Why It's Time To Stop Saying 'You Can't Out-Give God'
The televangelist Peter Popoff uses a repeating informercial that claims anyone can access 'miracle money'. The idea is that in exchange for a cash donation to God – via Popoff's account, of course – there will be a much larger 'divine wealth transfer' to your current account. You lose some money, but you get much more back in return, as various testimonies on the infomercial insist. And of course, the very people attracted to these promises are those already in financial need, who really can't afford to speculate-to-accumulate. But it's OK – you can't out-give God, after all.
Elsewhere, a new breed of hip, high-production-value churches offer a kind of low-calorie version of the prosperity gospel (how else would they get into those skinny jeans?). They say they want to offer God the very best quality worship and attract people with a service-performance which rivals anything else at the high end of the culture. This level of production has a price-tag though, and that money has to come from the congregation. So services include a heavy emphasis on financial giving, and particularly on the idea of giving sacrificially – ie more than you can probably afford. Again, there's always a subtle message that if we're generous to God – in this case via his church – we'll receive much more back in return. You can't out-give God.
Let's get one thing clear: I absolutely believe in the power of God to intervene in our financial situations, and to come to the rescue with money when we desperately need it. I've seen it first hand, and I've known it to be true in the lives of others. It's undoubtedly one of the clearest ways that God seems to intervene in our lives and that's almost certainly because it's one of the things we pray most about.
But it's time to be honest: sometimes God doesn't come to the financial rescue. I know people who've lost businesses, or homes, or received visits from the bailiffs, even after months of desperate prayer. And some of those people were giving financially to a church, or to Christian organisations. So what happened there? Did they out-give God?
There are two passages in the Bible which televangelists, megachurches and to be honest, normal people like you or I tend to go to when we talk about the idea of giving sacrificially. The first is known as 'the widow's mite' in Luke 21: 1-4. Jesus sees a poor woman putting two coins – all she has to live on – into the offering plate, and he says that in doing so, she has put in more than anyone else. Crucially though, it doesn't suggest she later received a 'divine wealth transfer' (although she may have done). The act of sacrificial giving brought her closer to God, and was its own reward.
The other go-to verse is Malachi 3:10: '"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it."' This verse is pretty much the source of the whole 'you can't out-give God' phenomenon. Yet like so much of our modern Christianity, what we've done with this verse is misappropriate a specific message to an entire nation, and reapply it to our individual lives. We only have to look at the previous verse to see that this is addressed to Israel at a time when they were subverting the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant: 'In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – your whole nation – because you are robbing me.' This is then followed by that famous line, which suddenly reads very differently in context.
The other thing which the verse crucially doesn't promise is a direct cash payout. We've interpreted it that way, but in fact God only promises his people an enormous blessing in return for demonstrating generosity. That's not to say that financial abundance or whatever you want to call it won't form part of that blessing, but it's not the only form it can take. And just as with the widow, some of that blessing comes in the act of giving itself, in separating ourselves from the hold that money and possessions can have over us, and finding liberation in that.
In one sense, of course you can't out-give God. He breathed life into us, gave us an extraordinarily complex and beautiful world to inhabit, sent his son to die for us and offers us eternal life. There's no way anyone could begin to repay that credit. And even in our everyday lives, the money we choose to offer back to him in tithes and other offerings is no match for the incredible gift of knowing him personally. That's the greatest blessing of all; that's the thing that the televangelists and the megachurches should be offering (completely free of charge, of course). When we reduce this equation down to the level of a financial transaction though, we not only miss the point entirely, but we risk setting people like the friends I mentioned up for a huge disappointment and a crisis of faith.
Like so many of the phrases that somehow become popular theology, 'You can't out-give God' is pretty misleading and dangerous, especially while we tie it so closely with the idea of financial prosperity. Perhaps a better, if less comfortable answer to our financial struggles comes from Paul in Philippians 4, when he writes: 'I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.' Part of that answer certainly lies in sacrificial giving, but mainly it rests in seeking and knowing the eternal God, who remains with us however bad our circumstances get. That, rather than financial security, is the greatest blessing of all.