Tithing, Faith, and Testing God

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I received the following question from a reader.  As you’ll see, the question is about tithing, faith, and testing God.

Hi Craig,
I’ve been married for 16-plus years and my wife and I made some money mistakes early on in our marriage (neither of us had parents who taught us how to handle money or make a budget). We have never been unwise with money (buying trailers, boats, going on vacations, etc.), but we have been hit with medical bills and car repairs that have led to huge debt. Our most recent hit was last July when my wife had to undergo emergency back surgery that added to further debt with our budget and finances we already didn’t have to accommodate it. We will be paying monthly on these bills for more than a year.
But it has always been our hearts to tithe and step out into faith in doing so. To start the new year of 2011, our pastor was giving some great sermons on walking out in faith and into the "wet ankle zone," so I decided I would do that and tithe in faith, knowing that my checkbook was reflecting a huge negative in its balance, but my wife and felt led to turn it over to the Lord and give anyway.
Well, like many times in our marriage when we’ve walked out on faith with tithing, we go burned again. I don’t know what to say other than we are so confused about this area of tithing that God says "test me on" only to see is get hit worse than before.
Every time we have tried to tithe out on faith in our marriage, feeling strongly this is what God wants us to do, we fall further into debt. I just looked at my checking account and we got hit five times for overdraft charges on five checks.
I don’t know what to say other than my wife and I are frustrated with God beyond belief. He says to test him in the area of tithing, yet when we always have in the past (including in January), we have been come up short in our finances with no provision or sign of hope financially.
I’m at my wits end and don’t know how to respond with this situation and how God wants us to act. Please advise of what you would do in this situation.
Thank you for your concern and your reply.

I have already shared my thoughts on giving/tithing in debt.

Is testing God a good motive to give?

You’re probably not a real Christian if you haven’t heard someone refer to Malachi 3:10 and say, “Test me in this [bring the whole tithe into the storehouse]”.

I’m going to start off with a few general observations:

1.  These are situational words to specific people in a specific situation.  Our job is to determine how our lives parallel the lives of the recipients.

For example, you can’t hardly insist, as a Christian, that every Christian drink wine (1 Tim. 5:23).  I say that even though Paul encouraged Timothy to drink wine.  Why?  These are situational words to a specific person in a specific situation.  We certainly wouldn’t pass these teaching on to a recovering drunkard, would we?

Brief Analysis of Malachi 3:10

Judah has been unfaithful to God (2:11).  The worst part is that Judah thinks herself innocent (2:17).  Now, judgment is on its way (3:2), but Judah stands with bloody hands.  They are sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, those who defraud their workers, and those who oppress widows and the fatherless.  And they do not fear God (3:5).

What these people need is a renewal and a reformation in their love of God (expressed through the practice of justice).  God, being a gracious and compassionate God, offers this nation an opportunity to test him.  What a gracious allowance this is because, in the Bible, testing is often an act of disrespect to God.  God even offers a promise that he will open the floodgates of heaven if they test him in this area (2:10).

But, they are so hardened that, even with God’s gracious offer, they did not accept (3:14).

Does this offer extend to us today?

In light of the uniqueness of this situation and the normally abhorrent approach to testing, I would say that God graciously offered them an opportunity to test him.  He was not, however, setting up a new covenant relationship where he encourages his followers to develop a habit of testing him according to their own agenda.

Conclusion:

God initiated and God ordained testing is encouraged in this passage.  However, this passage does not encourage us today to test God, even in our giving.  The danger of being wrong (testing God when he does not invite us to do so) is, in many ways, just as intimidating as the corollary (not testing God when he allows us to).

I don’t think that testing God is the best reason for us to give.  Yes, we do need to step beyond our comfort zone in an effort to trust God.  But trusting God and testing God are completely different things.

Testing is more often a no-no in the Bible.

I’m guessing we all remember Matthew 4:7 where Jesus quoted Deut 6:16 and said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Thus, we can hardly go anywhere in this discussion until we figure out when testing is bad (Deut 6:16) and when testing is good (Mal. 3:10).

The Bible Knowledge Commentary goes as far as to say that during the temptation of Jesus, the Devil is reminding Jesus of Malachi’s prophecy in order to encourage Jesus to test God.

The problem with testing is this – through testing we can be communicating to God that he works for us.

