Preaching Date: July 8, 2018
Key Sentence: Generosity is a radical, joyful overflow of the God-oriented heart.
I. We overflow when we give ourselves first to the Lord. (2 Corinthians 8:1-5)
II. We overflow when we imitate the Lord (2 Corinthians 8:6-9)
III. We overflow when we give what we have (2 Corinthians 8:10-15)
IV. We overflow when we give cheerfully, from the heart (2 Corinthians 9:6-8)
I’ve always loved the story of R. G. LeTourneau. Born in Vermont, LeTourneau grew up in a Christian home, but seemed immune to that influence. He would probably be diagnosed today with attention deficit syndrome. He struggled in school, dropped out in the eight grade. He became a common working man, first in an iron foundry and then a succession of industries, finally businesses of his own. At 28 he married a sixteen year old girl against her parents wishes.
About that time his faith, which had been hot and cold for years, finally fired up in earnest. He became deeply involved in a Christian and Missionary Alliance church and felt, he reported, that God said “My child, you have been working hard, but for the wrong things. You have been working for material change when you should have been working for spiritual things.” Like many believers of his day, this led him to think he must become either a pastor or a missionary. To his surprise, his pastor said, “God needs businessmen too.” At the time, he was $100,000 in debt because of a large construction job that had gone poorly. But in the midst of such financial difficulties, he trusted God with his money, family, and life, knowing God uses man’s weakness to showcase His strength.
LeTourneau went on to have a remarkable industrial career, inventing and building almost all the giant earth-moving machines that transformed the world in the 1930’s and beyond. 70 percent of the earth-moving machines used in World War 2 were built by LeTourneau. He held all the patents for every machine that uses large or even massive self-propelled, electric-motor-driven wheels.
He was a multi-millionaire. But he never lost the priorities that predated his success. He started giving sacrificially, even in times of financial reversal, and soon he was living on an inverted 10 percent basis. 10 percent of the profits for him, 90 percent for the Lord’s work. “The question,” LeTourneau said, “is not how much of my money I give to God, but rather how much of God’s money I keep for myself.” He founded the LeTourneau Technical Institute which, with his wife Evelyn’s help, became LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, seeking to multiply his influence in the lives of young, passionate Christians who loved God and others. The LeTourneau Foundation which his wife ran for many years after his death in 1969 continues that legacy of generosity.
How does that make you feel? Do you say “well, he was rich, it was easy for him.” Maybe you missed the part where he started giving before he was successful. It turns out generosity isn’t about how much you have or how much you give, but generosity is the overflow of a radically God-oriented heart.
We’ll look this morning at one of the most focused passages on generosity in the New Testament. We could look in the Old Testament and find principles there, we could look at the teachings of Jesus, but in 2nd Corinthians 8-9 Paul directly addresses the call and blessings of generosity and shows that it is a radical, joyful overflow of a God-oriented heart. We’ll divide the text into four parts, but we’re going to see nine principles of generosity. 2nd Corinthians 8:1-5 We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— 5and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
By the time this letter was written Paul and his companions had evangelized and planted church across much of the eastern Mediterranean. Despite this, it is likely the majority of believers still lived in Jerusalem and Judea, where the church had begin so successfully after Pentecost. But the churches in Judea suffered persecution and hardship. Believers were ostracized both socially and economically. All this was made worse by a drought and famine which had begun about ten years before 2nd Corinthians and not yet fully abated.
So Paul had made it a project to collect gifts from the churches he planted for the churches in Judea. In Acts 11 Paul and Barnabas bring to Jerusalem a collection taken up in Antioch. But the collection he’s talking about here was years later. 1st Corinthians shows us that the believers in Corinth were already saving for this gift. 1st Corinthians 16:1-3 “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. 2On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. 3And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.” That’s clear, and it’s the reason that churches for 2000 years have collected an offering when they gather on the first day of the week, Sunday.
