READ : 2 Corinthians 8:1-2
We’ve been thinking together in these past weeks about how to live happily, and much of what we’ve covered has been about receiving things from God: faith, comfort, victory over sin, but there’s one more lesson to learn in living happily and that is how to give.
I was thinking about my title for this message and wondering how much interest it would generate. They tell you in classes on speech and communication that your title should get people’s attention and arouse their interest. It should make them want to listen. But on the other hand, it shouldn’t promise more than you can deliver, lest they murmur and be disappointed. What about this for a title: “How to Give Gladly”?
It gets good marks for accuracy because I really am going to speak about joyful giving. But I ask myself: How many people out there, like you, want to learn how to do that? How interested is Mr. Average Man, Mrs. Average Woman, or a typical young person in the art of giving? Aren’t they all more likely to be interested in how to get something? Who burns with ambition to be an expert giver?
But remember, I put in there the part about doing it gladly. That, I thought, ought to hook someone. Everybody’s interested in happiness, right? Who wouldn’t want to be glad? Some people, I guess, would be willing to try almost anything that could offer them joy in the midst of an otherwise dreary life.
Well, whether it’s a good title or a bad one, I’d like to have a run at “How to Give Gladly.” It does interest me, at any rate, and I hope you’ll stay with me on it for just a bit. What I have to offer today could almost be described as a “secret formula.”
You’ve heard about the secret formula idea: a mysterious combination of ingredients produces an amazing result. Maybe it’s a magic potion that will put a damsel to sleep for centuries, or a fountain of youth that will make an aged gentleman spry. Perhaps it’s a chemical to turn a man into a monster or a magpie into a man. The message is: Get hold of this formula, and presto – your life will dramatically change.
Here is the “secret formula” for hilarious giving. Listen. It’s from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament, chapter 8:
“In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (v. 2).
Talk about a rare mix – this is it! Take abounding joy and grinding poverty and throw them into a pot boiling with trouble and pain. And do you know what overflows, what comes bubbling up over the sides of the pot? Generosity – giving of the most astonishing sort.
Now there’s nothing about poverty that automatically makes people generous and surely nothing in affliction guaranteed to make them happy. How in the world do you get joyful giving out of that unpromising recipe? The apostle Paul has several things to say about that. For one, he sees it as a divine miracle. He begins this part of his letter by saying, “We want you to know, brethren, about the grace of God which has been shown in the churches of Macedonia.” He can find no human explanation for what has happened among these people. He’s ready to say as the psalmist did long ago: “It’s the Lord’s doing, and it’s marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23). The secret, if there is one in the secret formula, is that God is evidently at work in the lives of these people.
But beyond the fact that God is ultimately responsible for it, Paul lets us see three factors in this glad generosity. First, these people gave freely. Listen to Paul, “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means of their own free will.” No one badgered them into making a contribution. No one prescribed an amount. No one took a record of their pledge or checked up on it. The gift was entirely their idea.
You can almost gather from their situation that no one would have expected them to give anything. Who would have the gall to solicit contributions from people desperately poor, going through the worst times? They might well retort, “Me give to the poor? You must be kidding. I ought to be on the receiving end!”
But these people somehow wanted to give. In fact, they pleaded for the privilege. Paul says that they were “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.”
They had heard, it seems, about the believers in Jerusalem who had been victims of famine. They were so eager to help that they begged for a part in the offering that was being gathered. This was stunning to Paul, and to everyone else. Imagine paupers clamoring to share their last crust! That is extraordinarily beautiful. How it shames the offerings we sometimes make out of our great abundance!
But that’s what makes for joyful giving, isn’t it, that it should be spontaneous, unpressured, from the heart? The apost1e comments on that later: “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). All of us realize that there’s little joy in giving that we are compelled to do. If you force Johnny to share his candy with his little brother, punctuating your commands with threats, Johnny’s compliance will hardly be joyful. But when he wants to do it, when he hauls out his treasure with an open hand, how he beams! How good he feels! And how it makes our hearts rejoice!
Apparently God feels that way, too. He delights, we are told, in hilarious givers. And I’ve seen hilarious givers. I’ve seen givers over in Africa who find the most joyful part of the service to be the offering. And they walk, almost dance down, with a chicken or some fruit or some vegetable just to be able to give it. So here’s something to note carefully. If your giving is to be joyful and to spread joy around to others, it has to be your decision, your free choice, the thing you really want to do.
