In Matthew 28, Jesus commissioned his followers to an awesome task. “Go,” he told them, “and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” You might be surprised to learn that this “Great Commission” (as it has come to be known) is at the heart of what we do at Sound Mind Investing. Fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission is the driving force behind our work.
Does that seem strange? This is, after all, a financial publication. We help people understand biblical principles for managing their money, earn good returns on their investments, and secure their financial future. We offer advice on such things as getting out of debt, building an emergency fund, saving for the future, and preparing for retirement. But to truly understand SMI, you need to know that I didn’t start this newsletter 30 years ago because I have a passion for helping Christians strengthen their financial foundations. Frankly, stronger financial foundations don’t mean much to me if they’re not accompanied by greater generosity. We want to help you have more so you can give more.
My staff and I are motivated by a common desire to see God’s message of love and salvation in Christ carried around the world to people he loves, people who are lost without Him. And that task, more often than not, requires money. That’s why we want our readers to have more — not merely so they can achieve their financial goals, but also so they can give generously to advance God’s kingdom. However, here’s what I’ve observed: it’s far easier to help people have more than it is to motivate them to give more. Our SMI staff can teach our readers effective financial techniques, but we can’t give them more generous hearts.
Over the decades of publishing this newsletter, I’ve devoted a great deal of thought to what motivates Christians to give. I believe that the reasons typically fall into three broad areas. First, there are those who say…
“I’m giving because I want to do my duty.”
Why do we view giving as a duty? Because Scripture teaches that:
- God owns everything.
“Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11, emphasis added here as well as in other Scripture passages below). God is the owner, and when we give, we’re merely giving back to him what is already His. “Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:14).
- We’re servants who manage what belongs to Him.
We’re his money managers. One of the most familiar of Jesus’ teachings is the Parable of the Talents. Here’s how he begins: “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey” (Matthew 25:14-15). So the master has gone away. He’s entrusted his property to us to manage on his behalf. What do servants do?
- Servants follow orders.
First Corinthians 4:2 says, “Now the most important thing about a servant is that he does just what his master tells him to” (The Living Bible). I like what pastor and author Andy Stanley has to say about the servant’s role with respect to giving and generosity, based on the instructions Paul gives to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:17: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”
- Our orders are to be unusually generous.
First, Andy makes sure his audience understands that 1 Timothy 6:17 is talking about them. They are “those who are rich.” (If you’re a comfortable middle-class American, congratulations — you’re in the top 10% when it comes to measuring the wealth of all the people on planet Earth.) Then Andy says this:
The verses say, “Command them to do good.” He doesn’t say, “Command them to be good” — the rest of the Bible says that. And he’s not commanding us to do good in the sense that the average person does good because the average Christian is supposed to do good.
He’s talking to rich people. He says, “Timothy, tell the rich people to do good as only rich people can do.” This isn’t average good. This is rich-people good. So tell those rich people to be generous and willing to share — not as normal people, not as average people. But tell them to be generous as only rich people can be generous.
“And, Timothy, don’t assume that just because they have more they’re going to give more. You’re going to have to tell them: ‘Be generous. Be willing to share.’ They need to know that God gave them their wealth not just for their sake, but for what God wants to do in the world.” (Emphasis added throughout.)
It is clear from Scripture that, as servants, we have our orders. We are to do what the master asks. If we are to be found faithful, we must give generously.
Even though this is biblically true, I rarely write to you, our readers, about giving from this perspective. There are two drawbacks in approaching the issue primarily from the point of view of duty.
First, I don’t believe that telling you what you ought to do is particularly motivational. Making you feel guilty because you’re not doing as much as you could (and possibly should) isn’t an effective way to inspire generosity. But more importantly, I want to encourage you to set big goals when it comes to your giving. People who look at giving merely as a duty may be more likely to settle for giving 10% — i.e., the tithe. I believe many SMI readers can afford to give much more than 10%. So we seek to inspire and enable you to give more than what “duty” would call you to give.
Giving is about more than doing your duty. It’s about more than faithfully carrying out a responsibility. Yes, it involves duty, but you know, people can perform their duties reluctantly. And far be it from us to give to our gracious, loving God in a begrudging way.
Let’s move on to a second motivation for giving, those who might say…
“I’m giving because I’ve been promised rewards!”
Again, this is true. In the 1 Timothy passage mentioned earlier, Paul says that if rich people will be rich in good deeds, if they will be generous and willing to share, they “will be storing up real treasure [for themselves] in heaven — it is the only safe investment for eternity” (1 Timothy 6:19 TLB).
This is great news! Who doesn’t want to reap rewards that come from making wise investments? Paul is saying that generosity now will be rewarded with treasures in heaven for all eternity! He’s echoing Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “For if you give, you will get! Your gift will return to you in full and overflowing measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over. Whatever measure you use to give — large or small — will be used to measure what is given back to you” (Luke 6:38, TLB).
For some of us, this teaching is so familiar that it’s lost its wonder. Don’t let it. Don’t rush past it and fail to appreciate that this is an “investment opportunity” unlike any other. It’s a “sure thing.” Don’t fail to take advantage of it.
