The generosity which is costly - 2 Corinthians 8
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‘Want to be happy? Stop being so cheap.’ That was the headline of a major American Magazine in 2014. It was the summary of a new book written by two leading sociologists, Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson entitled, ‘The Paradox of Generosity.’ The book was one of the most comprehensive studies of American’s giving habits every conducted. Americans who describe themselves as “very happy” volunteer an average of 5.8 hours per month. Those who are “unhappy”? Just 0.6 hours. Other findings include lower depression rates among Americans who donate more than 10 percent of their incomes. And giving away money isn’t the only way to reap the psychological rewards of generosity: Americans who are very giving in relationships—being emotionally available and hospitable—are much more likely to be in excellent health (48 percent) than those who are not (31 percent). In short generosity is good for you as well as for anyone else.
Well, it has taken 2,000 years for the sociologists to catch up with what the Bible has taught all along, and especially what the apostle Paul has to say in chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians. As a matter of theology, rather than sociology, this all makes sense, for if we are made in the image of God, then one of the key ways we express that image is when we are generous, for generosity lies at the very heart of God’s being. In fact ‘generous’ is too weak a word to describe far better to speak of grace, for it is in giving at great personal cost that the triune God shows his generosity to a corrupt and ungrateful world. This is the way Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 8:9, ‘For you know the grace [or we may say ‘generosity] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.’ In Christ paupers are made into princes; debtors into inheritors; greedy people transformed into generous people. And it is how that works itself out which is the main burden of these passages we are looking at together this morning.
First, we have the opportunity for generosity -chapter 8-9:5.
You know, when you are very affectionate of people you tend to boast about them- extol them. As a grandfather I find it very difficult not to wax lyrical about my grandchildren because I just love them to bits. Well, Paul was like that with his spiritual children. So he would boast about the Macedonian Christians who were to the north in Philippi, and commend the Corinthians in Greece and the Galatians in Turkey. And it is clear from 8:6 that the Corinthian Christians wanted to show the grace of God which had been working in their lives by taking a collection for the needy in Jerusalem; in fact verse 10 tells us they were the first to want to give to this relief fund. And this so bowled Paul over that he boasted about what they were doing to the Macedonians-9:2, so much so that it stirred them up to give. And they wanted to give out of hard circumstances 8:2, ‘In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people’ (that is the Christians in Jerusalem who were predominantly Jewish.) But that is what the Gospel does to you: straightened circumstances don’t stop you being generous if God by the Gospel has made you more like Jesus who is generosity incarnate. Let me give you a modern day example of this ‘Macedonian spirit of generosity’. One leader of a major denomination visited Albania when the doors began to open after 40 years of isolation and oppression under Communism. There he found an elderly woman from his denomination who for 50 years at regularly set aside ten per cent (a tithe) from her meagre income. Cut off from the outside world, first by the Second World War and then by a Marxist regime she had no way to channel her tithe to her church. Finally by chance, as it were, she met the leader of her denomination and presented him with the accumulated tithe of half a lifetime. That is what these Macedonian Christians were like.
Now Paul wants the Corinthians to make good on their word, so that as they have started a the collection they should finish it 8:11. And to help them along in this he is going to send Titus who, we are told in verse17 is full of enthusiasm and initiative, to prepare the way for when Paul comes to town in order to pick up the collection and take it on to Jerusalem. And Paul wants to make sure that this is all above board and there is no suspicion regarding the way the money will be handled so he is going to take along another Christian, mentioned in verse 19, a great gospel preacher, who will also be part of the preparatory team going to Corinth.
You see, Paul so loves these Corinthians, even though he knows how fickle they can be, (and because he knows they are like that) he takes measures to make sure that they step up to the plate and deliver the goods. He doesn’t want then to be embarrassed by him turning up and them not having the collection-9:3, ‘But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be. For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we—not to say anything about you—would be ashamed of having been so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given.’
