We know that scripture, church traditions, and even secular culture encourage us to give to charity. But, when we can afford to give, how much should we give?
Tithing in the Church
Historically, Christians have been asked to “tithe.” That is, to give ten percent of their income to the church. In some cases throughout history, this wasn’t a question but rather an enforced minimum contribution—essentially a tax.
Back when tithes were enforced, the church provided many of the social supports and safety nets that the government now provides. So, the idea of the church taxing people wasn’t as outrageous as it might seem today.
As governments took over initiatives like caring for the sick and providing for those in need, the church gave up (most of) its interest in enforcing tithes. However, that ten percent number remained a cultural touchstone for many as they consider how much to give.
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The great thing about this model is that it is a reasonably low number, and it slides. That is, it asks less of those who have less to give. While everyone should prayerfully consider donating what they can, nobody is asking anyone to donate everything that one has.
The Widow Who Gave All
But doesn’t the Bible ask us to donate all that we have? What of the widow in Mark 12:41–44? Jesus is watching people donate to the treasury, and when a widow puts in “two copper coins, which make a penny,” Jesus says,
“This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything that she had, her whole living.”Mark 12:41–44
Jesus praises her generosity, yes, but He doesn’t command us to give all that we have like she did. The Widow is a case of someone who chooses to go above and beyond what she is called to do, that’s why she impresses Jesus so much in the first place. If everyone were called to give all that they had, the Widow’s contribution wouldn’t have stood out.
But, so now we’re back to the original problem. We know that we are called to give—not everything, but how much?
Do You Spend Your Money for That Which Is Not Bread?
One interesting way to look at this question might be through the lens of the beginning of the 55th chapter of Isaiah. The prophet writes,
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness.”Isaiah 55:2
Just like Jesus praises the widow without asking that everyone else do the same, here Isaiah isn’t really scolding people who buy food and work for a living. Really, he’s asking whether our joy comes from the right places or whether we think it’s something we can purchase.
Similarly, Deuteronomy 15:7–12 tells us to “give generously” but not to give everything in support of the poor.
Where Does Your Money Go?
If we look at all of these passages together, we can come to an interesting model. Certainly, we should tend to our own needs and maybe even some comforts first. However, if we have all that we require, what greater joy can we experience from our wealth than to give it to those who need it?
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The Bible never attaches a percentage of net worth or a dollar amount per month that we should give. What it does tell us is that “God loves a generous giver” and that giving is its own reward.
A reason for this is that part of the process of giving is consideration and prayer. You shouldn’t donate like you pay the utilities—it’s not about checking a box; it’s a prayerful act. Part of that prayerful act includes coming up with the figures you’re comfortable with on your own. Give what you think God would ask of you, rather than what you think your church or your neighbors would expect of you.