An incident a few years ago in Washington, D.C., offers a lesson about missed opportunities. On a Friday morning in 2007, a youngish-looking man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a baseball cap entered a D.C. subway station. He had a small case tucked under his arm. Finding a spot near the entrance, he opened the case and took out a musical instrument — his violin. After positioning the case at his feet and tossing in a few dollars and loose change for seed money, he leaned back against a wall and began to play.
Each passerby had a quick decision to make — a not uncommon one where the occasional street performer is part of the city-life environment: “Do I ignore him — or do I throw in a dollar as I rush by?” Perhaps some even asked themselves, “Do I have time stop and listen?”
But the scene was not as it appeared. What the commuters didn’t know is that the “concert” was an experiment arranged by The Washington Post Magazine. This wasn’t just any young man. This was violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, one of the most acclaimed musical artists in the world. His concerts sell out everywhere he plays. In a subway station filled with hurried commuters, this superb violinist played for 43 minutes, artfully interpreting six masterpieces by Bach — some of the most beautiful music ever composed. His instrument? A $3.5 million Stradivarius, handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713.
According to the Post, during those 43 minutes, 1,097 people walked past. What was their response to having a world-class musician in their midst? To having an opportunity to hear this grand virtuoso play a concert for free? In a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story about this experiment, reporter Gene Weingarten described what happened:
[Bell] played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.... Three-and-a-half minutes went by before he got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.
Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, [only] seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute....
If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?
A wonderful opportunity was presenting itself, but the people were too preoccupied with matters of everyday life to take advantage of it. I hope that won’t be true of us when it comes to Jesus’ promise of eternal rewards.
What are we missing if we fail to seize the opportunity to be generous givers? Jesus said we can gain eternal treasures by our faithful stewardship now. What a remarkable promise!
The most daunting stewardship scripture in the Bible
We should be especially mindful that the last part of Jesus’ promise in Luke 8 contains these words: “Whatever measure you use to give — large or small — will be used to measure what is given back to you” (Luke 6:38, TLB). It seems to me this is perhaps the most startling (and perhaps alarming) stewardship scripture in the Bible.
To bring this principle regularly to my mind, I once kept a set of kitchen measuring spoons on my desk as a paperweight. When I considered giving decisions, I wanted this reminder — don’t use a small measure! As much as possible, I want to reach for the larger spoons, the ones that promise the largest eternal rewards. I encourage you: Use the largest measure you possibly can!
Jesus promised rewards to his faithful stewards. Randy Alcorn has written with wonderful insight on that, notably in a little book called The Treasure Principle, which I highly recommend. So don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say; I’m all for the rewards. Even so, when I write in SMI about giving, and what Scripture says about our role as servants and about God’s promise of rewards, I rarely focus on either as a motivation for generosity. Instead, I prefer to approach giving from a third aspect — one that deals with our affections.
Giving is an affair of the heart. And in my heart of hearts, what I really want is for God to be pleased with my life. I want to make him happy. I trust that you have similar desires. So my challenge to you and to me is that each of us would say…
“I want to give generously because I love my Father in heaven and I want to cheer his heart.”
Consider how deeply committed our Father is to us! When you placed your faith in Christ, it’s as if God said:
My child, I pledge to love you with an everlasting love. I’ll constantly be watching over you, and I’ll provide for your needs. I’ll guide your steps through life, and give you advice so you can make good decisions. As you depend on me, I’ll give you strength to endure difficult times.
I’ll always be listening for you, so you can pray to me whenever you want and I’ll hear you. I’ll answer your prayers like a loving parent, granting what is good and helpful and withholding when I have something better. I’m going to give you spiritually useful abilities so your life will be purposeful and filled with beautiful moments.
You are precious to me — so you can trust that my love for you is genuine and deep and permanent. I’ll never grow tired of you, never abandon you, and never be unfaithful to my promises — never! In this special relationship of ours, I’ll always be true to you, and I want you to always be true to me.
Isn’t that reasonable — that we would always be true to him? Paul puts the question to us in Romans 12:1: “When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask?” (TLB). No, it’s not too much to ask. And remember, it’s not just in this life that our Father is looking after us.
Yes, we should give out of duty. Yes, it’s appropriate to give because we want rewards. But these reasons — though they are biblical — don’t motivate me nearly as much as this simple truth: When I give lovingly and generously, it gives my heavenly Father pleasure.
“God has given each of you some special abilities; be sure to use them to help each other,” we read in 1 Peter 4. “Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies, so that God will be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:10,11b TLB). This passage tells us that when we use our gifts in obedience, we are doing what we were made to do, what we have been gifted to do: to glorify God and advance his kingdom!
Nothing in life is as satisfying. When the Holy Spirit in you is allowed to live out the life of Christ through you, you can accomplish things of eternal consequence that are on God’s heart.
