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Tithing: Promises, Precepts, and Prosperity

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Years ago, shortly after my wife and I started tithing, my church asked me to give testimony about it to the congregation. I was worshipping and serving as a deacon in a large, nationally-known megachurch. My testimony would be given in front of a live audience of thousands and then broadcast to hundreds of thousands. No pressure!

I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to give a testimony like most of the ones I was hearing at that church—a testimony about how God pours money down on people as soon as they start tithing. We were not a prosperity gospel church (far from it!), but somehow the pastors and staff seemed to forget that when it came time for the annual congregational shakedown. Over and over we would hear Malachi 3:10, accompanied by dramatic testimonies from ordinary people who were in financial distress, started tithing, and soon received new income from unexpected sources.

In my testimony, I briefly told the story of I Chronicles 29. David collected offerings from all of Israel for the building of the temple and presented them to the Lord. You would think, I pointed out, that David would feel pretty proud at that moment—especially since he probably had contributed the most. However, David renounced all pride in his giving: “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (29:14). I shared how my wife and I had become convicted that we, too, ought to give in this way. I felt good that I had offered an alternative to the prosperity argument for tithing.

Years later, however, my work as a social scientist raised a new problem for me. In the last decade, research has increasingly found a causal connection between generosity and success. It’s not simply that more successful people are also more generous. Being generous actually makes you more successful than you were before. On average, the monetary benefits of generosity are actually larger than the amount you give; in some studies, they are several times larger.

It’s still an unsettled area of research, but the findings are startling. Was I unfair? Could the prosperity preachers have been right all along?

Precept and Prosperity

There are a number of plausible theories about the new research on generosity and prosperity. Some say generosity beats stress and makes you healthier, which helps you become more successful. Others point out that generosity trains you to relate better to other people. You’re more likely to seek mutual advantage instead of just your own gain, which in the long run will make you more successful. One study even found that observers are more likely to rate you as physically attractive if they see you giving.

There’s probably some truth to all these ideas. However, the theory I find most important is that if you are generous, others will want to have you in leadership. As Arthur Brooks puts it, “if people witness you as a giver, they will see a leader.” He points to a study where subjects were asked to play a game in which players could either help the whole group succeed or gain more for themselves at the expense of the group. Afterward, the groups were asked to elect a leader; players elected those who had helped the group instead of themselves.

We could have learned all this from a more famous social scientist: Job. In Job 29:2-11, he describes the prominent position of authority he had held in the community before his afflictions began. Then in verses 12-17, he asserts that he held this lofty position of honor and deference because he had always gone the extra mile to help people—especially those who couldn’t help themselves.

Really, we could have learned this from hundreds of places in our Bibles. Over and over again, we are admonished that life works best and people flourish when we follow sound moral precepts. The whole book of Proverbs is basically about this. We find it in the Psalms and in the prophets. It’s a less prominent theme in the New Testament, but it’s still there—consider the qualifications for church leadership, for example.

Don’t Mistake Precepts for Promises

Yet all this is the furthest thing in the world from a prosperity gospel. At a superficial level, the prosperity gospel teaches that money comes automatically and even magically as a result of our faith, but this theory teaches that it comes as a natural byproduct of moral virtue and hard work. Where the prosperity gospel gives us an unsteady and even Gnostic view of the material world, this theory teaches that God created a stable and lawful world where causes are rationally related to effects.

These views also differ sharply in their perceptions of suffering. The prosperity gospel teaches that every faithful person will be blessed with wealth, health, and success. It therefore leads those who don’t experience such blessings to question their faith—or God’s faithfulness. But God doesn’t owe us success no matter how good we are, and remembering this fact is more important than all the money in the world. That is why God often uses suffering and deprivation to bring us closer to himself.

Not every generous and virtuous person is successful. As Jesus points out, you can be the most generous man in the world and still get murdered or have a building fall on you (Luke 3:1-5). Biblical observations about generosity and success are general precepts—proverbial statements about what is wise—not iron laws.

We can say the same of the research on generosity and success. It only measures what happens in general and on average. It aggregates a very wide variety of experiences by large numbers of people. “Your mileage may vary” is a good warning label for social science as well as for cars.

Once again, we could have learned it all from Job; or rather, from Elihu, who preaches the gospel to Job. In Job 35:2-8, Elihu says:

“Do you think this to be just?
Do you say, ‘It is my right before God,’
that you ask, ‘What advantage have I?
How am I better off than if I had sinned?’
I will answer you
and your friends with you.
Look at the heavens, and see;
and behold the clouds, which are higher than you.
If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him?
And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him?
If you are righteous, what do you give to him?
Or what does he receive from your hand?
Your wickedness concerns a man like yourself,
and your righteousness a son of man.”

As another social scientist once put it: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

I wrote an article a while back about why it’s not a prosperity gospel to say that moral virtue tends, in general, to lead to success. Someone tweeted out a link to it along with the statement: “Don’t mistake precepts for promises.” As a summary statement on the relationship between generosity and success, that’s hard to beat.

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Tithing

Should Christians (or Christian businesses) tithe? How much money should I give away? Does God want me to take a vow of poverty and give everything away? Will God punish me if I don’t tithe? How do I balance my budget of needs and wants with the biblical command of giving? If you’ve ever asked these questions to find out exactly what tithing means and how it applies to you, you are not alone. We’ll explore the concept of Tithing in this High Calling theme, and we invite you to follow along. Ask questions, offer your insights, and help us keep the conversation going.

Featured image by Jeff Smallwood. Used with Permission. Source via Flickr.

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