GIVE OUT OF GRATITUDE
But that doesn’t solve the mystery, does it? All of us are naturally selfish, habitually inclined to look out for Number 1. Why would people give so freely, especially when they seem to have nothing to spare? For these Macedonians, it was an act of gratitude. It was a response to grace. Listen to Paul: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
These people who gave so amazingly were Christians. They had heard the good news of God’s love in the sending of his Son Jesus Christ. They had believed a message which centered in a supreme act of giving. Here was the everlasting Son of the Father, the eternal Word, heir of the universe, infinitely rich in the glories of heaven, but not content to enjoy all that for himself. He had a heart for poor, sinful people – wandering ones, estranged and lost. And so for their sake, he laid aside his glory and came down to share our lot. Think of it – the One to whom everything in the universe belonged decided freely to be born as a human baby into a poor family. He humbled himself to live among us as one who serves. Finally, stooping under the load of our sins, he gave up his life so that we could have forgiveness and a new beginning. He was forsaken so that we could be accepted. He became poor so that we could be unspeakably rich. That was the miracle of miracles – God’s costly generosity in Jesus!
You might say that these believers in Macedonia had been taught in the school of Christ. They had learned from him what it really is to give. They were always saying in their hearts, “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” And that made them want to follow in his way. Their giving was a simple extension of his giving. They began to embody here in this world the amazing love that had been bestowed upon them in Christ.
That’s the key, friends, to a Christian’s giving, and to anything else he or she may do. The lifestyle of believers in Christ is a lifestyle of response. It’s always: “Love as you have been loved . . . forgive, as you have been forgiven.” Or this, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
So ultimately, our glad, free, wholehearted giving is a matter of faith. It’s when I realize that I’m one of the poor, unworthy ones whom God loves, one of those for whom Christ became poor. It’s when I believe that he gave himself for me that I find it in my heart to be a giver.
Maybe if we’re not happy, generous givers, the problem lies here, that we haven’t responded to grace. We haven’t gone to the Lord’s school and let him teach us. Maybe what we most need is to receive the gift he offers with a grateful heart. God offers to you eternal life, and forgiveness and a place as one of God’s children. All you need to do is receive it with trust and with a grateful heart.
GIVE YOURSELF FIRST TO GOD
Here’s the last feature of the giving of these first-century Macedonians. It rounds out the picture. Paul writes about their generosity, “And this, not as we expected, but first they gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (v. 5).
This is what follows upon receiving the free gift of God’s grace. Trusting in his love, we submit ourselves to his lordship. We recognize that because we have been redeemed at such a great cost, we don’t belong to ourselves. As Paul puts it in another of his letters, “We are not our own, we have been bought with a price.” Drawn by his saving mercy, we offer up our whole selves to his service.
That kind of commitment is life-changing. As Paul describes it, we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). Our outlook toward possessions becomes different. We see them now not as “private property” but rather as a sacred trust. We are stewards of that great Lord to whom all things belong, and we will answer to him for everything we have been given.
How we use our money and how we distribute our material means is basically a matter of commitment. The more thoroughly we give ourselves to the Lord, the more completely will our possessions be at his disposal for other people.
You can see why that would be so. We hold on to money and things so tightly because they represent security for us. Having things, we tell ourselves, will take care of us in the future. They’ll meet our needs. They’ll make us content. And so we fill our barns as the rich fool did.
But when we know we are the Lord’s, when we have gotten ourselves “off our own hands” into his, we’re genuinely secure. The God who gave his Son for us will surely give us all things eventually with him. Nothing can ever separate us from his love. Nothing can ever pluck us out of the Father’s grasp. Because we are held by him, we can afford to loosen our grip on whatever we have. It’s not as important to us now, not as vital for our happiness. We can give it freely and gladly because our money, our possessions, isn’t the sum of our hopes. Our real riches are on deposit somewhere else.
That’s what makes giving pure gladness – love for those to whom we give and the awareness that we are “losing what we cannot keep to gain what we cannot lose.” No wonder we confess in answer to the old catechism question “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”: “My only comfort, in life and in death, is that I am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
Well, there it is in a nutshell, friends: “How to give gladly.” No matter what your circumstances, you can know the joy of real generosity if you give freely from the heart. I’ve seen people who live in little huts with mud floors filled with gladness and ready to share. If you give gratefully in the light of Christ and if you give devotedly, having first given yourself to him, you will be one of these that the Scripture is speaking about. God bless you and make you one of his hilarious givers!