[If you were to become a multimillionaire, would it affect your approach to stewardship? How would you decide how much you would give back to the Lord versus how much you would keep for yourself? Would your giving all be channeled through your local church, or would you want to support a variety of parachurch organizations as well? Would you set up a charitable foundation so you could invest the gift and use the proceeds to support the Lord's work for years to come, or would you have a sense of urgency that would lead you to distribute the funds quickly because the needs are great? This month's cover article is a first person account of how one couple approached this unusual test of their spiritual maturity. (To protect their privacy, their names are not given.) The principles they applied seem relevant to Christians at every income level, not just those with large sums to give. — AP]
One evening several years ago, my husband and I were having dinner with another couple with whom we shared a warm friendship. There was an air of exhilaration among us, for we were all on the verge of becoming multimillionaires. A small company that we had cofounded several years before was about to be sold to another corporation. Although we were happy and excited, we also felt a little apprehensive as we wondered how this sudden prosperity might affect us and our families. A thought came to me, which I voiced out loud: "We've always been taught to trust God to provide for our needs when finances are tight. Shouldn't we also trust Him to take care of us and guide us in prosperity?" This seemed like a fresh insight to me at the time. But, in light of all the biblical warnings about the dangers of wealth, prosperity should indeed make a person more dependent on God, not less. Our lives were about to move into uncharted territory, yet I knew the Lord would be faithful to show us what He wanted us to do with our newly acquired wealth. In fact, He had already prepared us in some very important ways. Not surprisingly, He also used our prosperity to teach us many important lessons about ourselves and our relationship to Him.
In this article, I plan to share some of what we've learned. My hope is that others will be inspired to see prosperity as a wonderful opportunity to exercise faith by investing in eternal treasure. By the way, I use such phrases as "our money," "our income," and so forth for convenience. I recognize, however, that the Bible is very clear that everything in heaven and earth belongs to God and all wealth and income flow from His hand. (See David's prayer in I Chronicles 29:10-19.)
HOW GOD PREPARED US TO GIVE
As I look back over the nearly two decades of our marriage, I see how God has always been at work in our lives. In His faithfulness, He enabled us to be eager to give to His kingdom when we sold our business.
1. By helping us see our need for Jesus. The most important thing God did in our lives to prepare us to give enerously was to help us understand how much we need Jesus. For a number of years, we had lived our lives trying hard to be "good Christians" and not being very successful. Then, through a Bible study, God showed us that being a Christian was not about striving to be good. Rather, being a Christian is facing the fact that we are utterly sinful and have no hope for goodness or righteousness apart from Christ. Our only hope is to receive His mercy, forgiveness, and grace - then rely on the Holy Spirit to truly change both hearts and our behavior. In Luke 7:47, Jesus said, "He who has been forgiven little, loves little." I think the inverse principle is implied as well: "He who has been forgiven much, loves much." As my husband and I have learned to face up to what we would be outside of Christ - vile, hopeless sinners - we have begun to recognize how much He has done for us and our love for Him has grown.
2. By giving us grateful hearts. We also are increasingly grateful for all the Lord has given us: not only forgiveness through His death on the cross, but also His eternal word to guide our lives and the indwelling Holy Spirit who enables us to become conformed to Christ's image. Our gratitude and love for Christ have made us eager to give to the Lord's work. There is a popular Christian chorus with these words: "Jesus is the answer for the world today, above Him there's no other Jesus is the way." By coming to recognize that Christ is the only answer for us personally, we truly believe that He is the answer for the world today. Therefore, we consider it a thrill and a privilege to make financial gifts that help bring the hope of Christ to many people around the world.
3. By letting us start small. My husband and I did not wait until we became wealthy to start giving. During all the years of our marriage, even when finances were extremely tight, we tried to give at least a tenth of our income to the Lord. This was not a "law" to us; it simply was a guideline for giving a reasonable amount to God. When we occasionally received extra income - from a bonus or other special circumstance - we saw that as an opportunity to give an extra offering. At the end of each year, we would count and wrap all our loose change and present a gift in that amount to our pastor. These were little things, but because we had established a habit of giving when our means were modest, I believe it was much easier to give generously when we became prosperous.
