It was my first semester in seminary. Kristie and I were already living hand to mouth, trusting in the Lord for his provisions. With Katelynn just born and Kylee on the way, we looked with hopeful anticipation for the provisional hand of the Lord. Yahweh-yireh, “the Lord will provide.” If the Lord wanted me there, he would have to daily open his hand to our needs. Truly, it was a wonderful experience that I would not wish upon anyone. Does that even make sense?
Our income consisted of four sources: 1) My part time job at the DTS Library. I shelved books. Not big pay. 2) My Indian scholarship ($2100 per semester). Yes, I am 1/8 Cherokee, believe it or not. 3) My family who gave what they could. 4) My home church. This is where the majority of our support came from, but it was very sporadic. Some months there would be nothing. Other months, people would give in abundance. Throughout this time, I tried to remain faithful in giving to the Lord. He was the one who provided and I was determined to exercise my Christianity in a way that gave me more opportunity to trust in him.
At one point we had gotten very far behind on many of the bills. We did not have any money to buy groceries. Things were not looking good. We prayed and prayed and then resorted to begging friends and family for a few more dollars. They did what they could. However, what they gave was not near enough to get our heads above water. Our bills were stacked up to just over $5000. At the end of our rope, salvation came through a $5000 check we got in the mail from just one donor at our home church. Just in the nick of time!
Take a detour with me for a moment. I have heard many Evangelical sermons on giving. I have listened to testimony after testimony from those who had prioritized the Lord in the tightest financial circumstances. I had read the passage about the “widow’s mite.” You know, the one where the lady was commended by Christ for giving her last two dollars to the Lord. I knew all the clichés: “I just keep shoveling out, but God has a bigger shovel!” Or, my favorite, “You can’t out-give God.” And, yes, how about our Evangelical go-to passage in Malachi 3:10: ” ‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.'” Test the Lord and see if he does not bless you.
Now, back to my story. I tested the Lord that day. I gave to him of my first fruits. I gave to him before the late electric bill, the car payment, and the bread box. I prioritized Him above my children, wife, financial integrity and all else. I had just enough to catch up on my bills so long as I put his claim on hold. But I gave to him part of what I needed. Why? Because he is faithful. Why? Because you can’t out-give God. Why? Because he called on me to test him.
However . . . Two weeks later, threats of collection, electricity cut-off, and growling stomachs of my family made me wonder: Did he just fail the test? Did I just out-give God?
Ten years later, I don’t have any “success” stories concerning the size of God’s shovel. There are still no lack of stories from people (which I don’t doubt) concerning how God blessed them with great financial abundance due to their sacrificial giving. But no matter how I try to manipulate my own story, it always seems that my shovel is bigger than God’s.
I am certainly not discouraged by this. And, if you find yourself in a similar situation, you should not be either.
Let me list a few reasons, beyond my own subjective testimony, why I believe the “You can’t out-give God” statement can be very misleading.
First, the passage most often used is Malachi 3:10. In that passage, God does indeed call upon his people to test him. They were “robbing” him of tithes and offerings (v. 8). He tells the nation that if they will prioritize him through their giving, he will bless them. However, there are three things to take into account:
First, he is speaking to a nation, not an individual. Notice in verse 9: “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you.” Therefore, it is talking about national blessings, not individual blessings.
Second, this is the nation of Israel to whom he is speaking, not our nation. Verses 11-12 describe the blessings under the Mosaic Covenant that were/are particular to Israel, not to us. We are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant, for its blessings or its curses.
Third, even if we could draw an eternal principle out of this passage, we must understand that when it is assumed that the nation of Israel was being obedient to the Covenant, experiencing its blessings, there was always provision for the “poor” of the land. In Leviticus 14:21, we have a stipulation for a faithful Israelite who was giving to God, but remained very poor. God allowed him to give less than was required. Why didn’t this faithful Israelite have more? As well, there is no indication in Leviticus 25:39 that the poor man selling himself into slavery was disobedient. God calls upon fellow Israelites to have mercy on him and those like him. Further, Deuteronomy 15:7-11 demonstrates that God listens to the prayers of the poor when they are neglected. It even says that “The poor will never cease to be in the land” (v. 11; emphasis mine). And this was under the Covenant!
Concerning the widow’s mite, let’s read the story:
“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.'”
My first thought when reading this is, why was she so poor? She was the most godly of the bunch. The others, who were rich, were rebuked because they gave so little. But this poor lady, in her faithful service to God, gave all she had. If this was the state of her heart (rather than the first time she did this), then it seems that her shovel was bigger than God’s, and Christ loved it!
Paul spoke about how he, in his Christian life, had learned to live in abundance and poverty (Phil. 4:12). Paul most certainly was a sacrificial giver. Why did he ever experience need? It would seem that his shovel was sometimes bigger than God’s.
In Evangelicalism, we don’t like the Health-Wealth Gospel. You know, the one that says God wants us to be healthy and wealthy. We rightly call this a serious aberration of the Gospel. We even call it heresy. However, do we not promote a quasi-wealth Gospel when we say that God’s shovel is bigger than ours with the implication that if we give money to God, he will give us more money back?
Though I am certainly imperfect here, I do believe what I heard a pastor say the other day: “There is no greater indication of your spiritual life then your giving habits.” He went on to say, “It is impossible to be a good Christian if you are not giving.” The old saying, “If you want to know where someone’s priorities lie, thumb through their checkbook,” is true. However, I do not believe that we are to give with some idea that the bank account of heaven is obligated to wire transfer directly to our earthly bank accounts when we give sacrificially. God may or he may not.
But won’t we experience “blessing” when we give, even if it is not financial? I suppose. But it really depends on how you look at it. When we give sacrificially to the Lord without expectations, we are acting out the blessing that we already have been given: a perspective that is in alignment with reality. The widow gave because she knew that this was not her home. She gave all she had because she was already sold out to God. She knew that the treasures of this earth are nothing to be compared to the glory that is to follow. If you believe this—if you truly believe this—you are already blessed. The belief itself is the blessing. Maybe God’s shovel becomes bigger than yours and maybe it does not. Our blessing is our ability to trust God. Our giving is an expression of that trust.
We should expect to suffer in this life. Sometimes that suffering will come in the form of financial suffering. Sometimes it will be other things. But to think and preach that there is some guaranteed way to avoid the cross of financial suffering is not a message that we carry.
As John Calvin puts it in his commentary on Psalm. 125:3:
“We are here warned that the guardianship of God does not secure us from being sometimes exercised with the cross and afflictions, and that therefore the faithful ought not to promise themselves a delicate and easy life in this world, it being enough for them not to be abandoned of God when they stand in need of his help. Their heavenly Father, it is true, loves them most tenderly, but he will have them awakened by the cross, lest they should give themselves too much to the pleasures of the flesh.”
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]