But between 1st Corinthians and 2nd this generosity had bogged down, possibly due to the conflict between Paul and false teachers in Corinth. Paul sent Titus with a severe letter that isn’t part of our Bibles, and Titus returned with good news on how this letter was received. Now Paul feels he can again encourage the Corinthians to generosity. He begins with an example. “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”
Though they were themselves facing severe persecution, the Macedonian churches, Thessalonica, Berea, Philippi, and others, had given generously. This rich rich generosity was an overflow of their "abundant joy" and "extreme poverty." Murray Harris says “their poverty no more impeded their generosity than their tribulation diminished their joy.” This liberal giving by destitute Christians to fellow believers they didn’t even know was the overflow of God’s grace at work in their lives. So the first heart principle we can apply to our giving is that behind all giving is a keen awareness of the grace of God. If we know that grace can save us from the depths of our sin, we can also trust that grace will sustain us when we give, no matter how needy or trying our circumstances.
The second principle is that generosity is not dependent on our means or our circumstances. Paul will come back to this in the next section but for now he says “they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord.” They wanted to take part in the relief of the saints, and if that meant giving all that was wise and maybe a bit beyond what was wise, so be it. No matter how much or how little we have, no matter how trying or how pleasant our circumstances, giving needs to be a willing priority.
Finally, the third heart principle in Paul’s opening example is that, verse 5, “they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” This is key. Generosity can only come when we have given ourselves first to the Lord. That’s what we saw in the example of R. G. LeTourneau, when he began to live as if all that he had and all that he was belonged to the Lord. Life as a believer is not an add-on to your real life, nor a support for that life. Life as a believer is denying yourself, taking up your cross and daily following Jesus. Only after you have given yourself to him can you begin to break the bonds of materialism and selfishness that lie at the heart of our reluctance to give.
Here’s an exercise. Spend a day trying to be aware of every time you use the word “my,” mentally or verbally. Some uses are positive: “My Lord,” “my wife,” “my kids,” “my friend.” But often the possessive pushes back on the truth that all I have and all I am belongs to God. “My car,” “my house,” “my computer,” “my time,” “my money,” “my rights,” “my job,” “my career,” “my success.” All these belong to the Lord, but our vocabulary betrays us.
And, to be honest, our practice betrays us. I chose generosity as a counter cultural character quality not so much because it is lacking in our culture, though it is, but because Christians in general do not stand out against this culture in this area. Oh, sometimes we do, as when the federal government has to partner with Christian organizations and churches to do the bulk of its hurricane relief. But often we behave no differently than others when it comes to generosity.
Here are some statistics. They are not from our church, and I honestly think many of us do better than this, but they are sad: Americans give 2% of their income. Christians do only a little better 2.5% of their income. During the Depression it was 3.3%. Only one out of 20 Christians practice regular tithing, that is, giving 10 percent or more of their income. In Christian families making less than $20,000 per year, nearly one in ten tithed. But families making $75,000 a year or more the tithing figure drops to 1 in a hundred. In fact the average giving by adults who attend US Protestant churches is about $17 a week and 37% of church attenders don't give anything. So this is clearly a place where committed believers who have given themselves first to the Lord can make a huge difference no matter what their means or circumstances. I’m grateful for the people of this church who give far more than these statistics would imply. Yet there are some among us who rarely or never give. Why? I want to say this gently, but could it be that you’ve never really given yourself to the Lord?
So Paul goes on in verses 6 to 9 to point to Jesus as our savior and our example: Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. 7But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. 8I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 9For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Titus had been Paul’s emissary to the Corinthians when Paul himself was unable to go. He had brought the second, missing, letter, and this third letter that we know as 2nd Corinthians, and with it a mission to encourage their giving.