4. By making us aware of where God is working. Another way God prepared us for handling the wealth He gave us was to make us aware of various ministries that were truly making a difference in the world. When we sold our business, we knew immediately of several Christian organizations to which we wanted to make large gifts. Whether or not you are currently wealthy, you can be aware of where God is working. Then, by making a gift, either large or small, you can join in His work in the world. Here are some ways to look into this: Your church. What special ministries does your church offer? What ministries would it offer if resources were available? What missionaries does your church support? Your pastor, another staff person, or an elder could answer these questions.
Christian friends. Do your Christian friends personally give financial support to any missionaries or Christian organizations? If so, they probably would be excited to share with you why they support this work.
Missionaries, Christian workers. Do you have a personal relationship with a missionary or anyone who is working for a Christian organization? Often these individuals must raise a network of financial supporters in order to carry on their work. Ask your pastor or a Christian friend to introduce you to some of these people. As you get to know them personally, you may be motivated to support the work they do.
Christian radio and other media. What Christian organizations have blessed you through radio programs or publications? If you're not in the habit of listening to Christian radio or reading Christian periodicals, ask your pastor or a friend to recommend a program or magazine to you.
Above all, ask God to show you where He wants you to invest in His kingdom. Then watch expectantly for opportunities to give.
HOW WE GAVE
As you give wealth back to God - whether it be great or small - conscientious stewardship requires that you give careful thought to where and how you will make your gifts. Here are some steps we took that facilitated the giving process.
1. We planned to give. When we realized that the sale of our company was imminent, we made deliberate plans to give away approximately twenty percent of our realized gain. To this end, we set up a private foundation to which we could gift some of the appreciated stock. The foundation, in turn, sold the stock to the corporation that was purchasing our business. (We established this foundation only for tax reasons; we did not intend to maintain a significant principal sum in the foundation and give only from the annual interest earned.)
After the sale of our company was complete, we grasped a very important lesson: Giving a gift of appreciated stock before the sale was much easier emotionally than waiting until after the sale and giving a large gift of cash. To broaden this lesson, I would say that giving always is easier if it is: (1) planned in advance and (2) a priority. Whatever your anticipated income, plan to give to God first. This not only makes giving easier, it also is in line with biblical principles (I Corinthians 16:2 and II Corinthians 9:6-7).
2. We gave trusting God. I mentioned earlier that we never intended for our foundation to maintain a large principal sum and give only from the interest earned. The reason for this is simple: God promises a much better return on money invested in His eternal kingdom than even the best investment manager can earn here on earth. In Matthew 13:8, Jesus describes the seed which fell on good soil as producing a crop "a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown."
Using a foundation gave us a little "breathing room" to make decisions about where to give the money, but ultimately, we wanted to put the money to work in the Lord's kingdom as quickly as possible. We figured that the sooner we put our money to work in God's kingdom, the sooner it could begin to earn that return in the range of 3,000 to 10,000 percent.
We never were concerned about the possibility that we would give all our money away quickly and then not be able to meet future requests for donations. We figured that if God wants us to respond to future requests, He will provide the means. In the years since we sold our business, we have not made gifts on the same scale as those we made initially. However, God has enabled us to continue to give generously.
Our giving also has been motivated by a desire to "store up treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6:19-20). The Bible is full of warnings about the uncertainty of wealth and the transience of life. No matter how well we invest money here on earth, there always is the possibility of losing it. And, of course, money and things do not go with us when we die. Yet, Jesus promised that whatever was given to Him would become treasure in heaven (Matthew 19:21,29; John 6:27). We have chosen to believe His promises. Therefore, as we give to His kingdom, we "fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (II Corinthians 4:18).
3. We established priorities. To help us decide where to give our money, my husband and I developed this list of priorities:
- Our local church.
- Evangelism ministries, whose main focus is to spread the gospel. This included such organizations as the JESUS Film Project, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the Navigators.
