A Disciple’s Spiritual Fitness Course, Pt. 8
Study Guide, June 4, 2023
Pastor Clay Olsen
With Summer almost upon us, one of the things that Summer is supposed to be a time for is for extra reading. I remember Zig Ziglar once saying that we pretty much remain the same except for the books we read and the people we befriend. Pretty interesting, right? How about this, have you read any Shakespeare before? That’s pretty heady stuff…some of you are probably versed in some of Shakespeare’s works. But, if you recall, one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes was…“To tithe, or not to tithe…that is the question”. Wasn’t that the question? ‘To tithe’ or maybe it was ‘To be’…it’s easy to get those mixed up. But either way, as long as you brought it up…let’s explore the issue, not just the tithing issue itself, but the whole discipline of giving. Because as we clearly see in the Scriptures, giving to the Lord’s cause of building up His church and building up His Kingdom is simply one the exercises we are called to do in order to be spiritually fit. So let’s return to our Spiritual Fitness Course.
First, we just have to review the theme passage again, because that’s what you do in getting spiritually fit…like being physically fit, you review and repeat the exercises over and over. So here we go…1 Tim 4:8-9- “Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next. This is true, and everyone should accept it.” NLT
We have walked through the previous four disciplines of B (Bible study training) and the I (Intercessory prayer) and the B (Body life and service) and the S (Sower of Gospel seeds), and now we come to the G: the discipline of Giving: tithes and offerings. And since there is much confusion about this discipline, we need to carefully unpack this one. It’s like I heard about a family that attended a church where they always took up the offering at the end of the service. And one Sunday as the service began, the little boy said to his Dad, “Umm, Dad…if we just give him the money now, will he let us go?” Yeah, this little guy had a lot to learn about the purpose of tithes and offerings…as do many others.
Martin Luther used to say, “The last thing to be converted in a man is his pocketbook.” Personally, I’m always a bit reluctant to teach about the discipline of giving…it’s just filled with so many misconceptions by people about the church’s motives, and they’re just after people’s money, and stuff like that… Actually, studies show that 85% of pastors are uncomfortable preaching, teaching, or talking about money. So a lot of guys are reluctant about it…And oddly enough, more than 90% of seminaries in America over the last 30 years have not taught a biblical approach to personal and church finances. Over the years I’ve had to go to Biblical Financial seminars, as well as study through Scriptural Financial courses and so on for that information.
But again, most of us are not all that eager to teach on this subject of ‘Giving’. But here’s something even more unusual. Did you know that there are 2,350 verses in the Bible that speak about finances and material possessions? Bible researchers point out that Jesus spoke more about finances to people than any other subject! The Lord was more than eager to teach about the discipline of giving. So actually, to be a little more faithful, we ought to be teaching on the discipline of finances and giving more often than we do. And for the evangelical Christian crowd, most of us would be just fine with that, because here’s some good news about it all.
The Barna Research Group has found that overall, only 3 to 5 percent of the people who donate money to a church “tithe” from their income, that is, give 10 percent or more to religious organizations and ministries. But that’s not the good news. The good news is that they found that among the most generous segments though were evangelical Christians, of whom some 24% tithed. So we could say, to evangelical churches like ours, “Way to Go to you 24 percenters!” Some other evangelical Christians must make up that other 76 percent… But really, the Chapel has been extremely blessed to have so many generous and sacrificial givers! We have been and are able to have an amazing outreach and impact in both local missions and foreign missions, as well as assisting so many in need, all because so many in the Chapel family have such a heart for giving to God’s Kingdom work, and some in simply extraordinary ways.
On the other hand, Barna found some challenging and sobering results to their study, like: Giving to religious causes, in general, is declining; giving to churches, overall, is declining, the average annual amount of money donated to churches, per person, is declining, and basically fewer people donate as a habit of their lifestyle.
