07 Oct Stewardship, 10/07/2018
Kenneth G. Elzinga
October 7, 2018, 10:00am
My day job is being on the faculty at UVA. I’ve taught economics to more than 45,000 students, and a lot of them hope studying economics will be financially beneficial to them. If some of my students were brutally honest with me, they’d say: “Mr. Elzinga, you know about economics – teach me how to make a lot of money.”
As we all know, making money is a means to purchasing goods and services. And that’s the conventional way the discipline of economics looks at income: our income allows us to buy things now or save our income to buy more things later.
But over the years I’ve come to have a different view of why a lot of people work so hard at making money: it is a way of keeping score – to see who is winning.
Children keep score when they play games. Making money can be a way of keeping score for adults. We’ve heard the joke – “He who dies with the most toys wins” – except some of us know people for whom that’s not a joke.
I became a Christian in graduate school and this brought a lot of surprises in my life. One of the biggest surprises was realizing making money is not just about buying things. And making money is not just about keeping score. God cares about money.
God cares about work and how we earn money. God also cares about how we use our money: what we spend it on and what we save it for. And God cares about whether we are generous with our money – whether we use it for His purposes or our own.
Martin Luther argued that there are three different conversions a follower of Jesus should have. The first is a conversion of the heart. God touches our hearts, showing us our sin and His mercy that was poured out on the cross where Jesus died. The second is a conversion of the mind. We come to learn of God’s character and we begin to understand what it means to be adopted into His eternal family. The third is a conversion of the pocketbook; or, as an economist might put it, a conversion of one’s income and wealth.
Pete Hartwig asked me to share with you today how, by God’s grace, I experienced as a conversion of the pocketbook. I won’t claim that the conversion is full and complete. But I can tell you that if my story provokes you to have a conversion of the pocketbook similar to mine, you will find this one of the most transforming experiences of your life.
If you are not yet a follower of Jesus and have not had a conversion of the heart and mind, then I hope my talk will help you better understand the Christian faith, so you will not have a false impression of what following Jesus is all about.
[If I may digress for a moment: many of my students at UVA view religion as a mountain, with God at the top, and all the religions of the world are simply different ways of going up the mountain to find God.
This metaphor of climbing different roads up a mountain is a totally mistaken way to portray the Christian faith – as one of the roads up the mountain to God.
The reason the Christian faith differs from all other religions, which is one reason I find it so compelling, is that Christianity claims that God came down from the mountain to meet us in the valley; God recognized that we don’t have it in us to make our way to the top of the mountain by our own efforts.
Philippians 2:6 describes how Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but instead emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Jesus died in our place so that we may live with Him.
The Christian faith taught me that I didn’t have it in me to make it to God. But God loved me so much that He came to me. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came to earth in human flesh; Jesus came down the mountain, so to speak, to save me. John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world, the He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever puts his faith in [Jesus] will not perish but have eternal life.”]
John 3:16 is about a conversion of the heart and the mind.
But then there’s this third conversion of the pocketbook. Let me show you its importance by comparing this conversion to prayer.
Most every religion involves prayer in some form or another. Christianity is no exception. The Bible has approximately 500 verses about prayer; prayer is important to everyone who wants to follow Jesus. Jesus prayed a lot; Jesus taught his disciples to pray. So, prayer is a big deal.
But the Bible has more verses about money than it does about prayer. The Bible has over 2000 verses about income and wealth. When I learned that, I thought: income and wealth must be a big deal to God, as well.
Let me read something by an American pastor, Richard Halverson, who used to be chaplain to the United States Senate:
Jesus Christ said more about money than any other single thing because money is of first importance when it comes to a person’s real nature. Money is an index to a [person’s] true character. All through Scripture there is an intimate correlation between the development of a person’s character and how he or she handles money.
Now in my discipline of economics, a lot has been written about money from nearly every angle.
Earning money: we’ve got that covered.