- "Renewal" ministries that strengthen the faith of Christians to make them more effective in reaching out to others. (It was through such a ministry - the Sonship training course from World Harvest Mission - that my husband and I came to a fresh understanding of our relationship with the Lord.)
- Youth ministries, such as Young Life and Youth for Christ.
Ministries that meet practical human needs, such as World Vision and local missions that serve the poor and homeless.
By thinking through our priorities, we were able to decide more quickly where to give the money we had placed in our foundation. More significantly, these priorities have provided us with clear guidelines for saying "yes" or "no" to all the requests for funds that have come our way over the years. You may be wondering if all our giving has been to Christian organizations. In fact, we have made (and continue to make) smaller gifts to various civic groups. We do this to demonstrate good citizenship and support of our community, hoping that this will enhance our Christian witness. However, our gifts to civic charities are always much smaller - a different order of magnitude - than the gifts to God's kingdom.
4. We set a personal "finish line." Ron Blue, a Christian financial advisor, recommends that every couple or individual set a personal financial "finish line." By this, he means analyzing your financial needs so you can know when you have enough, then giving away any additional income you make.
After selling our business, my husband and I realized that we had enough money for our retirement and other long-term needs. We also had enough for my husband to launch a new business career. Therefore, we have chosen to give aggressively - half our total income each year - until the Lord shows us differently. Surprisingly, as we've become more bold in our giving, we've seen our wealth increase further. We look forward to the day when, by God's grace, we can cash out our investments in our other business ventures and make even larger gifts to the Lord's work.
Many young families probably cannot imagine reaching that personal finish line - having enough wealth to stop saving and investing. Remember two things: First, God has promised to provide for your needs if you trust Him. And one way to demonstrate your trust is to give money to His kingdom. Second, in the parable of the talents, Jesus said, "You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things" (Matthew 25:21, 23). Give as generously as you can now and you will be prepared to give generously when you're more prosperous.
LESSONS WE'VE LEARNED
As I mentioned in my introduction, becoming wealthy was, for us, moving into uncharted territory. God often uses a dramatic change of circumstance to reveal the attitudes of our hearts. This was certainly true for us. However, God's purpose in revealing these attitudes is to lead us to confession, repentance, and dependence on the Holy Spirit, for only by His power can we experience true, ongoing change.
One of the first things my husband faced was the fear of losing what we had gained. Like most people, we had always believed that once we acquired a certain amount of wealth, we would no longer have any reason to worry about money. Instead, after we acquired wealth, the common worry of having enough money was replaced by the worry of losing what we'd gained.
Of course, both worries are rooted in lack of faith and a wrong view of money and wealth. Ecclesiastes 5:10 says, "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income." So for us, acquiring wealth revealed that we did not trust completely in God. For us, it's a continual challenge to acknowledge that God is in control of our lives and to trust Him, not our wealth, with our future.
God also used our new prosperity to show me how judgemental I had been toward those who were wealthy. Like many people, it was easy for me to look upon those whose life-styles were more extravagant than mine and assume that they were materialistic and self-centered. As I began to enjoy our new found prosperity, I was aware that others might be judging me in the same way. I believe Jesus commands us not to judge (Matthew 7) for at least two reasons. First, we do not know another person's heart as God does; we see only the outward appearance (I Samuel 16:7). Second, our judgement is likely to be clouded by sin. I see now that my former judgemental attitude toward wealthy people was rooted in self-righteousness, pride, and envy.
A third lesson God has taught us is how difficult it is to resist escalating our life-style when the means to do so are available. In fact, we do enjoy a comfortable upper-middle-class life-style. The most effective way we have found to limit spending on ourselves is to continue to give generously. This not only restricts how much money we can spend, it also helps us to have an eternal perspective. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Our desire is to view our treasure in heaven as our true wealth so that we are less attached to the wealth we enjoy here on earth.
Giving, like every other aspect of the Christian life, is a matter of faith. We give first because of our faith in Christ, who is the only answer for the world today. I am thankful that God allowed our business to succeed. Yet I am far more grateful to Him for the promise of eternal riches with Him in heaven.
Author's name not given.
Rich or Poor - this is a good lesson.