But as we see in the Scriptures, generous giving to the Lord and to the work of His Kingdom is simply supposed to be one of the solid habits that Disciples of Jesus have and that they regularly practice, and do so joyfully. In fact, it’s supposed to be one of the habits we look forward to, that we anticipate, and that we are anxious to do…to generously and cheerfully give to the Lord. Remember how Paul put it? “God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Cor 9:7
Okay, we know about that, but now let’s take a look behind the scenes of ‘Giving’ for a bit. You know, the deeper point about this issue of ‘Giving’ is that it’s not foremost about money, or even our stuff…No, it’s foremost about the heart of the follower of God. In fact, God revealed a striking lesson to His people about this practice of tithing. Look at this: the number one purpose that God had for training His people to practice this discipline of Giving to God’s work was this: are you ready… Here it is: Deut 14:23- “Bring this tithe to the place the LORD your God chooses for his name to be honored, and eat it there in His presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. The purpose of tithing is to teach you always to fear the LORD your God.” NLT
What? Wasn’t the tithe required because God needed the money, or in their case, their produce? No, it was like God saying to them, “It’s not that I need your tithe, it’s that you need to tithe in order to learn how to become what you need to become; a God-fearing person!” How about that? Maybe there’s more to this discipline of giving than we thought? Well, there is, and we could put it this way; Tithing, or proportional giving, as we’ll talk more about in another study, is an educational, transformational, and relational discipline. Let’s say that again…this practice of giving the first portion of our finances or our goods to God is an educational, transformational, and relational discipline for the Disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, we could just say, “Tithing changes us”! Either way you want to say it is okay, but this discipline has a powerful effect on our life. What God is pointing out to His followers is that this discipline of giving is a key part of the process of our becoming more and more transformed into being a God-fearing believer. It has a mega-impact on our attitude and our actions as a follower of our Creator and Redeemer.
Let’s take it a step further: “What is it in us that God is really after? He’s after our heart. And that is more of a challenge than one would imagine…because the reality is that there’s a lot of stuff in our heart competing for our devotion, competing for our affection, competing for our worship to God. Remember, the Psalmist knew this about himself, and so he prayed about it, “Lord, unite my heart to fear Thy name.” Ps 86:11 He knew that the tendency of his heart was to get all divided up. He sensed these competing pulls and tugs on his heart. There were areas in his heart that wrestled for pre-eminence, like the pull of pride, and of pleasure, and possessions. And he prayed for, he longed to sort of just get something like a rope that he could use to just tie up all of those areas in his heart, and then surrender them to God. He wanted to just get his heart united around his worship of God and his service for God, and to make all these other areas become submissive to the purposes of God.
Make careful note of this; from the beginning of mankind’s history there have been three competing areas in your heart, in the heart of man: pride, pleasure, and possessions. Properly used, they can be blessings. But improperly used, they become curses. Remember, the whole book of Ecclesiastes was to serve as the ultimate lesson to mankind of the ultimate experience of the improper use of them. It was the ultimate experiment, of each of these, along with the result of that experiment. And, of course, we know the result of this grand experiment. The resulting pronouncement was: “Vanity of vanities, emptiness, and striving after the wind”. Fortunately, the Teacher’s summary of this experiment was not the elimination of these things, but the surrender of each of them to the purposes of God and the glory of God. Remember the final conclusion of the experiment? Eccl 12:13-14- “The conclusion, when all has been heard is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” NASU
“Fear God and keep His commandments”. What does it mean to fear God? To fear God means to acknowledge the fact that in every good sense, all that we are, all that we have, and all that we will ever be is due to the grace and the mercy of God. To fear God also means to fully understand and submit to the fact that God is the complete Owner of our lives, and we will give an account to God for everything we have ever done with our lives, including our thoughts, words, and deeds, as well as how we handled those three areas of pride, pleasure, and possessions. Therefore, if we will live wisely, and successfully, we will surrender ever area of our life to God’s rightful ownership and rightful purposes, and rightful place as Lord over our lives.
But wait a minute, because there’s something more…and it includes knowing, as serious and sobering as this great accountability is that we have to God, it’s knowing that it is by fearing God in this way that it is also the most wonderful way to live life, because fearing God and keeping His commandments is the gateway to everything our soul could ever want or ever have or ever hope to be. Fearing God is the gateway to the blessings of God.
Let’s expand this a bit further: We were created to fear God, not in the sense of being afraid of God, but in the sense of wisely surrendering to His loving Shepherd-like control over our lives. Rather, what we ought to afraid of, is foolishly insisting on just living by our own sheep-like desires to be in control of the time, and the talents, and the treasures of our lives, instead of placing them all in the control of the great Shepherd of our lives. We ought to be afraid of our own wandering and of our own self-destructive tendencies. That’s what we need to be afraid of! Remember this key understanding of life: Your worst enemy resides within you…within your old sin-nature. It wants what it doesn’t really need; it thinks that it needs what it doesn’t really want; and it holds onto what it should really be letting go of! The ‘self-will’ in our old nature resists the only “Will” that can bring the utmost blessing, and that is, ‘God’s Will’.
