All this month we have been talking about what it looks like to have a fresh start that means something more than it usually does. We’ve been talking about how to make our fresh starts something more than accomplishing the same old things with the same old efforts. The secret here when it comes to our relationship with Jesus is the spiritual disciplines. Each week in this journey we have talked about a different practice that will create space in our lives for the Holy Spirit to do His good work in us. This last part will be no exception. All of these efforts have been aimed in the direction of our living more fully the abundant life Jesus came to bring us. How do we live this abundant life? This last discipline is the key. Read on to find out what it is.
Invest in Tomorrow
One of my favorite cartoons growing up was Duck Tails. It was just one of those genre-defining shows that was beloved by a whole generation of kids. And that’s not just me speaking as a fan. The show was nominated for a Daytime Emmy award four different times including Best Children’s Animated Program twice. It was popular enough that it got a modern remake a few years ago. Of course, this wasn’t anywhere as good as the original—but not many things ever are.
The main character in Duck Tails was Scrooge McDuck. To give you a bit of Mickey-verse context, Scrooge was Donald Duck’s uncle. And, as Donald was the uncle of triplets Huey, Dewey, and Louie, that made Scrooge their great uncle. The triplets and Scrooge were the main focus of the show and each episode featured them going on one misadventure or another. Most of the plots centered around one villain or another trying to steal Scrooge’s money. Scrooge was fantastically wealthy and kept all of his money in gold coins in a giant vault. His favorite past time was swimming in it. He would put on his swimsuit, open the giant vault door behind his desk, and dive off the diving board sticking out from there over the humongous pile of money. He swam through it like it was water. Nobody else could do it. Anyone else who tried hit the top of the pile like it was cement—which is about what you would naturally expect from diving on a pile of coins.
Throughout the series, McDuck has one giant, overriding concern: holding onto his money. Everything else comes second to that. I mean, yes, technically he loves his grand-nephews, but his gold is his first priority. Because of this, he lives his whole life in fear of losing it. That makes him hold tighter to it which brings more fear which tightens his fist even more, and the pattern continues. Now, the television show was silly and fun, but can we be honest enough to admit that there’s at least a little bit of Scrooge McDuck in all of us. The thing to which we cling with such tenacity may not be our money, but there’s something of immense value to us in our lives that we hold to like the world will end if we lose it. Whatever that thing happens to be, it makes our world get small. This morning, I’d like to talk with you about a better way.
This morning we are wrapping up our new series for the new year, A Fresh Start. All this month—all this year, really—we have been talking about how we can make the most of the fresh starts we occasionally get in life. These may be nothing more than the turning of the calendar year, or they may be as significant as a fresh start in Christ. Either way, if we want these to be more than getting the same old things with the same old efforts, we’re going to have to do something different. In this case, what is different is our embrace of the spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines sound intimidating at first hearing, but once you understand them a bit more, they’re not so scary after all. Spiritual disciplines are simply intentional practices we take up in our lives in order to create space for the Holy Spirit to do His shaping work in us.
Along the way of this journey, we have looked at four different spiritual disciplines together. These have been the disciplines of engaging with the Scriptures, prayer, celebration, and silence. The first two are absolutely basic for followers of Jesus. If we want to be in a growing relationship with Him in any way, shape, or form, we’ve got to be in the Scriptures on a daily basis. More than that, we’ve got to be talking with Him throughout each day as well. Some of that talking time is going to be more intentional and formal, but some of it will also be spontaneous and scattered throughout the day. There are several different approaches to these as we talked about, but if we don’t have them in place, we won’t grow in our faith. Period.
The other two disciplines are less foundational, but no less important. Celebration helps us create a cultural climate primed to see small spiritual successes become a whole lifestyle of growth. We get more of what we celebrate, and so if we celebrate spiritual successes, we’ll see more of those happen in our lives. Silence, on the other hand, is about slowing down and eliminating the noise in our lives that keeps us from hearing the voice of our God as clearly as we’d like.
If we’re not careful, though, all this talk about the spiritual disciplines can start to seem like little more than yet another set of rules we’re expected to keep in order to be good followers of Jesus. No one likes rules. And more rules do not make it any better. Well, the goal of the spiritual disciplines is not to restrict what we do. It’s not to add a ton of extra activities to our days that keep us so busy doing “Jesus” stuff that we don’t have time for more “unholy” pursuits. Busyness—even righteous busyness—is not the way into a deeper relationship with Christ. The goal of all of these efforts is to help us live more fully the abundant life Jesus came to bring us. Remember what He said? I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly. Well, if this abundant life is truly our goal, there is one more spiritual discipline that will go further than just about any of the others in getting us there. This morning I want to talk with you about the spiritual discipline of generosity.
