On Friday, I finally got my W-2. Saturday night, I did my taxes. It was a very, very encouraging experience. And not just because I’m getting a refund. Tax night was a time of deep celebration, reminder, and reflection on how God moves and changes people, especially me.
I’ve always had a big problem with faithfully giving to other things, especially my churches. Though I grew up going to churches, this was not a discipline I was able to observe at home. Eventually, waiting tables through college and having spent most of my adult life living paycheck to paycheck, I became an expert of rationalizing my lack of generosity to my church and other causes.
Some may think that this is certainly not one of the bigger crises in one’s life. After all, we each individually know what our ability to give is, and no church should reserve the right to tell us otherwise, right? Well…
Martin Luther famously said that, for the Christian, “there are three conversions necessary: the heart, mind and purse.” How we treat/spend/think about our money and resources is the simplest, clearest outward expression of so many internal, abstract truth about our hearts. Like Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.
Our money always fights against us. It reveals us even as we try and use it to shape who we are. These robes expose as we try and conceal. We fancy ourselves in the vestments of emperors, even as our nakedness shames us.
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Each person has their own reasons for not giving–other places their “heart is” and their treasure follows. For some it’s love of stuff, for others it’s a desire to hoard, and yet for others it’s out of a need to have more to make them look better to others. For me, it’s fear. Fear of not “having enough”, fear of being inconvenienced, fear of not being able to buy what I wanted to buy when I wanted to buy it. Take your pick. Those all apply.
And this is where this story begins. My desire to learn how to give didn’t come out of some begrudging guilt over a failed obligation. I sat through plenty of sermons on church-giving and tithing, “amen”-ing all the way. I just felt like it didn’t apply to me, for whatever reason in the moment.
No, my desire was because the man being revealed by my pocketbook was not the man I wanted to be: a man whose life–spending habits included–was fundamentally shaped and marked by the Gospel.
And so I first confessed to my pastor. We got drinks and I “repented” for not having given to our church. He said, “Paul, I understand, but if I’ve learned anything from all my years of pastoring, it’s that if people don’t give even a little when they’re less able to, they are far less likely to give when they’re older and are more able to. Giving now when it’s hard is the best training ground for giving when it’s easier. It’s paradoxical. But it’s biblical.”
I then went to one of my best friends and shared with him my struggle with this. He was shocked. This had been so ingrained in him as he was growing up that (in a sense) this was like “Christianity 101”. I had led his Bible Study for years and now I was telling him I struggled in (what seemed to him) to be one of the most fundamental parts of the Christian life.
He was absolutely gracious and loving, but the fact that (contrary to what I had anticipated) he did not brush it off as some minor thing I needn’t worry about only further convicted me that something had to be done.
So, for Lent last year I gave myself a challenge to try and give a little bit of money to a different organization every day of Lent. You can see the list at that link, and see that I didn’t give all 40 days, but I did give on most. I even said in that post at the time that my desire was not to actually make a big financial impact on those organizations as much as it was just about training me and my heart to get in the rhythms of generosity. It was liturgical.
I set up automatic online giving to my church for 5% of each paycheck, and I would give more as I was able. I did this for most of the year.
But towards the end of the year, things got tight. Car problems arose. A school loan that had been deferred came due. Parking tickets. My savings had to be sapped. I stopped giving any “extra” on top of that basic 5%.
But I kept giving something.
By the end of this year, I had become settled in the fact that I had “backslidden” into laziness in my giving and being ruled by fear. I figured this is the way it would be. No growth had happened from this past Lent. It was a temporary change that faded as the year went on. Whatever “blessing” came with giving was not mine to experience.
And then I got my W-2. And then I did my taxes. And then I rejoiced.
I gave more of my money last year than have in my entire life. My “giving statement” from my church was pages long and had a final tally that shocked me. And, despite all my concerns, I had ended up giving away over 10% of my income for the year!
No, that wasn’t all to my church. That Lent thing really did “help” pad those numbers. I definitely have more room to grow. But for someone who sat in this church that I Iove for years before ever giving anything, it was incredibly encouraging.
It reminded me how biblical, Gospel change works. Slow, steady, and quiet. Even in my discouragement that I had not grown, I was reminded how God had changed me. I was reminded of his reality and power and that it is possible for the Gospel to do mighty work on so much of what’s hardened with us.
And for a man who struggles with internalizing and realizing any change, it was the most amazing grace of God that allowed me that little glimpse (that he rarely gives) into how he had done it. And I praised.
Oh, and one more thing.
I violently buck up against the whole “prosperity” Gospel thing. I know all the fancy exegetical gymnastics used to not interpret certain verses in the Bible as God guaranteeing to give you financial prosperity in response to your giving.
And yet, in a year that I gave more than I ever have, I ended up making almost 20% more than I had expected. 15% more than my highest estimate.
Do with that what you will.
But regardless, be encouraged that Gospel change is real, even though you will not see it as it happens. In the Beauty and Paradox of God’s Spirit and his Kingdom, quiet and faithful wins the race.
So let us run, and give generously of our selves, our time, our money, and our resources, in response to a God who has given all Himself to us and for us.
And do your taxes.