Spending money – what we call consumption theory: this gets lots of attention.
Investing money: more has been written than you could humanly read.
Saving money: we talk about that in both micro and macroeconomics.
But giving money away? Well, there…not so much.
What’s radical and different about the Christian perspective on money is that the focus is not just on making money to buy things and having enough left for our old age.
The Christian perspective also is about giving money away.
I’m going to step outside conventional economics and rename giving money away as an “investment.” Specifically, I’m going to talk about what the Bible calls “tithing” and I’m going to pitch tithing as an investment.
In my Econ classes I use a lot of graphs and numbers. But, for this lesson, I’m going to tell a story, one that your pastor asked me to tell. When I joined the University of Virginia faculty fresh out of grad school, I was a new Christian. When I got here I was invited to join a Bible study with a couple other faculty members, who were godly people that I admired. And I learned that they tithed. They took ten percent of their income and gave it to charitable causes, mostly to their church.
And not only did they tithe their income, they thought I should tithe my income! And not only did they commend tithing for me, they believed that this is a Biblical practice for people who are grateful for what Jesus did for them in saving them from their sins and who, as a consequence, want to be followers of Jesus.
Now there are a couple things you should know about me. First, I am of Dutch background – and the Dutch aren’t known for throwing their money around. Second, I’m an economist – so I’m someone who thinks about money. Third, I was not raised in a home of wealth. My mom finished high school; my father did not. Fourth, becoming a professor was my first job with a middle-class income potential.
And so, I arrived at UVA and a couple faculty members I admired suggested that I start tithing.
So, what did I do?
First, I tried to argue that the tithe was to be applied to after-tax income and not pre-tax income. Then, I toyed with the idea that the time I spent in church, valued at the opportunity cost of my time, could be part of my tithe. What I worried about, because I had a job since I was 14 years old, is “what if this tithing concept is supposed to be retroactive?”
There have been many lessons about what it means to follow Jesus in my life. One of the greatest of these lessons was when these professors patiently but firmly, lovingly but directly, told me that I was missing the point.
They encouraged me to do something that seemed radical at the time: take my gross income and give away 10% of it.
Early on, I remember telling these guys: “look, it says in II Corinthians 9:7 that the Lord loves a cheerful giver. Shouldn’t I wait until I can give cheerfully?” They taught me that, like so many parts of the Christian life, you obey first, and then out of practicing the act of obedience, the heart follows.
A grad student from China once challenged me about the existence of God by asking, “Have you ever experienced a miracle?” I said, “yes,” and it was God changing me into a cheerful giver. I now like to give money away. And I claim no credit for that. Only the Lord could have done that to me and for me.
Following the Biblical precept of tithing, by God’s grace, changed a stingy, calculating person into someone who now experiences the joy of giving.
I tell you this first story not to call attention to myself. Exactly the opposite. I tell you this story to call attention to the grace and power of the Lord and to the wisdom of proportional giving.
Is a tithe for everyone? Should everyone give away ten percent of their income?
The short answer is no.
But in case anyone is breathing a sigh of relief about that answer, let me follow it up with a suggestion.
There is so much in the Bible about tithing that if we don’t tithe, then as good stewards, we should be able to go before the Lord and explain why not. If we have close Christian friends, or a Christian spouse, we should be able to go to these people and explain why we aren’t giving away 10% of our income.
If a tithe is not for everyone, what’s an example of a person who should be giving less than 10%?
Here’s an example: I knew a student at UVA who became a Christian over her parents’ objections. And she asked me, now that she was a follower of Jesus, if she should tithe the money her parents gave her to attend UVA.
I told her that because of her parents’ objections to her faith, I didn’t think it would honor her parents if she took ten percent of the money they provided her and gave it to a cause of which they disapproved. She should wait until she has a source of income independent of her parents.
Do I have an example of a person who should be giving more than 10%? Sure.