So the next principle that Paul gives us is that giving is a gift or discipline. “You excel at so many of the spiritual gifts and disciples: excellent faith, excellent speech, excellent knowledge, admirable earnestness or diligence as believers, and also in love or at least in being loved by Paul – the Greek is obscure. But now, he says, excel also at this ‘act of grace,’ or gift of grace. Giving is the overflow of God’s grace as we’ve already said, and it is an evidence of his grace at work in you. It is one of those interesting aspects of the Christian life, that is a specific spiritual gift, but also a discipline. The gift list in Romans 12 says that it is a spiritual gift, that the one who has the gift of contributing or giving should do so with generosity. That’s R. G. LeTtouneau. But Paul will also say that each one should give. It’s like evangelism. Some have the gift, through the Spirit, of effectively sharing their faith and seeing more fruit than most. But all of us are called and expected to share the Good News of Jesus with those who need to hear. In the same way each of us is called to generosity.
The next key principle is that our generosity is an imitation of Christ. Verse 9 “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” In encouraging the Corinthians to complete their giving, Paul appealed to the example of the Macedonians, to their own promising beginning, and to their desire for spiritual excellence. Now he turns to the supreme example. Paul saw in Jesus the perfect picture of one who showed his love by generosity.
Christ "became poor" in his incarnation, relinquishing his heavenly glory. The glory of his heavenly existence was wealth, while the lowliness of earthly existence was poverty. Christ voluntarily surrendered this glory so spiritual wealth could be had by others. He left it all behind to be made into a mere man, and then he further humbled himself by death on the cross. He did it in order that we might become rich, not materially rich but spiritually enriched by his grace so that we are given righteousness as a free gift, we are made heirs with him of all things, even his heavenly and now his resurrected glory.
How do we follow this example? I think the key is found in Philippians, verses we will look at next week. We think more of the interests of others than of our selves. Especially in this area of generosity there is a battle between our self-interest and the interests of others. We look at somebody and we know there is a legitimate need, one that we have the resources to meet. But somehow in our minds those resources were allocated toward what we need, something intended to make our lives easier or more comfortable or more put together or more pleasurable. We struggle to put someone else’s interests ahead of our own when it comes to generosity. I know, without being too hard-hearted, that there are some here who have never put the needs of someone else above their own. You may give from your excess, but you never give from what you’ve allocated to ‘self.’ Jesus showed us the extreme example of putting others first.
Now I’m not saying that we give to the point of bankruptcy or of neglecting financial obligations. Verses 10-15 In this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. 11So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. 12For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. 13For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”
There are three more principles in this section. One is that generosity benefits you. Paul does not elaborate on this, but other Scriptures do. Luke 6:38 says “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” Philippians 4:19 says “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” In just a few moments we’ll look 2nd Corinthians 9 which says that the cheerful giver will experience God’s grace and sufficiency. These benefits can include material things, like receiving from others when you have a need, and even having your own material needs met because you have lived in faith.
But I’m not endorsing the prosperity Gospel which claims God is obliged to materially reward whatever you send to channel 14. It is not Paul’s intent, nor mine, nor Jesus’ to stand you in front of a slot machine so you can put in a token and pull the divine handle to see what you get. No, most of the benefits of giving are in the form of joy and satisfaction and the peace that comes from responding to God’s will and the Spirit’s prompting. And those are enough.
Paul goes on to say that generosity is not foolish. He says complete what you started “out of what you have. 12For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.” You can’t give what you don’t have. Be generous but not foolish. In fact, be wise, budget, plan, so your giving can be generous. Yes, I have these other obligations, but I’m going to spend carefully so that the dollars I give can be given freely, and as we’ll see in a moment, cheerfully. I always say to my kids, a key principle of financial stewardship is that each dollar can only be spent once. If you spend all the dollars you have on some extravagance, then you don’t receive the benefits of generosity. But if you give away dollars that were supposed to meet your own real needs, you’ve gone beyond what God requires.
But, last principle in this section: generosity is also willing to depend on others. The body of Christ is mutually dependent. All of us need to be willing at times to be recipients of generosity, not just dispensers of it. Paul says “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but as a matter of fairness 14your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” Sometimes it’s harder to be the receiver of generosity. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked with people distraught at receiving benevolence help or some anonymous gift. And I’ve pointed out, many times, that we weren’t made for independence but for dependence on God and mutual dependence on each other. We need to be willing to accept help and grateful when it is given.