Now this tells us something very important about giving: to give grudgingly is not to give generously. We tend to think of someone as generous if they give large amounts to something- maybe of their cash or of their time. But it is possible for a large amount to be given and it still isn’t generous, because generosity is an attitude not an amount. I think it is interesting that Paul is concerned that the Corinthians will feel ashamed either because they have not kept their word and held back the gift or they give the gift (even a large amount) but with the wrong attitude. And here there is a challenge to us: do we find ourselves thinking, ‘Yes I must get my giving to the church sorted- set up the standing order, increase my giving’ and the weeks and months go by and we have done nothing? Paul would say- you should be embarrassed. Or do we find ourselves thinking, ‘Yes, I had better give, but I do have this holiday I want this year, that new item for the house, the children must have the best- but I had better give anyway because Scott has told me to’- then Paul would say you should be ashamed, especially in the light of the way folk like that Albanian Christian or the Macedonian Christians gave. What is the lesson? If there is an opportunity to give- do it generously.
Which brings us to the nature of generosity 9:6-7.
Paul draws on a farming analogy which constitutes a natural principle to illustrate a spiritual principle. The natural principle is that you reap what you sow. A farmer can’t expect to have a harvest if he hasn’t sown any seed. Here is a packet of seeds. Now I am not the great gardener my wife is, but even I know that I have to get the seeds out of this bag and into the soil if I am going to see any return- a harvest. It is also the case that if I take out just one or two seeds, then I am not going to see 20 plants growing. If you sow sparingly, don’t be surprised if that is what you reap. So it is in the Christian life. It is no use complaining that you are not growing as a Christian or that God seems to be far removed from your life or that you are only on the fringes of the church if, to be frank, you are not putting in the effort to get close to God, or to serve him by serving his people. That is sowing sparingly. And, as that survey in America showed there won’t be much pleasure in the Christian life or any life which isn’t generous. One way to stop remaining on the fringes is by moving towards the centre. How? Well there are a variety of ways- there is giving generously financially, there is being with God’s people regularly as they worship and pray and study the Bible together. There is the giving in service in visiting the sick, providing a meal, helping out with ESL, Sunday school- the scope for service in a church like this is endless. Then there are other ways of being generous. The person through whom I became a Christian gave up the prospect of promotion, in effect a career, in order to stay in his village to serve in the church while holding down his present job. I am glad he did-otherwise I wouldn’t have met him and I wouldn’t have been converted. There was a man who was immensely generous.
So there is, if you will, a ‘law’ of generosity which is in operation.
But the nature of true generosity is unpacked further in verse 7, ‘Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’
First, Paul speaks of ‘each’ person deciding what to give. This tells us that practising generosity is an individual activity, not a corporate one. We can’t bask in the reflected kindness of someone else and say, ‘I belong to a generous church which gives over 10% of its income to missionary work’ if we ourselves as individuals are not giving much.
Secondly, generous giving is deliberate; each one is to give what he has ‘decided in your heart to give’. That is there has been some thought and prayer which has been put into it. It is not causal and unthinking, it is determined and thoughtful. Could I ask: is that what you do?
As we have already seen by definition generosity is not reticent or coerced or as Paul puts it, ‘reluctantly or under compulsion.’ One can give automatically, even abundantly in terms of actual ash or hours, but that still doesn’t make it generous. What makes it generous? The third point: It is given cheerfully ‘for God loves a cheerful giver.’ You see, this is not a passage primarily about giving; it is a passage mainly about generosity. What God is concerned with is creating generous people, people who delight to give of their time, of their homes, of their abilities, and yes, of their money-especially in an age like ours where money and possessions have become idolatrous- and they enjoy doing it! Do you not think God is like that? ‘He splashed the orange in the sunrise and cast the sky in blue. And if you love to see the geese as they gather, chances are you’ll see that too. Did he have to make the squirrel’s tail furry? Was he obliged to make the birds sing? And the funny way that chickens scurry or the majesty of thunder when it rings? Why give a flower fragrance? Why give food its taste? Could it be he loves to see the look upon your face?’ Don’t you want to be like that too? If God takes pleasure in being generous, it makes perfect sense for us to be generous as well.