I recall a conversation with a student who expected to be making around $500,000 per year by the time he was mid-career. The two of us were talking about proportional giving – the proportion being a tithe. That is, 10% of half a million dollars.
He said: there’s no way he could tithe. That would mean giving away $50,000 per year! That was inconceivable to him.
What I never forgot about that conversation is that this student believed that someone making $50,000 per year could tithe that amount. No problem – because that would only be $5,000 per year and $5,000 per year seemed manageable.
This strikes me as a person who should consider giving away more than 10% – because while $50,000 is a lot of money to give away, $450,000 is a lot to keep. This student, by giving more than 10% away, might get rid of some of his absorption with money.
At the same time I was starting to tithe, one of my best friends from graduate school had taken his first full-time teaching job. I looked up to this guy as the first godly friend in my life. His name is Joe McKinney – and Joe planned to tithe once he got his first teaching job.
But Joe planned to do what some people call a progressive tithe.
Ever hear of that?
In the case of a progressive tithe, you start the first year by giving away ten percent of your income (just like a regular tithe). But the next year, you give away 11%; then the next year you give away 12%. You get the picture?
I think of this as “Milo of Croton tithing.”
According to legend, Milo of Croton was a Greek, living in fifth century B.C., who was known for his incredible strength. Milo of Croton could pick up a bull and carry it on his shoulders.
But do you know how he could do this?
He started one day by picking up a calf, putting it on his shoulders, and carrying it around.
Then he did the same thing the next day with the same calf. And the next day. And he kept doing this. Each day, the animal was just a few pounds heavier. At the end of four years, Milo of Croton could pick up a full-grown bull!
I think of adding one percent each year to your tithe as the “Milo of Croton theory of tithing.”
My friend Joe and I are about the same age. I have not asked, but I’m pretty confident that he is now giving away 52% of his income.
Every year, I disciple a small number of students. Every year I tell these students that if they tithe when they start earning an income, two things will happen.
First, because the income for most of my students is much larger than the average for the country as a whole, some of my students, at some point in their lives, will make a significant difference in the life of a church or a missionary or some charity.
If you make a lot of money, and you tithe, do the math; you can give a lot of money away. If you do this out of obedience, I predict you will become a cheerful giver, even if you don’t start there. That is point number one.
The second point is much deeper. If you get involved in proportional giving, I predict that your spiritual maturity, your walk with the Lord, will be enhanced.
Now I hope you hear me clearly on this. This is one of the greatest paradoxes of following Jesus. In the Christian faith, giving is not commended because churches like City Church and ministries like Chi Alpha need our money. We give because giving is an investment in Christian character. The link between giving and investment won’t be found in an Econ book. But it is in the Bible.
In the United States, churches often ask for money as a means to an end. Very little is taught about what giving does for the giver. John MacArthur said, “Giving is not God’s way of raising money. Giving is God’s way of raising children. Every time you give sacrificially, you give a little of your selfishness away.”
I Timothy 6:18-19 says: “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” Now before I finish the passage, I want you to note that what comes next is not, “In this way, they will enable City Church to make its budget.” The passage does not read that way. Rather, the passage reads, “In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
In his classic bible commentary, Matthew Henry argues that Paul is charging the rich to “think of another world” when investing their resources, rather than investing in the fleeting treasures of the material world. The other world that Paul speaks of is the kingdom of Heaven, and that is where our treasure lies.
John Wesley connected this verse in 1 Timothy with Acts 10:4, which says that our giving will “come up as a memorial before God.” I don’t pretend to know how to fully unpack what that means but Wesley concluded that true riches are eternal, and are possessed by those who store up the treasure of a good foundation for the future.
[In Luke 16:11, Jesus ties our spiritual depth to our ability to handle wealth. The purpose of giving is to develop our character to live a life that is truly life.]
The Bible says that where your treasure is, there your heart will be, also (Matthew 6:21). That’s why this conversion of our pocketbook is linked back to the conversion of our heart.
