Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"You Can't Out-Give God"

Usually the gym I frequent has music playing on the radio. Today, however, the radio station broadcasted a preacher. At one point, he said, "You can't out-give God." I have no reason to disagree with him. In Mark 10, Jesus told his followers, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age."

I know no one else who could make such a promise, and with good reason. The promise is a bit insensitive. I don't know anyone who loses a brother or sister or mother or father who wants brothers, sisters, mothers, or fathers to replace them. If I lose my brother, I don't want one hundred different ones to replace him. I only want my brother.

Homes and fields, however, I could handle losing those and then receiving a hundred of each to compensate. Different preachers will parse this promise out different ways. The preacher on the radio said you can't expect to reap what you sew on the same day. Crops take a while to mature. Don't stop giving to God if you don't see any return after a few weeks.

I left before the sermon was over, because the man failed to say anything I hadn't heard before. Every time I've heard someone talk about "out giving God," they speak self-centeredly. If we give to God, then God gives to us. "Giving to God" usually means giving money to the church or a specific "ministry," but some preachers will emphasize giving your time to the church or certain ministries. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Not only have I never heard a preacher emphasize the rest of Jesus' promise (viz., "persecutions"), but I have never heard anyone think giving to God could mean anything other than giving to the church.

The guy on the radio wanted people to memorize "100 important Bible verses" before transitioning into "giving to God." To him, giving to God was memorizing Bible verses out of context for the purpose of getting something in return. You memorize the Bible verses and your life will be better. Give to God so God will give to you. No matter how I see "giving to God" parsed, it is always done selfishly, done so God will give back.

Giving to God is more than tithing and more than memorizing the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible does God, Jesus, Paul, or anyone else say we should memorize anything from the Bible. Memorization is something we have extrapolated from the Bible. I'm not saying it is a bad idea. However, I don't assume it is good for everyone just because it is good for some. I also hate how it is imposed upon most Christians as a way to a better life. Knowing God's words does not necessitate memorization. Even if I am wrong on that account, memorization is certainly not giving anything to God.

Neither is tithing. Tithing is giving to the church. Yes, Christ is the head of the Church, but let us not confuse the head with the thing. And really, it is impossible to give money to God. God has no bank account and requires no money.

As for time, effort, love, praise? Those are things you might be able to give to God. You could possibly convince me that joining the choir is giving to God. Maybe I can agree that inviting people to church is giving to God. Perhaps I could agree that preparing the coffee and sugary, fatty foods at church is giving to God. Scratch that last one, actually, unless the coffee is fairly traded, no styrofoam is used, and the snacks are something that won't tempt people trying to change their unhealthy lifestyle or promote unhealthy living.

Even if those are considered giving to God, how will God give back to us? If I join the choir, will God give me one hundred choirs to join or one hundred hours of free time to make up for the football I miss singing with the choir? Will God give me one hundred times the comfort to replace the discomfort I have in inviting people to church? Will God give me one hundred cups of fairly traded coffee and one hundred ethical, healthy snacks?

According to Mark 10, you will receive what you give up. One lost home yields one hundred homes (and persecution) in this world, and eternal life in the world to come. What if giving to God is akin to Matthew 28 where what you do to the least of people in society's eyes is what you do to God? What if giving to other people is giving to God?

And what if you don't give to God in order to receive? The only true gift is the one given without the possibility to receive in return. All other gifts are not truly gifts, they are exchanges. I give a Christmas card and assume a Christmas card in return. We give birthday gifts and assume a birthday gift when our day of birth arrives. But if we give to those who cannot reciprocate, then we have truly given and our giving is aptly named "gift."

So here is my scenario: we give to the needy. To the hungry we give food, to the poor we give money, to the lonely we give time and companionship, and to the naked and cold we give clothes and shelter. Since we give without a want or expectation in return, then God will give us exactly what we want. The gift of food will be multiplied a hundredfold. The money will grow exponentially. The time and companionship will increase. The shelter and clothes will become many.

Eventually. You don't sew and reap in the same day. Sometimes it takes a while for God to multiply the loaves and fishes, for others to fulfill their calling to give of their loaves and fishes.

In this interpretation, I definitely believe we cannot "out-give God." The more we give, the more God will give through us and others. And we will truly be blessed, because our hearts will not be focused on ourselves and the return of our investments. We will receive exactly what we want: the alleviation of the suffering of others.

Now that's a gift.