We might think, “God, I know you provided me with a job.  I know you gave me the income necessary to provide for my family.  However, I’m going to quit my job and trust you to feed my family.” 

We cannot step outside of God’s plan and provision and then say, “Prove it” and “Give it.”  If we do that, we are essentially saying, “God, I no longer work for you, but you now work for me.”

Therefore, we know that God is a God with boundaries (the teaching and will of God).  If we live faithfully within those boundaries, we can expect that God will provide our needs (not luxuries).  But we cannot step outside those boundaries and say,  “Come on, God, show your power.” 

The Israelites made this mistake in Exodus 17:4 when they said, “Give us something to drink.”  They forgot their position was in submission to God, but they started demanding God to provide for them on their own terms. They tested God (Ex. 17:7) because they asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Thus, the testing language we use today must jive first with the events at Massah and Meribah.

God has proven that he is faithful.  There is no need to test him. To test God means that we need God to continually reveal his ability to provide.

do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did.

Is Tithing a Commandment That is Binding on New Testament Christians?

Ultimately, I think this whole discussion rests in the answer to this one question.  If tithing is a commandment, then when we tithe, we live within the commandments, expectations, and will of God.  Thus, we know that if we do what God asks, he will provide.

However, if tithing is not a command, then one could, without judgment, stop giving until their financial situation improves.

I do not believe tithing is a command that is binding on Christians, but I do believe it is a healthy spiritual discipline for Christians.

I don’t think anyone who does not tithe because of legitimate financial reasons will be judged guilty and held accountable for such an act.  No one’s toes will be held to the fire if they don’t give.

Here’s why:

  1. God’s heart has always gone out to those who are poor and struggling financially.  I believe God would rather remove their pain, burden, and suffering – not add to it. 
  2. The NT does a very poor job teaching us it is a command.  It could overlook the topic because

(a) it was replaced with a new method of giving (proportionate giving)

(b) everyone knew and practiced the tithe so there was no need to write to remind people of it.  Since in contexts where the NT does talk about giving, Paul never insists on a tithe. I think we ought to embrace proportionate giving instead (which Paul does talk about).

I do, however, believe that giving even when you’re in debt can be a blessing.  I teach the poor to give because it is a spiritually healthy habit.  However, the act in and of itself does not develop spirituality. 

Thus, in many ways, I view tithing as I view the Sabbath.

The Sabbath, as a reminder, was one of God’s top ten rule.  The tithe was not.

Yet, of the Sabbath Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27 NIV)

The Sabbath, like all of God’s commandments, was given with the intention to bless us.  However, because of how people applied, interpreted, and added to the Sabbath commandment, it ceased to be a blessing to man.  Jesus gives the stern reminder that the Sabbath is for man.

Can we apply the same lesson to tithing?

Is tithing made for man, or man made for tithing?

There is no doubt that in the Old Testament God has a preferential treatment for the poor.  The poor get breaks that God does not extend to the wealthy.

In Luke 2:22, Jesus’s parent’s offered two doves because of their financial situation.

Those in financial need were never expected to give the same sacrifices as those without.  Thus, giving was intended to be a blessing, not a burden.

The Relationship Between Faith and Giving

Faith is an expression of submission, not testing.

In the Gospels, those who showed great faith were willing to put their lives in the complete trust of Jesus despite social consternation, family neglect, personal exposure, and more.

Some people think that we don’t have faith if we buy insurance. (See comment on my Should Christians Buy Insurance post)

Of course, the key point here is that faith is trusting God in avenues where he asks us to trust him.  Faith does not determine the rules of the game and then submit to those rules. 

Preservation in danger is divinely pledged: shall I then create danger, either to put the promised security skeptically to the proof, or wantonly to demand a display of it? That were ‘to tempt the Lord my God,’ which, being expressly forbidden, would forfeit the right to expect preservation (Critical and Explanatory Commentary by Fausset, Fausset, Brown, and Brown).

Too often we think faith guarantees a certain result.  Instead, faith is better expressed in these words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego:

If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Bold mine. Daniel 3:17-18 NIV)

Therefore, I do think giving can be an act of faith.  In obedience, we give to God, and as he sees us through the process, our faith can increase.

But God doesn’t always see us through in the ways we expect. 

As a missionary, my faith has grown through the fundraising process.  God has provided for our family from the most unexpected sources. 