And, I know what you may already be thinking: Okay, here comes the sermon about money. There must be a preacher code somewhere that says you have to talk about money every few months just to make sure people are being guilted into ponying up sufficiently to keep the engine running. I’ll just tune this one out. But hear me well: I don’t want something from you this morning. I want something for you. Yes, giving away your hard-earned money is part of the discipline of generosity, but only a part of it. How big of a part depends on you, but it’s never more than a single part. The spiritual discipline of generosity, more than simply giving money away, is about developing a generous spirit that sees all of the resources God has entrusted to our care put to use in expanding His kingdom. And when your life is tied to that kingdom, the bigger it grows, the bigger your world becomes.
Well, there are several places in the Scriptures that address generosity and giving, but something Paul wrote to the Corinthian church has always stood out to me as particularly instructive. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to 2 Corinthians 9 with me. Now, 2 Corinthians was, of course, not the first letter Paul wrote to the members of the church there in ancient Corinth. From some context clues in this letter, we think it was at least his third letter to them. We don’t have the second. But, since this one is the second one we have, it gets its title. It would have been weird to call it 3 Corinthians if we didn’t have the second. In any event, the letter addresses a variety of issues the believers in Corinth were wrestling through that didn’t get addressed in the first. On the whole, it seems like they had gotten their act together a bit since the first letter, but there was still more growth to happen.
About two-thirds of the way through the letter, Paul sets his sights on a ministry issue that was near and dear to his heart. This was a benevolence offering he was taking up from the churches he visited in Asia Minor in order to bring some financial relief back to believers in Jerusalem who were suffering mightily after a major earthquake had shaken the region up a few years before. Rather than simply telling the people to give as a command, though, Paul unpacks for them why giving generously to advance the kingdom of God is so important. And while Paul says a number of important things, I want to focus our attention in this morning on just three things. Look at these with me starting in 2 Corinthians 9:6.
“The point is this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work.”
Paul starts here by setting out the basic foundation for the spiritual discipline of generosity: The less generous you are, the smaller your world becomes. The more generous you are, the bigger it becomes. And that’s really how I want you to understand this. Verses like this one are dangerous. What Paul says here can be made to sound like something out of the mouth of a Prosperity Gospel preacher telling his flock that if they’ll just open their pocketbooks a little bit wider, then God will be able to fit more in them as they shell more out of them. If you’ll just give more, then you’ll get more with “more” being defined pretty narrowly as material increase. That’s not only not what Paul is saying, that’s not how it works with God. What Paul’s saying here isn’t so pedestrian as that. He’s thinking much bigger than simply trying to selfishly get God to fill up our own bank accounts by giving more money away to His causes.
In practicing the discipline of generosity, we are opening ourselves up to take a greater and greater part in the advancement of God’s kingdom into this world. And, like investors in a new business venture are able to see more and greater returns depending on how significant their investment in it is starting with our embrace of the Gospel, the more of ourselves and our resources we invest in the advancement of God’s kingdom, the more fully we will get to enjoy and take part in the returns it will bring. And this isn’t just about getting bigger mansions in heaven either (something the Scriptures never actually promise; that’s a King James mistranslation). This is about entering more fully into the spacious boundaries of God’s kingdom so we can enjoy its length, breadth, and depth to their fullest. That’s what Paul is saying here. The less we invest, the less we will enjoy the returns. The more we invest, the more we will. This isn’t about scarcity and grabbing hold of more of a limited pie. This is about abundance and seeing just how big life really is.
The next verse there completely removes any kind of “ought” from giving and other acts of generosity forever. Thinking in terms of ought—as in you ought to do this, or you ought to do that—is old covenant thinking. Jesus’ new covenant with us only has one command: Love one another as He loved us. Everything else flows from that including our giving. If you’ve ever heard anyone tell you that you should be giving such and such in order to be a good Christian, they were getting it wrong and I’m sorry you felt guilted by them into doing something you heart wasn’t behind. That’s not the way of Jesus.
The simple truth is this: God doesn’t want you to give because you feel like you should. He wants you to give because you want to give. He wants you to give of your treasure, but also your time and your talents because you understand the value and importance of taking part in the advancement of His kingdom, not because you feel like you need to in order to really solidify your place in it. If you are in Christ, you have a place in His kingdom. Period. Nothing you do or don’t do is going to take away from that. The discipline of generosity allows you to better and more fully reflect your joy of being there.
