The following is a question related to giving/tithing while in debt that a reader emailed to me:
How do you balance good stewardship and putting God first – or is there a difference?
Let’s say you have gotten into a lot of debt, learned a lot of hard lessons and are doing everything possible to improve your financial situation. You have worked diligently to cut expenses wherever possible and have come up with a budget, including a certain amount to give. As a result of debt, your budget is so tight that there is not much money, if any, left over after giving, debt, living expenses, etc.
What would you say is being a better steward of the money God gave you? (Understanding that poor stewardship may have put you in the current financial situation, but looking forward with determination, dedication, a proper focus and the understanding that less debt does not mean more spending power.)
) Pay the amount of tithe you determined appropriate (10%, etc), even if it means making close to minimum payments on bad debt. God should be the first line in your budget, but also could mean wasting thousands of dollars towards interest. Is this good stewardship?
) Lowering the amount of giving in order to create an opportunity to pay off debt more quickly. This could result in saving thousands of dollars of interest, but lowers the priority of giving back to God first. Are you robbing God?
Giving or Tithing While in Debt
First, I think God is honored by the heart with which you ask these questions. Your question seeks to determine how your relationship with God impacts your finances. For a person who says they were formerly a ‘poor steward,’ you are showing a healthy spiritual disposition of inquiry. I believe God is honored by your conscientious consideration as you seek to find what pleases him.
Second, the severity of your debt may (or may not) impact your individual situation.
I believe tithing is not just a monetary practice (like paying a bill), but it is a spiritual act. Therefore, when we neglect spiritual activities it impacts our relationship with God. Giving releases us from the heavy grip of money. Tithing is a spiritual activity that vividly reenacts the reality that God is the owner over all things. When you stop tithing you miss out on these spiritual blessings.
There is not a single situation in the Bible (that I am aware of) where someone was too poor to tithe. There are, however, situations where those who were financially struggling gave. Here are three such examples:
- The Widow at Zerephath ( Kings 17:7-24). Out of the thousands of people God could have sent Elijah to, he sent Elijah to a woman who was collecting wood to cook her last supper. God asked the woman to act in faith because God’s strength is made perfect in weakness ( Cor. 12:9).
- The Widow with two coins (Luke 21:1-4). Continuing the theme of the widow’s generosity, here Jesus commends this woman’s action. Surely, many of us would condemn it as poor stewardship, but Jesus speaks positively of her actions.
- The Macedonian Christians ( Cor. 8:1-7). Once again, we see this theme of commending those who give even in the midst of their poverty. Again, the overall impression is that this is a positive – not a negative act.
Perhaps the story of the woman who anointed Jesus would be a positive illustration for us (John 13:1-7). Here the woman’s action does not make sense to those with Jesus. The extravagance of her gift violates common sense and mathematical sense. In fact, one of their underlying accusations was that she was a poor steward. The money would have better been used for the poor. Jesus explains anything done in an effort to honor him cannot not be construed as poor stewardship. In other words, if you tithe while in debt and your tithe is a gift out of love for Christ, you need not worry that you are being a poor steward. In fact, Jesus would congratulate you for being a good steward.
Withholding a tithe may be a spiritually unhealthy statement about God’s inability to provide. Personally, I would rather have a longer journey out of debt while enjoying the blessings of giving. Furthermore, I only find one scriptural reason to stop tithing – when tithing has become a burden, not a blessing, and you give out of obligation instead of joy (Cor. 9:7). If you are currently in this situation, wrestle in prayer with God, study the scriptures, and trust him to show you the right pathway.
If a person did decide to postpone tithing I would suggest implementing the following guidelines:
- I would suggest you sit down with a respected leader in your church. Discuss your considerations openly. This will first provide you some feedback, and second it will provide you with some accountability.
- It must be done with the belief that this action is both pleasing to God and honoring to your family. Do not stop tithing if greed or selfishness is your motivation.
- It must be for a short predetermined period of time. Remind yourself that you are not forming a new habit, but instead temporarily accepting a little lack of equilibrium with the desire to get back into a normal habit of giving.
- Be sure you know exactly why you went into debt. Otherwise, you will likely forgo tithing and end up further into debt.
- Be sure you are following a plan to get out of debt. Don’t just quit tithing with a hope that one day you will be out of debt and able to tithe again. Have a detailed game plan. Otherwise you will never get out of debt and subsequently probably never resume your tithing.
To be clear, I do not suggest you stop tithing while you are trying to get out of debt. But if you choose not to accept this advice, you need to be sure the proper boundaries are in place so that you can return as quickly as possible to practicing this spiritual discipline.
Anyone agree or even disagree? Anyone have any other thoughts or ideas for this reader? Any other biblical stories that you think would provide some biblical insight into how we should answer this question?