Because of the connection between faith and giving, I don’t recommend that a person stop giving.  Similarly, I don’t recommend that a person who is busy to stop praying.  Perhaps now more than ever, that person needs to be praying. 

Thus, I’ve never once told someone I think they should stop giving (remember I do live in a country where people make $750 per year).  I also think the poor should give.  However, I have often asked people to revisit why they give (especially if they have unhealthy or wrong motives). 

Still, if a person were part of a church where I worked and they decided to stop giving or reduce giving for a season so they could clean up some financial errors, I would support them.  I would stand alongside them and help them make changes so they could resume the discipline of giving as quickly as possible.

If you decide not to give for a season, I would suggest that you follow the guidelines at the bottom of this post.

As I open the door to comments, let me say that all constructive comments will be approved; others will not.  Remember, our point here is not to debate technical terminology, but to help a person discover God’s will for their giving.

What advice would you give to this reader?  Why?  What other lessons, scriptures, or concepts would you encourage them to explore?

Comments

  1. says

    What I appreciate about the questioner’s candor is that he says that they feel led to give. So, based on that I would say they shouldn’t stop giving. If they feel the Lord’s leading, they should follow it. I am a believer in giving of my firstfruits (ie, before taxes), but then again I’ve never unwillingly had to put myself in debt.

    Craig, I think your points about God always wanting to bring aid to those in need resonates here. And we know from the story of the widow who gave what she had that Jesus understands that sometimes people can’t give much, and he has extreme amounts of love and respect for them.

    To the fellow who wrote the question, I’d just say ask God how much you should give if He’s asking you to. Then examine your budget making sure there’s nothing extra there you can’t remove (I don’t get the impression that you’re living “high on the hog” as they say while also incurring debt). If there’s not enough coming in, is there a way to increase your income? At the end of the day, once every dollar has a name, if there’s not enough coming in, the best thing you can do is try to get more income. Sell some things you don’t need anymore. Think about if you have a hobby you could make money from. And if you haven’t, check out Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, or even Craig’s book!

    I agree with what Craig said about not testing God. I also can say from experience, though, that obedience (not testing) will always reap blessings. God will be glorified through your own experience, and then you’ll have a fantastic story to tell people!

    Blessings,
    -j

    • says

      Jason,
      You’re right that we need to discover the fine line between testing and obedience. It will probably take me a lifetime to discover where that line is :).

  2. Jason says

    I applaud your desire to be obedient to the Lord with your giving and finances. I believe if you continue to seek Him in this area He will prove faithful, however, it’s often not how we envision it. There may be steps he’s tryinig to teach you about your finances and in the stress of the bills and medical issues you’ve had to deal with, you just aren’t able to see them yet, which is understandable due to the pain you are dealing with.

    With the unexpected medical bills, the importance of you really knowing where your money is going has heightened. I may be stating the obvious to you, but I would recommend really focusing in on getting a very tight budget in place to make it through this period, cutting costs and possibly increasing income for a season to get through this. It is critical you figure out a way to get your income to exceed your expenses, and it will require some great personal sacrifice. It may put strain on other areas for a season, but you can persevere in this for a season if you setup a plan and know your end goal. I personally would build the tithe into this budget, but would defer to Craig’s comments and recommend you seek the Lord and follow his lead on that. Irregardless, I think the discipline of the tithe needs to be in your plan at some time in the relatively near future. A resource that may help is at Crown Financial Ministries at http://www.crown.org/Library/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=751. You could also purchase Craig’s E-Book “The Secrets to a Successful Budget” if you prefer and I’d be willing to pay for it if you are willing to make a committment to implement it (Craig if they would want to do this, maybe you can coordinate how that could work). If you have friends or people at your church who seem to handle their finances in a Godly manner, they may be able to walk alongside you as well to help setting up the budget and walking alongside you for accountability.

    These aren’t easy steps and I don’t want to minimize the discomfort it may cause in the short run or minimize the pain you are already feeling. I have prayed for your situation and genuinely desire God show you His Grace in the midst of your steps of obedience and sacrifice. It’s possible you feel like you’ve already tried this “budgeting stuff” and it didn’t work, but I would recommend revisiting it while continually seeking Him in prayer to give you the Grace to persevere. Sometimes that Grace shows up in huge unexpected ways (which I prefer honestly, but are less often in my experience) and sometimes(more often in my experience) it shows up in smaller ways such as giving you the Grace to implement and persevere in the sacrifices you’ve made in your spending plan. God Bless You!

