture your life in that place where God is more likely to be found. Walk down the path where he has promised he will be encountered in life-changing and powerful ways. Avail yourself of those activities and means wherein the likelihood is increased that your heart will be captivated by the beauty and splendor of God.
In other words, immerse yourself in his Word, meditating daily on his promises and ingesting the infallible truths he has revealed. Go often to the Table of the Lord, so that by partaking of the elements of wine and bread the Spirit might awaken you to the glory of the finished work of the cross and sanctify you by his quickening presence. Remind yourself often of the reality of forgiveness, the glory of justification, the certainty of heaven, and the manifold blessings that God has provided in Christ.
Fourth, think about hell! Yes, you read it correctly. Think about hell. Among his personal resolutions, Jonathan Edwards included the following: "Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell" (The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Letters and Personal Writings, Vol. 16, ed. George S. Claghorn [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998], p. 754). You’ll be amazed at how a brief time of meditation on the agonies of hell, from which you have been so graciously delivered, will serve to increase and deepen your joy and gratitude!
Fifth, and finally, go ahead and give generously anyway. Fulfill the outward dimension of your duty in prayerful hope and expectation that it will help to rekindle the inward delight. No, this is not hypocrisy, because you are doing the outward act hoping to regain the inward joy, not as a substitute for it or as disguise to convince others you mean it when in fact you don’t.
“Cheerful” giving is neither frivolous nor foolish, and does not require that one laugh hilariously as the plate passes by. The “cheerful” giver is the one whose heart is rapturously filled with the knowledge of the goodness and greatness of God, whose mind is captivated by the beauty of Christ, whose soul is satisfied with all that we have in him, and who, in spite of all adversity and in defiance of every circumstance, rejoices with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). Such a giver God loves!