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