    • says

      Jason,

      Thanks so much for adding some practical advice which my post so poorly lacked.

      Crown does have a lot of fantastic resources and I would recommend folks spend time exploring their site.

      Tell you what, if the reader wants a free copy I’ll just give it to them. I appreciate your selfless offer.

  3. Jason says

    To clarify any confusion to the reader, the two Jason posts are two different people and the other Jason’s post showed up as I posted mine, so I hadn’t read it yet. :)

  4. says

    Craig – I really enjoyed reading your views on the issue of ‘testing God’ regarding tithes/offerings. To be honest, I hadn’t really looked much into the scripture of ‘testing God’ by bringing the ‘whole tithe into the storehouse.’ Your brief explanation of the context of the verse and how the Bible doesn’t encourage us to put God to the test really made sense.

    I don’t think I can add anything – but if there’s one thing you said that can sum it all up for me it’d be this quote you made: “To test God means that we need God to continually reveal his ability to provide.” That, to me, shows a lack of faith on our part.

    • says

      Tim,
      Thanks for your feedback.
      The post was so long that I don’t remember writing what you quoted, but I’m glad it was helpful.

  5. Alice says

    I think that the letter writer has taken the words “test me on this” in the wrong context. I do not believe that we should write checks on a bank account that has no money in it and hope that enough money will magically appear to cover everything. I know that tithing while in dire financial circumstances is a touchy subject. However, we are supposed to pay what said we would pay and make good all financial obligations. If income is less than outgo, then there is obviously a problem.

    Like an earlier response instructed, I would suggest that this man start by making a list of income sources and a list of all outstanding debts and what is due each month. Sometimes we have to sacrifice a few niceties to fulfill all our obligations. It’s been close to two years since I have had phone service at home. I shop at Aldi’s for groceries whenever I can. I don’t eat out for evening meals and I take my lunch to work. I don’t have cable TV and haven’t for about seven months. The debt snowball system works. It takes work to implement it and track it, but it works.

    You have to take control of your finances, or they will certainly control you. Pray over this matter fervently and often. Tithing – as has been stated – is as much about what’s in the heart as what’s in the bank. I wish you the best in your journey. I am on one of my own. I have about 60K left to pay off from a financially destructive marriage and will hopefully have all of that paid off in about three years.

    • says

      Alice,
      After reading your comment (and some others) was struck by the fact that I didn’t give any practical tips to help. Shame on me. Thanks for stepping in and offering some good advice on how a person can improve their finances.

  6. says

    I have nothing to add but wanted you to know that I love your explanation. It ties in with a discussion that I say the other day on trust/faith over on Conversion Diary. I’ll be forwarding this post to Jennifer!

    I do have a question related to titheing. (Is that a word? ;-) ) If one does not have a regular/home church, what would you say about a tithe then? Would you suggest giving to other churches/organizations instead? Or giving to a church anyway?

    • says

      Headless Mom,
      Sounds like an interested discussion over at Conversion Diary.

      If someone doesn’t have a regular church home (due to some unusual circumstances) then I think they would give in ways the best felt served the kingdom of God.

  7. Tim says

    Craig,
    Not sure if this is the way to comment, but I found your insight helpful. I teach a College and Career Sunday School class and we have been doing a series on “controversial subjects”, and the class was able to pick topics.
    They chose tithing as one of them. In my study, I ran across something I had never seen before (not my original thought, cant remember even where I saw it but it was very enlightening) that looked at Hebrews 7 with Abraham, Melchizedek and the Levites.
    What was brought to light was Abraham “gave” (voluntary), but Israel (including Levites) “paid” (requirement) the tithe. Matthew and Luke even refer to the Pharisees “paying” their tithe. Of all the investigating I have done, I had never seen that before.
    It was refreshing! I am not under that “paid requirement” but I have free course to “give voluntarily” as “I am prospered, not of necessity, not grudgingly (which comes from “requirements”) out of my abundance,” etc.