But it is also possible to get frustrated by the feeling that you’re always the one giving the help. These Corinthians might have been worried about their own finances, the hardships and struggles they might have had to go through. Paul is saying to the givers and the receivers “It all evens out in the end.” In the body of Christ we are to meet one another’s needs, financial and emotional, relational, spiritual. This ‘evening out’ is not always financial equity.
Years ago I heard a joke that became a proverb to me. It was about a Texas oil man and a rancher who met for a nice dinner and the rancher insisted on paying for the superb steaks. The oil man reluctantly accepted. A few days later a new Cadillac showed up at the rancher’s home. A note on it said “Got a hankering for one of these, and since you got the dinner the other day I picked up one for you too.” The proverb is “You got the dinner, I’ll get the Cadillacs.” We don’t have to keep balanced accounts, brothers and sisters. Generosity has a way of working itself out, and we’re all dependent on God’s grace.
Finally, I want to close with one more principle, from 2nd Corinthians 9:6-8 The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
We could get several principles out of these verses, but I’ll focus on one. Generosity is a willing, cheerful choice. Each one must give as he or she has decided in their heart, not reluctantly, not under compulsion or pressure, but cheerfully. Giving is not supposed to be a duty or a burden or a dull obedience. It’s a privilege, a way God gives us to share in his work and in his stewardship of his world. He puts resources into our hands and allows us to imitate his grace and his sacrificial generosity as we put them into the hands of others.
It’s just fun. I remember when Gail and I were first married and I worked for Exxon. Their policy said that you could give to any college or university and they’d match it three times. So if you gave $25, the college would receive $100 total. So I started giving to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, which was and is a good school, though I’ve actually never been there. I didn’t give much, but Exxon matched it. Not too many months into this I got a call from an administrator of the school saying he was in our part of New Jersey and could he stop by and thank us personally for our generosity. We were living in this beat up tiny apartment no bigger than a matchbox, with a rickety old table and a couch that we’d re-covered ourselves, but here was an official of a good school stopping to have coffee and to thank us for our generosity.
That was fun, satisfying. In the same way I’ve gotten years of satisfaction from administrating your generosity through benevolence. One of my favorite stories is about Laura Pinard, Johnny and Bobby’s mom. For many years we helped her with various things. Her work situation, family situation and health situation meant that needs kept popping up. It turned out that one of those needs had to do with traffic tickets. She had several, mostly parking violations, and she didn’t want to ask for help for something so embarrassing. Then one day she got stopped and learned that because of these outstanding tickets she was going to be taken to jail in Pasadena and held until she could pay.
That’s where she called me from. Was there any way we could help? With all the fees and stuff it was like $833. What I knew that Laura didn’t was that the benevolence account was empty. I’d given it all away. But it was Monday, so I said to her. “Well, I don’t think there’s anything, but I’ll check Sunday’s giving. I went to the office and pulled the deposit record, looked at it a minute and said to Laura “Do you believe there’s a God?” Somebody had put a check in the offering for benevolence. Eight hundred dollars. It was a communion Sunday, so the cash in the offering, thirty-three dollars, was also benevolence. God supplied Laura’s exact need, through the generosity of his people.
So what have we seen? Generosity is a radical, joyful overflow of the God-oriented heart. The principles we’ve learned make this clear. Paul teaches that behind all generosity lies a keen awareness of the grace of God. That generosity is not dependent on our means or our circumstances. That generosity can only come when we have given ourselves first to the Lord. That it is both a spiritual gift and a spiritual discipline. That generosity imitates the generosity of Jesus. That it benefits the giver. That generosity is not foolish in its spending, but it is willing to depend on others, and that generosity is a willing and cheerful choice. Yeah, at times generosity requires wisdom and discernment, but you and I will find joy when our hearts overflow with generosity toward others.