Incidentally, this means there isn’t some certain amount you should be giving in order to be a good Christian. You should give what God has moved in your heart to give. Now, you can very easily sell yourself on the notion that He’s moved you to give less than He’s really moved you to give because of that little Scrooge McDuck hiding in your heart. His calls to giving will always be sacrificial. If your giving isn’t sacrificial, then it’s not accomplishing in and for you what God knows it can. If there is any kind of a should or an ought attached to giving, it is that our giving should be a sacrifice. You decide between you and God what that means. But, if your heart’s not in it, you’re wasting your time to give it. Generosity is always voluntary. Generosity that’s not voluntary is called a tax. God doesn’t levy taxes in the new covenant. Instead, He offers abundance and the chance to take part in it.
Speaking of taking part in God’s abundance, that’s what the last thing Paul says here is all about. When you set out to follow the path of generosity, God will make sure you have all you need to do all He’s called you to do. Actually, it’s better than that. Because He is a God of abundance and not scarcity, He’ll go above and beyond making sure you have even more than you need. Way more than you need. As Paul said, He will “make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work.” Can you hear all the abundance there? When you step out into the waters of generosity, God will make sure not simply that you float, but that you’re unsinkable. This is only available, though, when you cheerfully commit yourself to sowing generously…something that doesn’t come naturally to any of us. Thus this is a discipline. It’s a practice. It’s something in which you start out small, but gradually grow with His help to reach heights you never even thought to imagine could be possible. This is an abundance that only the God who created the whole world could provide. An abundant life starts with a generous spirit.
So, how do we do it? Well, at its core, generosity is all about one major idea: Using the resources God has given us to advance His kingdom. That’s it. Generosity is really that simple. The most generous people have learned to ask this question with regard to all of their resources: How can I use this in the advancement of God’s kingdom? Okay, but what resources do we really have? We have our money, obviously, and we’ll come back to that in a second, but think bigger. What other treasure do you have? How about every single thing you own? Your treasure isn’t defined simply by what you have in the bank. It’s defined by everything on which you would place the label, “mine.” How can you use your treasure to advance God’s kingdom? Are you making sacrificially giving a progressively increasing percentage of your income a priority? Do you look at your house as a ministry tool? How about your car? Could your clothes advance God’s kingdom? How about your food? Could your furniture do it? For some of those things the answer will be easy, others will take more creativity, and some are really only useful for you, but it’s not necessarily the use itself that matters but the attitude behind it. Your goal is to experience the abundance of the kingdom of God by being as generous as you can with as much as you can. And an abundant life starts with a generous spirit.
Your treasure isn’t the only resource God has given you. He’s also given you a certain set of talents. He made you able to do some things that other people can’t. He’s allowed you to live through a certain set of experiences that have enabled you to perform certain tasks that are impossible for others to do. How can you use your talents for the advancement of God’s kingdom? If you’re a great cook, don’t just cook for yourself. Cook for others to enjoy and experience the blessing of God. If you are particularly mechanically inclined, don’t just fix stuff around your own house, find ways to help others fix things around their houses too. If you’re a really effective leader, how can you help lead groups (like, say, the church) to more effectively engage and expand God’s kingdom? If you can do something not everyone can, God has given you that gift so that His kingdom can benefit. The discipline of generosity is the means by which you achieve that high and glorious purpose.
There is also what is perhaps your most precious resource: time. How can you use your time to advance God’s kingdom? How much extra time do you really have? How can you manage your time such that you are able to be as generous as you can be with it without taking away from your most pressing priorities? What if you took just half the time you spent watching television or scrolling through social media or playing a game and committed that time to kingdom-advancing pursuits? And those don’t even have to be outside your house. There’s plenty of kingdom-advancing work you could do just within your own family without ever worrying about anybody else.
Again, the big question here is this: how can you use all of the resources God has given you to advance His kingdom? How can you more fully take part in the abundance of His kingdom? Generosity is the way to go. An abundant life starts with a generous spirit. So, what are you going to do? How are you going to be more fully a part of what God is doing in His world? Imagine just how much you could experience if you really let yourself go in this direction. Imagine how much you could accomplish. Imagine how much we could all accomplish together. An abundant life starts with a generous spirit. If you want more as we continue into this new year and beyond, generosity is how you will get there. Let’s commit to going there together.