So what are the benefits of generosity? Verses 8-15
There is a massive difference between Christian generosity and the kind of generosity surveyed by the two American sociologists. One implication which some might draw from that survey is that in order for me to be happy, I need to be generous. At one level that is correct- happiness of sorts is a product of being generous. But it is a by-product not an end in itself. Generosity- Gospel style is other- person centred, given for benefit of others and if it makes me joyful in the meantime- great, but that is not the primary motive in giving. Paul tells us how generous giving is possible in verse 8- God makes it possible, ‘And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.’ God performs a miracle in enabling impoverished Christians like the Macedonians to give out of their need. If you find that your heart is not as generous as you want it to be or know it should be, then ask God to make it so, act on it and you will find that it will be so. And the result is that you will have all that you need so that you can be even more generous- ‘abounding in every good work.’ If God blesses you with income and possessions, time and abilities then it is in order to enable you to do more and more of the same. They are not given for you to use selfishly, but for ‘every good work.’ So often the reason we are not cheerful givers is because we are fearful givers- we are afraid that if we give this much a month, or this amount of time out in the evening, then we will find ourselves in need. That is not how God’s economy works- the more you give, the more you have in order to give more-that is what the text says-v10 ‘Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.’ That is why giving is called a ‘grace, it is a gracious action of God in the heart which then flows out of the heart towards others. So in one sense the primary beneficiary of your generosity is you yourself- because you become a generous person and so more like Jesus.
But there are other benefits too. For a start, God gets thanked- v10, ‘and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.’ As the financial gift is taken from the Corinthians by Paul and the Macedonian delegates to be handed on to the Christians in Jerusalem, the first instinct of the Christians there will be to thank God. You can imagine it- they are suffering though drought, food is scarce, inflation is high, some of their children are crying out for milk, and then Paul and his friends arrive at the church doors with a life line. That would be a worship service worth attending wouldn’t it? There will be no holding back of the praise then.
Secondly, actual needs are met- v12, ‘This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.’ Again the connection between generosity and praise of God is an indissoluble one. But real needs are met by our generosity, it is not just putting money into some bureaucratic black hole- the beneficiaries have names and faces. We have seen some of them this morning with regards to the NCT, but look in our missionary booklet and you will see some more- go into our children’s groups and you will see even more. These are just some of the folk who benefit from us being generous.
Another benefit is that it shows we are converted and that will impress a watching world in the hope that others will be converted too, or at least take Christianity seriously-v13,’ Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.’
Furthermore it will result in more prayer, ‘And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.’ Surely that is a good thing?
No wonder Paul exclaims ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ How can you even begin to find words to describe and explain this amazing gift of God- generous hearts. It’s nothing short of a miracle. And Paul did not want these Corinthian Christian or us to miss out on it.
There is an old Indian fable about a beggar who sat everyday with his begging bowl as people came by. Sometimes he got money put into the bowl, but more often a little rice was all he could expect. One day he heard that the Maharaja of the whole region was coming on a visit to his town. The next day he positioned himself on the road side well before the boundaries of the town and waited patiently all day. At evening he saw the entourage of the Maharaja approach and he quickly drew near the great man, holding out his bowl with its day’s takings of rice and a copper or two.
The Maharaja took notice of him, as he had hoped, but instead of throwing money into his bowl he asked the beggar to give him something. Very shocked and disgusted, the beggar gave him a reluctant pinch of his own rice, just five grains in fact. That night he went back to his lodging house and to his room and went through his bowl examining his day’s takings. Suddenly he noted something glint in the bowl, and took out – a gold grain; later he found another, and after that another. Soon he had five grains of gold laid out on their own. But after that, no more!
Then the truth dawned on him. The Maharaja had slipped in a gold grain for each rice grain given. ‘What a fool I was!’ The beggar cried out in exasperation. If I’d known, I’d have given him everything!’
Let me tell you- Everything is precisely what God has given us: ‘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 through his poverty might become rich.’
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