Joyful Giving (2 Cor. 8:1-2)
I want you to think with me today on how the Bible functions in our lives. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (emphasis mine). All this so that you and I “may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
So let me come straight to the point. I’m thoroughly reproved by 2 Corinthians 8:1-2! Other translations render this word “rebuke”, and yes, I’m thoroughly rebuked as well! Of course, the only way I can be reproved and rebuked by what Paul wrote is if it first teaches me the truth. It certainly does that. And the aim of being reproved and rebuked isn’t that I would languish in guilt and self-condemnation but rather, being corrected in how I think and behave, I would be trained in righteousness. Only then will I experience a measure of competency for the many good works to which God calls me.
That is what I mean when I speak about the functional authority of Scripture. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, it actually exerts a transforming influence on how I think and feel and behave. And as I said, it does this with extreme, and often excruciating, efficiency in 2 Corinthians 8:1-2. Look with me at Paul’s words:
“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” (2 Cor. 8:1-2).
I read that and shake my head, less with disbelief and more with disgust at my own selfish and shortsighted perspective on life here and hereafter. Don’t console me with the assurance that I’m being excessively hard on my own soul. I need Scripture to do this to me, for in being rebuked and reproved by what I see in the example of the Macedonians I’m awakened to the unending pleasure and effusive joy that are available through God’s grace as I am taught and trained to rest in the all-sufficiency of who he is for me in Christ Jesus.
Let me explain what I mean. I’ve never known poverty, and my exposure to affliction, at least when compared to what the majority of Christians in the world have endured, has been minimal. Yet, the way I respond to financial stress and other such trials is embarrassing, especially in the way it affects my relationship toward others.
I confess to having used affliction and hardship as an excuse not to give to those in need. Suffering seems like the perfect reason why people should be generous to me, but hardly an occasion for me to be generous to them. Financial stress, in particular, all too often breeds self-pity. It turns our attention inwardly, to self, and an obsessive concern for our own welfare. And it doesn’t stop there, typically leading to envy of those whose troubles are significantly less than ours and bitterness towards God for not alleviating our pain.
The sort of troubles that plagued the Macedonians can also produce a sense of entitlement as we wonder why others are not taking notice of our plight and offering to us what we are persuaded is our right as the children of God.
Are you beginning to see why this passage has the effect on me that it does? Paul describes their “severe test of affliction” and “extreme poverty” and yet points us to their “wealth of generosity” toward the saints in Jerusalem. The very people who, at least to my way of self-indulgent and sinful thinking, ought themselves to have been the recipients of the generosity of others are here described as the donors!
When I’m in need I presumptuously expect others to jump to my aid. But not the Macedonians. That’s what makes Paul’s citing of them so profoundly painful, yet powerful in challenging how I think and life-changing in what I value most.
Something had happened in the hearts of these people that runs counter to all common sense and cross grain to every fleshly impulse of self-preservation. It is as if the fast-flowing current in their souls had not simply been diverted but reversed. Something supra-human had inverted their values, turning their thinking on its head and their behavior topsy-turvy. Here’s how John Piper put it:
"How did such countercultural and counter-natural behavior come about? How were the Christians freed from the natural love of money and comfort? Part of the answer in verse 2 is that their abundance of joy overflowed. Joy in something else had severed the root of joy in money. They had been freed by joy to give to the poor. But where did this powerful, unearthly joy come from? The answer is that it came from the grace of God. . . . What the Corinthians [as well as you and I] are supposed to learn from this story is that the same grace that was given in Macedonia is available now in Corinth" (Future Grace, 71-72).
More than this, God wants us to know that the same grace given in Macedonia and available in Corinth is still operative and available to us today.
O.K., so the grace of God awakened and sustained a joy in them that liberated their hearts from selfish dependence on what they had formerly believed only money and physical comfort could achieve. But joy in what? In whom?
Perhaps God had a struck a secret deal with the Macedonians, making a behind-the-scenes promise that if they would provide other Christians with this stunning example of generosity he would deliver them from their affliction and bless them with riches untold. Only the most cynical or uninformed would offer such a ridiculous and unbiblical theory. The whole point of the passage is not that financial blessing had resulted in their joy but that their joy in something other than money had issued in a financial blessing . . . for others!
So what is it that accounts for this joy? I can only surmise from the rest of God’s Word that grace had drawn them to the well of eternal life and had given them to drink of the ever-refreshing, soul-satisfying water that is Jesus Christ. To use the words of the psalmist, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7).
Money had made its promises to the Macedonians, and it all seemed so reasonable, so right. It had assured them that if they would give their hearts to what it could provide, and consider all the discomfort and inconvenience and anxiety from which it could protect them, unbroken happiness would inevitably follow. That’s the principle that drives our society and undergirds every commercial advertisement.
But they said, No. This wasn’t because of some inherent virtue in poverty or, worse still, a perverted attraction to pain and distress. It was because grace had opened their eyes to the splendor of Jesus! Grace had imparted a taste for the sweetness of the Son of God! The alluring aroma of money and safety was replaced by the superior fragrance of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord!
Grace had done its work in them, even as it had in those believers who “joyfully accepted the plundering” of their property, knowing that they “had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34). Joy germinated in the soil of knowledge and trust. Grace made known the incomparable beauty of seeing God in Christ and the grip of greed was broken.
Some (many?) of you reading this are even now suffering as did, or even worse than, the Macedonians. Perhaps it has caused you to conclude that grace has lifted or is absent altogether. The more the affliction, the less the grace, right? Paul would have us think otherwise. Financial lack and the affliction it brings is not necessarily a sign of divine displeasure. It may well be a divinely orchestrated platform for the dispersal of extraordinary mercy from God and equally extraordinary and fearless generosity from you and me.
I stand reproved. That’s what the inspired Word can do. But thanks be to God that it doesn’t leave me there. I’m alerted to the dry and “broken cisterns” on which I’ve foolishly relied so that I might be directed to God, “the fountain of living waters” (Jer. 2:13). Grace rebukes my carnal trust in riches and leads me to the one in whose presence is “fullness of joy,” at whose right hand are “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).