By Douglas Cramer
There is a fundamental mistake most of us make—the belief that our possessions are our own. But this is simply not true. Yes, most of us work for everything we have. But we wouldn’t have any of it if it were not given to us by God. If we believe in God, there is no denying the fact that without God we would have nothing, not even our own lives. He is the source of all, and everything returns to Him in the end.
God doesn’t need anything from us at all. It is all his already. Psalm 50 says, “The world is Mine, and all its fullness.”
Whatever you possess, you only have it on loan. Have you ever seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul, with the deceased person’s belongings lined up in the truck? No, everything you own, every dollar you control and every hour at your disposal, is on loan to you from God. You are only the caretaker of your possessions. And ultimately you are responsible to God for your stewardship of them.
Jesus speaks extensively about the proper stewardship of time, talent and treasure in the Bible—more than half of his parables in the Gospels mention money. Jesus teaches the proper attitude toward taxes and stored treasures; he teaches about counting costs. Clearly, he wants us to have the right attitude about wealth. He also does not want us to worry about money.
God understands our weaknesses, and what a struggle it is for us to become spiritually mature. He loves us like a parent who happily provides for us. But like any parent, He uses different methods of teaching us what He wants us to learn.
A wise man once told me that the trick to reaching people with God’s word was to stroke them on one side of the head, and hit them on the other. So we should not be surprised to find an Old Testament prophet using just this technique. Malachi lived about 450 years before Christ. His name means “my messenger,” and he had a message from God for the Israelites of the day, who had become pretty casual about their obedience to God.
First, Malachi uses the stick, saying: "Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house."
These are difficult words– but words we too need to hear.
Then, through His prophet, God then strokes the head of his children: “‘Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and prove Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.” Here is God’s comfort and encouragement, just like a good earthly father. His words are strong and may even seem too strong at times but they are there to wake us from our sleepy worldly existence to know the glory of God.
God gives us abundance out of His love for us. And out of that love, He also commands us to use that abundance wisely. As I said, God loves us like a father. Every parent here understands what a balancing act that requires. Like most fathers, I’ve often given money to one of my children so that they could buy me a present, or bought groceries so that they could make a special dinner for their mother. It is a joy to see them cheerfully give back what I've given them. Likewise, we should take what we are given and give it back cheerfully. St. Paul teaches in his first letter to the Corinthians, “God loves a cheerful giver.”
When I give my child ten dollars to spend on a present for a friend, he knows that I won’t be happy if he spends it on ice cream for himself. Likewise, God will not be happy if we do not use our gifts, talents, and resources according to his will. And the first thing He expects is that we will take 10% of our wealth – no matter how much that might be—and cheerfully return them to Him. This is simply what “tithe” means—giving back 10% in love.
When we give to the Church, we are doing something much more than “paying our dues.” The Church is not a country club. And we are not “paying off debt.” God is not a creditor! We shouldn’t give out of a heavy-hearted sense of obligation.
So what are we doing when we give to the Church? We are worshipping! Our offering back to God’s Church of a portion of what He has given us is part of our worship, part of our communal prayer. It is an act of love. It is our coming to grips with the fact that everything we own should be held in our open palm and not in a clenched fist.
Our gifts to the Church glorify God.
Do not think that it is enough to offer God merely your attendance at Divine Liturgy once a week. Your worship is incomplete if it does not include giving. St. Gregory Nazianzen speaks of this with profound clarity:
A healthy and rich person must help him who is sick and the needy; he who has not fallen must assist him who fell and bruised himself; a cheerful person, him who is fainthearted; the one who is prosperous, him who suffers from misfortune.
Give something to God to thank Him for your being able to become one of those who can do good to others and not one of those who need to be assisted, and that others gaze at your hands and not you at theirs....
Be a god for the one who is in misfortune, imitating God’s mercy.... Every navigator is close to a shipwreck...and everyone who has a body is close to bodily diseases.... While you sail free, give hand to the one shipwrecked.... If you have nothing to share, shed tears together with an unfortunate wretch: the mercy which comes from your heart is a great medicine for him; and sincere compassion makes mishap easier to be borne.
Thank God you can give! Be grateful that He has given you something you can give to Him, and to your neighbor, as a way of expressing your love – like a father gives his child money to buy presents for others. Our giving is part of our worship. And as our worship is about love, so is our giving.
There is a powerful Orthodox prayer which links for us love and giving: “Set our hearts on fire with love for You O Christ our God, that in its flames we may love You with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, so that keeping Your commandments we may glorify You, the giver of all good gifts.”
We should give gladly to the Church, because through the Church we give love to those who need it most. St. Justin wrote that the priest “is a guardian of all those who are in need.” When you give to the Church, you are giving to the needy. You make it possible for the Church to minister to them, spiritually and physically. You are giving aid to the shipwrecked.
Everything you have already belongs to God. He cares for you, and wants you to put what He has given you to good use. So be a good steward of your abundance by joining it to your worship of Him. Be thankful that you can give! Why do we buy food and clothing for our families? Why do we buy gifts for our friends? Because we love them, and want to show it. And in giving, our love grows.
Give to God, and give to others, by giving to the Church. Give, and watch your love grow. Give, and be glad. Give, and your heart will be set on fire.
This reflection is adapted from a speech originally written for Fr. Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and SCOBA's Orthodox Christian Network. Learn more about the powerful ministries of OCN on their website, www.myocn.net .