    I personally had a bad business failure and my family has been “digging” out for the last several years. One thing I learned through all this was I still have to support my family, put food on the table, be a good steward. But I do not have to live my life based on others “anecdotal” evidence, only the mandates of Scripture. By anecdotal I am referring to the comments people make, such as “I didn’t have any money after all the bills but I decided to tithe anyway, knowing I didn’t have it in the check book, and lo and behold on Monday there was a check in the mailbox for the exact money I decided to tithe” stories. After doing what your emailer did (bouncing checks…ugh!) several times I started looking into the tithing mandate that I had grown up hearing. It became so clear the more I studied it, and I regret not being a better student in this area of scripture. If I had done my homework I would not have looked so earnestly and afterward disgustingly at my poor little mailbox by the road.

    I have no qualms about giving, but am learning how to do it under the guidelines that Paul taught the early church. It is refreshing, and I find myself giving cheerfully without even trying. It is more of a blessing now than it ever was before. I am slowly getting away from feeling “guilty” on weeks I cannot give, but also find myself looking for opportunities to give when it is available. It is very liberating and I simply enjoy being able to do what I can.

    Anyway, sorry for the long response. Thanks for your article and posting the question from the other believer. I hope this helps with your post.

  8. Violet says

    I’ve been in that position before, sometimes because of the preaching of (some pastors) on giving, we expect right away that God would bless us abundantly in an instant. Therefore, you’re giving expects something in return. But as we gradually give generously, yes, even when it really hurts our budget, without testing God or expecting something, something amazing happens, it really blesses you, the giver. It is, therefore, not testing but trusting God with no strings attached.

  9. amy says

    I’ve been out of debt for 4 months now. I had been giving faithfullu to my current church. It seems the same time I got out of debt, the lord asked me to give more than I was comfortable at the time. I wanted to obey God so I did it for 2 months. After that I transitioned to another church and held back 10% to save for the church I planned to make my home. During the time I was giving the amount I felt led to give, I was arguing with God about, “why do you want me to give more when I’m out of debt and can start aving for an apartment o house or life in general?” I felt that being a good steward of what he has given me was to use it wisely. In having those 2 montsh of holding tithe back the tithe I got more comfortable. After talking with a close friend, he suggested I ask }od ever week what I should give. I have done this for 2 weeks now. The first week I don’t really know what the friut was but the second week, when I struggled more with understandin why, I saw some blessing… I found some helpful information that I may not have found if I hadn’t stopped by the info desk after church. Now, based on all of thbis, I haven’t been reaching my financial goals that I believe the lord has blessed me to do… Instead I’ve been giving what I would have saved. I’m meetin all my bills and I have very little going out…… I need some guidance. At times I question whether this isright to be giving what I am.

  10. craig farrell says

    i believe you give 10% of your earnings as a worship to god not as a test but as an acknowledgment of where it can from and the test in it is for you not god if your faith is strong you will know god will provide for you

  11. kathy says

    I believe in paying my tithes but i ran into a problem, i had to use my money for something else, and I;m afraid i mess up like before, i asked God for forgiveness for during this because i really didn;t want to use this money for something I foolious did. I feel I have disappointed God. I need help in this situation on what must I do paying it back, I can;t afford to pay right now. I ask God for forgiveness.

  12. Ken says

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been through the same situation as the individual who posted the comment. In addition I felt burden by the church, pastor, parents and some spiritual leaders to give 10% of my gross. No matter how I tried I stayed in debt; created debt; and felt helpless. Until I watch a Christian show and saw them put a bunch of prayer letters on a table and pray over it. So I applied that same technique with my bills, and in my prayer I told God that I know what the bible says, I know what the pastor, church, and congregation says. But I felt in my spirit God telling me that I hadn’t ask for his word, You see I was seeking answers from man, not God. So I told God that I want to be faithful and stated what I felt the wordly effects would be if I did not pay the bills. God laid it on my heart to pay my debtors what I owe them and faithfully give him what I could. I then begin doing that, faithfully giving as little as $5 every sunday for almost 2 months before I started noticing more money in my account. For about another 6 – 12 months I gave between $10 – $20, my savings was increasing, bills started to get paided off. I recently landed a job that is paying me twice as what I was making before, rented my old home, bought a new one, I now give $100 dollars a every sunday faithfully, gladly, without worry. I feel God blessed me because I read and understood the scripture, I sought an answer from him, even though the others didn’t agree with it, and did give in according to what I felt the Lord led me to give. I’m in transisition now in to a new home, God knows my plan so I walk in faith in what I believe he is telling me to do. The fruit I’m bearing proves my walk. I’m not telling you to do the same, I’m just say put them in Gods hand and follow what he tells you to do.

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