At some point in our life, before it’s too late, like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes warned us about, we have to get it clearly figured out that God’s will for our life is the best possible life for us, both now and in the Kingdom experience that will follow this life. We have to get to the place where it is fully settled in our mind that we cannot improve on God’s commandments as the best possible way to live our life. And we have to get to the place where we realize that the only reason that we resist God’s will so often and so strongly is because our old sin nature is rebellious and foolish and self-destructive to the core! The sin-nature-natural-man is the enemy within us. Everything we think, feel, want, or do that is contrary to God’s will and His word for us is harmful to our own selves.
Solomon’s message from Ecclesiastes to us and to the world essentially is this: You don’t have to repeat that foolish experiment. It was the ultimate self-willed sheep wandering experiment. He already tried everything possible under the Sun to find meaning, fulfillment, and lasting value through self-pride, and through pleasures, and in possessions, and found it to be vanity of vanities, empty, and of no lasting value. So live wisely, while you have the chance. Choose another way: Surrender every area of your life to God! Surrender the control of every area of your life to the Shepherd. Follow His will and His word. Know that meaning, fulfillment, lasting value, and reward are found only in fearing God and keeping His commandments.
Remember, C.S. Lewis symbolized the whole book of Ecclesiastes in concocting one potion that he called, “Turkish delight”. Remember that in the Chronicles of Narnia? It represented the three areas of life that compete for the control of our lives – pride, pleasure, and possessions. But it was an addictive potion that only drew him more and more under the spell of the evil one who would destroy his soul.
The irony of this predicament of our old nature is that a simple adjustment turns these three cravings for self-pride, carnal pleasures, and covetous possessions from becoming destructive forces in our lives and others, to becoming constructive forces useful for God’s Kingdom and our own blessing. Here is the adjustment: From ‘self-pride’ detach the ‘self’ part and attach ‘in others’ to it; as in, ‘pride in others’. From ‘carnal pleasures’ detach the ‘carnal’ part and attach ‘godly’ to it; as in ‘godly pleasures’. From ‘covetous possessions’ detach the ‘covetous’ part and attach ‘blessed and available for the Master’s use’ to it; as in ‘possessions blessed and available for the Master’s use’.
Remember, the sin nature twists and tarnishes everything that God intended to use to bless us and to bless others for good. Like, the rightful use of pride is not to puff up and promote our own selves, but to build up and promote and be proud of our God and proud of other godly people and God honoring things. The rightful place of pleasure is not for the gratifying of the carnal nature, but for the enjoyment of all the good things that God has given us to enjoy and to share with others. And the rightful place of possessions, income, treasures, and such, is not for the satisfying of a coveting heart and controlling mind, but for the blessings from a benevolent God who likes to give good things to His children, and for His children to then make all these things available to the Master for His use for blessing others as He so directs us.
What’s the key concept in all of this? Master and Steward. It comes back to that identity issue again, and we’ll talk more about that next time, but how about this? I think it would really help all of us believers if we had a personal altar in our house. And then whenever we bring something home from, like the store, the first thing we do is we place it on that altar…and say something like, “Lord, You are the real Owner of this item. I am only the Steward of it. But You have blessed me with being able to have it, and I thank you for the blessing it is to me and my family, and I’m going to try to use it for Your glory. And if You want me to use it in some way in particular…just direct me, for it’s available for Your service.”
But really, wouldn’t it help us better understand the big picture? You bring a paycheck home, you go over to the altar and put in on the altar and you say, “Lord, this belongs to You. You are the Owner of all things. I am Your steward, the manager of this money that belongs to You. So direct me in how You want me to use this money of Yours. I’m going to cheerfully give the first portion of it to Your cause…to the building up of Your Church and Kingdom. And then, direct me in the wise use of the rest of it. And actually, Lord, I’m surprised You don’t claim more than the first portion, like the tithe and such.”
But you see the point, right? The first stop for all of our things; our possessions, our income, and so on…the first stop is God’s altar. Why? Because God owns it all anyway! We do not own anything. Rather, we are Gods’ Stewards of everything! And what we do as God’s Stewards of it all, how we use it, what we give Him from it is all being recorded in the ledgers of Heaven. And one day soon Jesus Christ will review this ‘ledger of our life’ with us, and He will reveal to us just how much we have lived as His faithful Steward, worthy of reward, or how much we lived for ourselves, as an unfaithful Steward, and thus subject to loss.
God wants to bless us. But God can only be fair and true to His nature by blessing those who fear Him and keep His commandments. And by the grace of God, we can each be one of those. And surprisingly enough, this very discipline of giving can even help us learn to fear God better and better. Through faithfully practicing this discipline of generous giving of tithes and offerings we can become transformed more and more into a God-fearing son or daughter of our Lord and Savior, and live under God’s blessing both now and in the Kingdom to follow.