At the end of my first year at University in Scotland, I did a two month summer internship with my church. I would help with Sunday services, get experience of what church administration looks like, help out with a children’s activity week, and other similar tasks.
As part of the internship, we used to have team meetings and regular contact with the pastors of the church. It was during one of these sessions, over a cooked breakfast and a cup of coffee, that the question came up: “David: do you tithe (give 10% of your income) to the church”
The questioner was one of my pastors. At that point, I had just begun University and had very little money (enough for food and maybe going out once or twice a week, and not much else). To my mind, tithing was a financial impossibility and would have been bad financial sense.
So I did what any over-self-confident university student would do when faced with a difficult question: I bluffed. “Well, no, I don’t tithe as such, but I give some of my free time to the church, which I see as the same thing”.
My pastor was one of the world’s nicest ladies and a true superhero. She also had a laser-like ability to detect self-serving bluffing around an issue. She smiled sweetly at me, said how nice it was that I served in the church and how appreciated my gifts were, but that that wasn’t quite the same issue.
The thing is: she was right. Jesus makes it clear that in the Sermon on the Mount that how we handle our money is ultimately a demonstration of who we trust and who we worship: the Father God who cares for our needs, or the demands of money. Serving two masters, Jesus says, just isn’t going to end well. We will love one, and ignore the other.
My pastor was wise enough not to push the point, and the conversation moved on. If I am honest, I was annoyed at the time that the question was asked so directly (when finding yourself potentially morally wrong, outraged anger is always a safe response…). But the challenge of the question remained and echoed around my head for weeks to come, and over the next month or so, God began to gently show me how my heart tended to trust money and my own ability to provide myself more than his care. And so, I began to give money from my bank account to the church.
I doubt that the little I gave at the time made a massive difference to the church’s budget. But it was an important step in the reorientation of my heart and my trust in God. My natural tendency is towards worrying about finances and fretting whether there’ll be enough: Jesus in the Gospels tells us that the heavenly Father knows everything that we need (Matthew 6). I’m grateful to said pastor for being open enough and bold enough to challenge me directly on the issue, thus prompting me to open myself up to the grace-filled words of Jesus. For me, it was one of the definitive questions I have been asked in my discipleship.
There’s another aspect, too. It was hard to begin to give money when I felt the limits of it very strongly as a student. But I was kidding myself if I thought it would become any easier in the future when I was earning full-time: the real problem wasn’t the amount of money I had, but my relationship to it. I saw it as something that was mine by right, rather than a stewardship entrusted to me by God for building the Kingdom.
Giving money is a practice. And like anything, intentional practice is important. I know myself enough to know that giving won’t “just happen.” That is why I’ve set up standing orders, why we set up a tithe in Austria before we knew how much – if anything! – we were going to earn here. It’s just too easy otherwise to slip back into trusting our own resources and holding tightly to the promises of money, instead of trusting Father God’s care of us.
Obedience to Jesus in giving is first and foremost a reflection of our trust in God as the One whose plans for us are good. Do I really believe that the God who clothes the lilies of the valley and provides shelter for the birds of the field will also provide and care for us? If so, why wouldn’t generosity and disciplined obedience not be the natural outworking of this?
This became clear again whilst preparing to preach on money and giving last Sunday. The last few years of working with the church here in Vienna have been fantastic, but not always without financial worry, and sometimes things have felt tight. Things are still very tight, and it’s difficult to not let that play on my mind. And so, as it’s never good for pastors to preach where they’re not living, I had to once again let the gospel promises speak to me in preparation, repent for my failure to trust and turn again to the loving care of Jesus: ‘But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith.’
The human heart, Calvin observed, is great at making idols. And there are few easier idols to make than a misplaced trust in money and its ability to save us. As for every idol, the best cure is once again hearing the gospel and seeing the sufficient love of Jesus who is enough in every situation.