[In this sense, tithing really is not about our money. It is about the condition of our hearts.]
If you’ve been around Christian circles very long, you’ve probably heard the word stewardship – and you understand it to have something to do with how much money you’re supposed to give away, to the church or to Christian causes. The implication is, if you give a lot, you are being a good steward. If you keep all your money to yourself, you’re not being a good steward.
At least, that’s how I used to think of stewardship – until I came to understand the role of a steward – a person who practices stewardship.
A steward, you see, doesn’t manage his own assets. A steward is entrusted with the property or finances of someone else. So, if we think about the role of a steward, then “stewardship” takes on a different meaning. An owner can use her resources any way she wants. A steward knows the day will come when his employer asks to see the books.
This means that being a steward is not simply deciding how much of “our” income we ought to give away to the church or to other Christian organizations – because what we give away isn’t really ours to begin with.
Stewardship involves what we do with all our resources: our time, talents, and money, what we give away, and what we don’t give away. We might think of these things as “ours” – but from a Christian perspective they’re not. They are assets that we manage for somebody else.
In Psalm 50 we read that “the Lord owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” That’s like saying to a cattle rancher: “See those cattle over there? You think you own them. They are grazing on your property. They have your brand on them. But you know what? They really are owned by the Lord. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, including the cattle you think are yours. You’re entrusted to be a steward over the ones on your ranch.”
If you are like most people who live in the city of Charlottesville, you don’t have cattle. But you may have stocks or bonds, or income, or a house, or a car, or consumer durables, or jewelry, or sports equipment, or human capital in the form of education and skills. Well, if you have any of those assets, the Lord owns them all, along with the cattle on a thousand hills.
Your pastor asked me to tell a story about me and I did. Now, I want to tell you a story about a former UVA student who was involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at UVA. His name is Tim and he graduated several years ago.
Tim was a poor kid, by UVA student standards. And if you are wondering what I mean by that, over spring break, Tim couldn’t afford to go south with other students; he couldn’t even afford to go home. So, he stayed in Charlottesville where he had a part time job at Alderman Library.
My wife Terry and I had Tim over for dinner and I observed something I’ll never forget. A couple weeks earlier Terry and I learned that this boy’s car just gave up the ghost. We prayed about this and wanted to give Tim some money towards another car. But we didn’t want Tim to know it was from us. So, we tried to do this through our church. But it turned out Tim still learned the money was from us.
And when he was at our home for dinner he offered to give the money back because he had decided he could get along OK without a car.
Now Tim’s desire to return the money, by itself, is remarkable. Offer to help someone buy a car and they say no? I can’t speak for females, but I suspect 95% of the male population wouldn’t say no to such an offer. But Tim did.
So, I countered and said, “Tim, someday you may want to get a car. You could put that money in a savings account until then.” 99% of the population wouldn’t say no to that. But Tim did.
I asked him a hypothetical question: “Tim, if you had this amount of money, that came to you unexpectedly (what economists call a “windfall”), and you didn’t know how to return it, what would you do with the money?”
Now listen to how this story ends. This UVA undergrad, who was working his way through school and was willing to forego owning a car told me that he always wished he had some money to give away. He observed students in his InterVarsity chapter at UVA who were raising money to go on summer missions trips, and he knew the InterVarsity staff guy lived off of donations given to his ministry. But Tim never had money that he could give away to help these people. And that’s what he really wanted to do with the money: give it away to advance God’s Kingdom.
Tim is better suited than I am to deliver this sermon. For Tim, giving is an investment in Christian discipleship.
I hope we all encounter people like Tim in our lives.
Let me pray for that.
Lord God, by your grace, make us a people who not only give, but, miracle of miracles, give cheerfully. Place us in a community where the iron of generosity sharpens the iron of cheerfulness. That would indeed be grace abounding.
In Jesus precious name we pray, Amen.