There seems to be two extremes when it comes to how Christians view their relationship with their possessions. Perhaps the answer is a generosity matrix.
The first one is that God wants 10 percent, often called “the tithe.” This is based on an Old Testament principle that the first 10 percent of what God gives us goes back to him. For this group, after you’ve paid your tithe, you’ve essentially fulfilled your duty and you can do whatever you want with the rest. It’s like a God-tax. After you pay it, you’re done.
At the other end are those who constantly feel guilty, no matter how much they give, because they assume that as long as there are poor and lost people in the world, God’s only purpose for our money is to get the gospel to them. John Wesley famously took down all the pictures on his walls, calling them the “blood of the poor,” because he felt like each picture was another orphan he might have brought in from the cold.
If I had to choose between the two, I’d prefer the latter position to the former. But both are out of balance. We don’t have to choose from these two extremes.
Instead of giving us a universal rule, the Bible teaches us to view our possessions through a matrix—not the Keanu Reeves kind, but a generosity matrix as a set of principles—that we should hold in tension.
Any one of these principles, taken alone, will lead you out of balance. And there are times when obedience means leaning into one principle more than others. But as a general rule, if Christians can hold all seven of these principles in reverent tension, a generosity matrix, it will help them fulfill the will of God in regard to their money.
1. Jesus’ generosity is the model for our own.
Paul tells the Corinthian believers that ultimately, they should think about how much Jesus has given up for them and respond accordingly: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV).
Jesus did not merely tithe his blood, after all; he gave all of it (100 percent). That means our responsibility is not just to give our 10 percent and go on our self-serving way, but to offer 100 percent of our lives back to him and pour out our lives recklessly for him and others, just as he did for us.
2. God gives us richly all things to enjoy. In fact, he is glorified when we enjoy them.
That’s a quote from 1 Timothy 6:17, in which Paul reminds his readers that God delights to take care of his children. The whole Bible speaks to God’s abundance toward his creation and toward his children. We misstep when we begin to ascribe to God the concept of scarcity.
Jesus might have been poor, but ironically, he also lived out of abundance. In fact, his critics accused him of being a glutton and a drunk. He wasn’t a glutton and a drunk, but the reason they said it was that Jesus loved a good feast (Luke 7:34). In fact, biblical scholar Robert Karris points out that at just about every point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is either coming from a meal, going to a meal, or at a meal.
My kinda guy.
3. God gives us excess so we can share it with others.
During the Israelites’ wilderness journey, God covered the ground every morning with bread from heaven. There was so much of it that everyone could eat their fill. But it went bad every night, so if they tried to stockpile to make sure they had enough for the next day, it would stink up their house.
One of the reasons God made the manna go bad every day was to discourage stockpiling. Those who collected more were responsible to share with those who collected less.
God provides for us in the same way today, by giving us everything we need, and sometimes more than we need. According to Paul, however, the primary reason God gives us excess is not to increase our standard of living, but our standard of giving: “Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:14–15).
4. It can be wise to build wealth.
If you held this principle alone and not in tension with the others, it would lead to the hoarding of wealth, something Scripture clearly condemns (James 5:1–5). But God gives clear instructions in passages like Proverbs 3:9–10, 6:6–8, 13:22, 14:24, and 21:5 that it is wise to save and invest; he commends it and even rewards it.