As parents of three college-age persons, my wife and I now have an early-year ritual. We file the tax returns, and then we file something called the FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This shows us exactly how much financial aid our kids will not get for college in the coming year.
Once you plug in your financial and tax information, the government spits back your Expected Family Contribution. This produced quite a surprise the first year we did it.
"Look at the number," I said. "It's almost exactly the amount we tithed last year."
We both said, "Hmmm," and then quickly dismissed a thought.
Tithing has been part of our marriage from the beginning. We wouldn't change that, but over 24 years, I'd be lying if I said our accompanying attitude was always great. We've either experienced or witnessed some interesting approaches to tithing. Some were slightly out of balance. Others were seriously twisted. The list goes something like this:
Tithing as a bribe to God. We can't be the only ones who ever thought, We'd better keep tithing because we're afraid of what might happen to us if we stopped. It's sort of like paying off the neighborhood mob boss every month to keep the riffraff out of your store.
I remember hearing a sermon once where the pastor said that God evens everything out—that, for instance, when we tithe, maybe the car doesn't break down so often or the kids don't get sick. Maybe that's true for some, but I've often found the opposite: When we decide to give a little extra, that's the week the car gives out. Sometimes it feels like a test.
Tithing as a padlock. As in, "We'd really like to be able to help that needy person down the street, but all our extra money is locked into that weekly tithe check." We never did this consciously, but thinking back, we certainly did it. I pray we never do it again.
Tithing as a tax deduction. Hey, it crosses all of our minds. Why do you think late December is the biggest income period for churches? Is this wrong? Certainly I won't refuse the deduction, but if tax savings is the prime motivator for giving, then I'm pretty sure it's not honoring God. A good test: Do we think twice about giving—substantially—to someone in need if they're not an IRS-recognized charitable organization?
Tithing as a political weapon. We've seen people withhold their tithe when they didn't like a change in a church's musical styles. Or the youth ministry. Or a pastor's salary. Or any number of other reasons that totally lose the point of giving and that must truly grieve God.
Tithing as a game of keep-away: Is it really supposed to be 10 percent? Of the net or the gross? If it's the net, then do we need to tithe our tax return? Can we claim the kids as deductions? What about college tuition? What if it was a Christian school? If we also give to missionaries, does that count as part of the 10 percent or does that have to be extra? Can we depreciate that Bible we bought last year?
We turn God into the heavenly IRS. Giving becomes, "What's the least we can give and still pass?"
Tithing as punishment: Longtime tithers, don't tell me that at least once you haven't looked at your friends with the bigger homes and nicer cars and better vacations and whined, "Well, gee, if we didn't tithe we could have some of those nice things too."
Tithing as an act of pride. Take the previous statement and add: "Good thing we're more spiritual than they are. They'll get theirs someday." You don't even have to say it aloud. Just let your mind go there and the damage is done.
Tithing as a sacrifice. As in, "Here, God, take what little extra we'd have had this week. We know it's for your kingdom. We'll just scrape along. Don't worry about us." Tithing certainly is a worthy sacrifice, but when we think of it chiefly as that, we start to resent it. And then we might as well not give at all.
Tithing as an investment: Viewed correctly, it's scripturally sound: Jesus told us to store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20). What better way to do that than invest in efforts to help get people there? As pastor and author Mark Driscoll says: "You can't take it with you, but you can send it on ahead." The caution is, we can forget the words in heaven and quickly move from Jesus' teaching to the slot-machine model: Put a check in the offering plate and wait for the quick payout.
"Have to" to "Get to"
So where does that leave us, after 24 years and lots of mistakes? How about . . .
Tithing as an act of worship. Everything we have is God's. We're just the temporary caretakers. What a privilege to be able to give a chunk of money back to him to be used for his honor. And if the word tithing holds too much legalistic baggage for you—or, conversely, if it's too limiting—then just call it giving.
Do we ever have a season where it's okay not to tithe? In our experience, no. We'll sometimes direct part of that tithe to different places if there's an urgent need. But I don't think it's a good idea to stop tithing to pay off credit-card debt or, I don't know, maybe college tuition. Financial expert Dave Ramsey once told me in an interview that he and his wife tithed all the way into deep debt and all the way back out—the latter half as a way of showing God they trusted him completely. In a bad economy, that still seems like good advice.
I'm convinced that God isn't as concerned about a percentage as he is about an attitude. My wife and I used to give 10 percent of net. Then we increased by 1 percent a year for several years, until we'd reached 10 percent of gross. Now we feel like that's a good base point, and it's supported biblically (Deuteronomy 14 and 26, among many other places). Sometimes we're able to give more and sometimes we're not. But there's no "have to" any more. Now it's "get to." We're free to give as God leads us, and it's a blast.
All of which Paul summarizes perfectly in 2 Corinthians 9:7: "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."
As for those college costs? I don't think it was an accident that the numbers matched so closely to our tithes. We've come to think of it as God simply saying, "Trust me."
Jim Killam, a MarriagePartnership.com regular contributor, teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University and is co-author of Rescuing the Raggedy Man (Xulon).
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