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Straight Talk on When Not to Give

[This article was previously published in our October newsletter. Read Part 1 and Part 2 in the Money Matters Series.]

Giving is not always godly. It is not always generous or selfless. Sometimes it can be manipulative, hypocritical, even greedy. The Bible is not unequivocally positive in its attitude toward giving. As a matter of fact, it often warns us about the dangers of giving if we fail to do it God’s way.

My goal in this series of articles is to help Christian people become financially faithful in order to enhance their spiritual, emotional, and family health and to serve Christ more freely. We first looked at three foundational principles: ownership, authority, and dependence. Then we considered the fact that many Christians want to give more but are hindered from doing so because of spending habits and debt. In this article I want to discuss how giving, even though it may appear to be generous, can miss or even violate biblical standards.

It’s wrong to give in order to receive recognition. This goes against our grain, doesn’t it? We want to be recognized for our giving. We desire a reputation for generosity. Every major charity knows that the more recognition they give to donors, the larger their contributions will be. That’s why so many buildings bear the name of their donors and why plaques are found everywhere in charitable facilities. It works, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Jesus said, “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.” (Matt. 6:1-2)

Seeking recognition for our giving can easily become a corrupting influence, for if human recognition is our motive we will be tempted to give where we get the most of it. Seeking recognition also unintentionally corrupts the recipient, for it tempts him to heap praise on the donor in order to generate even more giving.

It’s wrong to give in order to receive material rewards. One of the most popular heresies of our day is prosperity theology. It is the viewpoint that God wants all of his children healthy and wealthy and if we’re not, it’s because we are not naming and claiming our inheritance. A common corollary is that the more we give (especially to the advocate’s own ministry), the more we will get back in material rewards. The problems with this theology are many. Let me point out just two.

First, prosperity theology contradicts the experience of Jesus and the Apostles. In Matthew 8:20 Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’“ Had Jesus forgotten to claim his inheritance? And how about Paul? How much material prosperity did his remarkable faith bring him? (2 Cor. 11:21b-28)

Second, prosperity theology also contradicts the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. In the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 Jesus indicates that wealth is not only not an inevitable sign of godliness; it can actually be a great hindrance to godliness. And in Hebrews 10:32ff those faithful believers who suffered persecution and poverty are urged to persevere: “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.” But the context makes it clear that the rewards are not measured in dollars, nor are they promised in this life.

It’s wrong to give in response to pressure. Paul speaks to this issue in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The essential message here is that giving should be planned and voluntary, not a result of overt pressure.

Friends, there is a calculating science behind charitable fundraising. The experts recommend that an appeal letter should contain a few choice phrases like “we’re in a crisis this week” or “God didn’t bring us this far to close the door, did he?” They can gauge what the increase will be if the recipient’s name is inserted in the middle of the computer-generated letter or if a first-class stamp is used instead of bulk mail. If it looks like a telegram more people will open it, and if it appears that there’s a check inside even more will open it.

A wise Christian will resist such Madison Avenue manipulation and will plan his giving in advance. He will pray about it, discuss it with his family, and seek godly counsel. It’s probably good to set aside a certain amount to meet genuine emergencies, but the bulk of our giving should be planned in advance.

I don’t know who originated the following observation: “Giving is not God’s way of raising money. It’s his way of rearing children.” But I agree. As we learn to give in a godly way, we grow in grace and maturity. We become more like Christ who gave the greatest gift of all—his own life—not for recognition nor for material reward nor because of pressure—but freely, sacrificially, and for the glory of his heavenly Father. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

In my final article next month I want to lay out what I believe are the most important positive guidelines for biblical giving.