Theme: Overflowing Joy and Extreme Poverty
This week’s lessons teach us how the grace of God in Christ drives both our attitude and our actual practice of giving to support Christian causes.
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1
Yesterday we looked at the first element of “God’s Formula for Great Giving.” Today we look at the other two.
Overflowing joy. In what were the Macedonian Christians joyful? Paul does not say, but we may suppose their joy came from several things. They would have had joy in salvation itself, for Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians how the believers there welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit (I Thess. 1:6). Before the coming of the gospel they were lost in heathen darkness and were, like Paul describes the Ephesians to have been before their conversion, “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). After they had believed, they were conscious of having found God and of having passed out of darkness into light. In the second chapter Paul speaks of the Thessalonians being his “hope,” “joy,” and “crown” (v. 19), and in the next verse as his “glory and joy” (v. 20). We may assume that the Thessalonians thought of him that way too.
Similarly, in Philippians Paul speaks explicitly of the believers’ “joy in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:26), and he urges them to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4), that is, to continue as they were doing. Commentators have often observed that joy is a dominant note in this letter.
Every Christian should be joyful, of course. But we are concerned with the link between joy and giving, and one thing joy must indicate in this context is that the giving of the Macedonians was unconstrained. That is, it was of their own free will, and that is why it was joyful. As long as our giving is constrained, as it is when we give our taxes to the government, it is a burden and is frequently coupled with resentment. But when we give freely, as we ought to do for Christian causes, we give joyfully and our joy is enhanced by the giving.
I think here of Frances Ridley Havergal, who wrote lines we often sing with little understanding or commitment:
Take my silver and my gold, Not a mite would I withhold.
Those lines were autobiographical. That is, Frances Havergal did what she described. We know from her literary remains that at the time she wrote those words she sent to the Church Missionary Society all her gold and silver jewelry, including a jewel chest which she described as being fit for a countess. She wrote to a close friend, “I don’t need to tell you that I never packed a box with such pleasure.” That is a joy generous Christians recognize. They know that joy leads to generous giving, as our text in 2 Corinthians teaches, and that it is enhanced by it.
Extreme poverty. The third element in this formula for generous giving is poverty, indeed, extreme poverty. Again, what an utterly contrary principle from what the world teaches! If you are trying to raise large sums of money for a secular charity and if you hire a fundraising organization to assist in the campaign, you will be told that the first third of the goal must be raised by advance gifts from large donors, the second third by nearly as large gifts from wealthy people, and only the last third from your organization’s regular constituency. Or, depending on the cause, the expectations may be even more disproportionate. Sometimes the gifts from large donors are supposed to be at least eighty percent of the whole.
That is not how it is in Christian circles. Large gifts have their place, perhaps to launch a new project or to pay for a special need. But by and large, the work of the church is sustained, and sustained very well, by the regular small gifts of those who are not wealthy. In fact, in many places the spread of the gospel is underwritten mostly by the very роог.
Sometime ago I came across some statistics that showed that giving among the very poor is remarkable. In the United States those below the poverty line give about five percent of their income to charitable causes. Those who are in the middle income brackets give slightly more, about seven percent, because they have more from which to give. But when people move into the higher brackets, that is, above $100,000 per year, the rate falls back to only two percent. So, statistically, it is usually not the rich who give generously but those who are not nearly so well off. The Macedonians were poor. Paul says that they were in “extreme poverty.” Therefore, their giving must have been sacrificial, as all truly great giving is.
Don’t you think that the giving of the poor widow whom Jesus saw casting two very small copper coins into the temple treasury was sacrificial? Of course, it was! Jesus said of her, “This poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3, 4). Do not think that she was unhappy doing it. Jesus did not mention her joy. He was speaking of how God evaluated the gift. But even though he did not mention it, we can be sure that the widow was a joyful giver.
Here is another example. Gordon, English general, was a godly man who attributed his military success to God. When the British government wanted to honor him he declined all money and titles. The only thing he accepted was a gold medal that had been inscribed with a record of his thirty-three military campaigns. It was his most prized possession. After his death this famous medal could not be found. Where was it? Eventually it was learned that Gordon had sent it to the city of Manchester during a severe famine so it could be melted down and the gold used to buy food for those who were starving. In his diary under the date on which he mailed the medal were the words: “The last earthly thing I had in this world that I valued I have given to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The result of this unusual combination of circumstances was great giving. It was according to the formula: A severe trial plus overflowing joy plus extreme poverty equals rich generosity. How does that add up? Isn’t that like saying, “Minus one, plus minus fifteen, plus minus three equals a million”? Yes, it is. But that is God’s arithmetic, strange as it may seem to us. It is the grace of giving, and it works.
Why does giving produce joy among the Macedonian believers?
What is the third element of the formula for giving? Why does it produce generosity?
Application: Are you more like the Christians in Macedonia or Corinth in terms of what you do with your money to benefit other believers?