Feeling God’s pleasure
The 1981 film Chariots of Fire tells the story of Eric Liddell, a gold medalist at the 1924 Olympics and later a missionary to China. The primary drama focuses on his refusal to run on a Sunday, believing Sunday is reserved for the Lord. But my favorite part of the film is a subplot involving Eric and his sister Jennie. She is concerned that Eric’s running will take him away from his missionary efforts.
In one scene, Eric tells Jennie the good news that he’s been accepted by the mission society to go to China. But then he adds, “But I’ve got a lot of running to do first.” She is taken aback, but Eric says, “Jennie, you’ve got to understand. I believe that God made me for a purpose — for China. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.... [T]o win is to honor Him.”
It’s an emotional moment when, later, we see Eric in the final moments of his Olympic race. He was a 100-meter sprinter who, due to the scheduling, ended up competing in a 400-meter race. He ran against the best runners in the world at that longer distance, two of whom had set new world records in their qualifying heats earlier in the week. With head thrown back and legs pumping, he is exhilarated as he tries to give his very best to what he believed God had called — and equipped — him to do. He won that race, setting yet another new world record. As a result of his victory and his refusal to run on Sunday, God was honored and financial support was gathered for his missionary work in China.
Eric Liddell was given speed for a reason. You and I have been given wealth for a reason. We weren’t created to celebrate ourselves. We were created to celebrate Him. And when we invest our lives in celebrating Him, we feel his pleasure.
In the Parable of the Talents, what is the last thing the master said to the faithful servants? We’ve gotten past the assignment where he has told them what their duty is…we’ve gotten past the handing out of the rewards…and the last thing the master says to the faithful servant is, “Come and share your master’s happiness.” When you and I are faithful servants, we make the master happy.
Dreaming big dreams
As you can tell, I dream big dreams for you in this area, that you will excel in the grace of giving (see 2 Corinthians 8:7).
- I want you to give more this year than you gave last year, and more next year than you gave this year, and still more the year after that (2 Corinthians 9:6,8).
- I want you to reap a generous harvest (2 Corinthians 9:6).
- I want you to bring joy to the Father’s heart, because he just loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7).
- I want you to experience what it’s like to receive God’s abundant provision as you give in good measure (Luke 6:38).
- I want you to demonstrate your faithfulness as you earnestly seek to prove the sincerity of your love (1 Corinthians 4:2, 2 Corinthians 8:7-8).
- I want others to praise and glorify God because of your obedience in giving (2 Corinthians 8:11-13).
- I want you to make acceptable sacrifices that are well-pleasing to God (Philippians 4:18, Hebrews 13:16).
- I want you to give in full proportion to your ability. For many, the tithe is a good place to start but a poor place to stop (2 Corinthians 8:11).
- I want you to know what it’s like to see God supply all your needs out of his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).
- I want you to move on toward greater spiritual usefulness by proving yourself faithful in the small things (Luke 16:11).
- I want your giving to convincingly testify to your belief that God is the owner of everything (Psalm 24:1-2).
- I want you to be able to gladly lay aside earthly wealth because you have God as your treasure (Psalm 63:1,3,8).
- I want you to be loved and prayed for all the more (2 Corinthians 9:14).
- I want you to be Christ-like in making sacrifices so that others might become spiritually rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
- I want you to have the satisfaction of being singled out as a good example to others (2 Corinthians 8:1-3).
- I want you to have a sense of urgency about making the most of your opportunities because you don’t know what tomorrow holds (John 9:4, James 4:14).
- I want you to learn and enjoy the secret of contentment (Hebrews 13:5).
- I want you to gladly count everything a loss compared to the priceless gain of knowing Christ, our Lord (Philippians 3:8).
- I want you to earn treasures in heaven where you will value them forevermore (Matthew 6:19-20).
I want all these wonderful things for you. And really, don’t you want them, too?
Life is short
The words of the Casting Crowns’ song, Who Am I?, serve as a good reminder: “I am a flower quickly fading, here today and gone tomorrow, a wave tossed in the ocean, a vapor in the wind…”
We’ve talked about duty, and we’ve talked about rewards, and we’ve talked about making God happy. I feel I just need to mention one more thing: life is short.
You may be thinking that you’d like to boost your giving, that you’d like to be more generous. But the economy is so uncertain right now. Maybe later this year you could revisit this idea — or if not this year, there’s always next year.
No…there’s not. There’s not always next year. There’s not always next month. Or next week.
The moment when you will be ushered into God’s presence may seem far off, but it will be upon you before you know it. Many in the SMI family might well have that experience before 2020 is over. You could be one of those people. I could be one of those people. We don’t know.
This is a sobering fact. It should cause us to think very deeply on the values we hold and the decisions we make. Our purpose for living is to delight in and — by any and all means — reflect the glory of God. What are we doing now, in this little while before we vanish like “a vapor in the wind,” to make the glory of God known?
There are many ways we are called to serve the Lord. Giving is one of them. Like Eric Liddell, you have a race to run. No one else can run it for you. So run it with passion and purpose. Then, like the Apostle Paul, you can say with great satisfaction, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).