There is a curious passage in the biblical Book of Malachi: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, That there may be food in my house, and try me in this, says the LORD of hosts: Shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven, to pour down blessing upon you without measure?” (3:10). It sounds as if God is issuing a dare to the reader.
I might have read this passage before, but it did not come alive for me until 1982 when I heard a priest quote it and witness about what tithing had done to transform his finances. That priests had financial problems was a revelation, but frequent bank overdrafts proved that my family surely did. My husband, Steve, and I had five kids in parochial schools, mortgage payments, dental and medical bills and a car dying of rust disease. I ordered the kids not to grow, but they stubbornly disobeyed, inhaling food and bursting out of their clothes. You can perhaps understand why “blessings without measure” might have appealed to me.
The bubble burst, however, when the priest spoke of tithing 10 percent of one’s gross income. “Isn’t that a typical priest idea?” I said to my husband. “What does he know about a family’s cost of living?” I spent much time muttering about the stupidity of giving away money when you needed money.
What finally turned the tide was the dare: “… try me in this, says the LORD …” I know God keeps his word, but I also knew from past experiences that his blessings didn’t always match my wants. Nevertheless, in a leap of faith, we (with a wrong motivation) desperately and fearfully wrote those first tithing checks, off the top. “We are signing up for a life of rags and oatmeal!” I complained.
But this complaint was countered by a blessing. Steve found a shiny stone on the sidewalk. He took it to a jeweler who said it was a diamond. We were unable to find the owner, so Steve had it set into a ring for me. (We had no money before we married, so I didn’t have an engagement ring.) The new ring on my finger was a constant and sparkling reminder that tithing isn’t a doorway to deprivation and misery.
As for the oatmeal, I (almost effortlessly, it seemed) became an expert shopper and a skilled cook, finding bargains everywhere, not only on food, but on clothing and other needs also. People gave us odd gifts — the most extraordinary being a good, undented station wagon, just before our old car expired.
One day we realized, to our surprise, that we didn’t even miss the tithe. The overdrafts also stopped. God is trustworthy! In the beginning, until your trust is strengthened, God seems to go out of his way to overwhelm you with very tangible blessings. Bit by bit, negative motivations are transformed.
Give in Gratitude
A highly significant spiritual blessing came when we were recruited, along with other tithing couples, to be speakers for the Sacrificial Giving program, created by the late Msgr. Joseph Champlin. Not only was our tithing conviction reinforced by having to define and articulate it, but our faith was also strengthened by talking with members of the body of Christ around the United States and in Canada. To see firsthand the vibrancy of the Church and to hear people’s stories was a priceless privilege.
Msgr. Champlin, while training us to speak, warned against presenting sacrificial giving as the Catholic version of Oral Roberts’ “seed-faith” philosophy: Give and you will get; sow and you will reap accordingly. Rather, Msgr. Champlin said, people should give in gratitude for what they had already
received; namely, God’s love in all its manifestations. Giving 10 percent of one’s income, off the top, was to be a guideline, not a mandate. The amount selected should be a sacrifice, have a bite to it.
In Mark 12:41-44, the widow is commended for offering two small coins. The rich gave from their “surplus wealth,” but she contributed all she had. The title of Msgr. Champlin’s program — Sacrificial Giving — reflected the widow’s attitude.
Naturally, all the speakers complied with Msgr. Champlin’s directives, but privately they shared stories of the mysterious blessings and adventures attached to tithing. My favorite story came from a woman who said that she and her husband had started tithing soon after their marriage. Years later, he lost his job, and they had very little to live on. But they kept tithing, strongly believing in God’s providence.
One day she was washing clothes and ran out of detergent. In the habit of talking to God as if he were her husband, she said, “You promised to take care of our needs. I’m out of soap, and I need to wash these clothes.” Shortly thereafter, the doorbell rang. On the steps was an Amway salesman who had a discouraging day on his route. Sweaty and tired, he thrust a business card and a large sample of soap powder into the woman’s hands and said, “Call me if you want to place an order.”
The woman leaned toward me and said, with a twinkle in her eye, “Isn’t it wonderful to worship a God who cares whether or not you get the laundry done?”
If you are into self-sufficiency and independence, you may wonder why the woman didn’t just buy soap and forget about the tithe that week. She would have answered, I’m sure, that it was as if God were teaching her to trust him in little things daily, so that she’d trust him in the future when she might need something that money couldn’t buy.
As our understanding grew, we agreed that tithing was a first step, a doorway into a deeper spirituality and a mature practice of stewardship, because it helped topple the powerful and insidious money-materialism (“mammon”) idol. It was a lens to help see God’s love and gifts everywhere, a way to learn gratitude and trust in God and one way to express interconnectedness with the body of Christ and generously promote the Church’s work in the world.
As our trust in God grew, our giving spilled over the 10 percent guideline into any parched area we felt called to address. We gradually became — and are still becoming — New Testament “cheerful givers” (see 2 Cor 9:1-15). God gives us “an abundance for every good work.”
A Generous Spirit
There can be misunderstandings about tithing, however. For instance, a woman once cornered me after my sacrificial-giving talk and said that her daughter had started tithing 18 months ago and was now filing for bankruptcy. How would I explain that? Careful probing revealed that the girl had abandoned restraints and common sense and was charging cruises and all manner of luxuries, confusing hedonism with needs and assuming that God would pay the Visa bill just because she was tithing. This is still mammon in disguise, alive and well.
Another more subtle misunderstanding can occur when people fail to perceive or receive God’s gift because it doesn’t match their expectations. For example, they buy a raffle ticket, expecting it to be the channel through which God will bless them. They don’t win. Money does come from bartering, as an unexpected gift or through some work they do, but they don’t see this as originating from God, per se.
In these cases, people may also struggle with gratitude. They are prone to be sad and say, “I find it very hard to believe God loves me.” Further, if one does not believe in the never-ending abundance of God and our claim to it, it is very difficult to be generous with human funds that diminish. We may envy another’s good fortune, again seeing it as decreasing what is left for us.
When I began writing and publishing a newsletter called Thanks Giving, I did some research about stewardship of money. One helpful resource was an older book, Tithing in the Early Church, by Lukas Vischer. The history of prescribed giving, I discovered, is rather convoluted, ranging from the offering of first fruits (grain, wine, oil, etc.) as a tribute to God, to tithes that provided the basis of a sumptuous celebratory communal meal, to tithes that helped the needy and supported the priests, and, later, to offerings sent to a central holy place in Jerusalem. Thus, the former harvest sacrifice was changed to a cultic tax.
Debates about Jesus’ stance on tithing and the early Church Fathers’ views on the subject were explored in Vischer’s book. The early Fathers agreed that the possessions of this world should not hinder or interfere with a person’s discipleship and that Jesus required more than was previously demanded by the Old Testament tithe. The tithe was seen by them not as a duty, but as a voluntary act of praise and thanks to God, as a way to learn generosity.
Jesus’ challenge to be cheerful givers is diminished, Vischer states, “as soon as nothing more than the tithe is required. …” We are tempted to conclude then that we can do whatever we want with the remainder of our incomes and possessions. This may lead to an evasion of the central question: Do you serve God or mammon?
Money Is (Not) Power
It is hard to overestimate the lust for money and its power in our society. The late comedian Jack Benny, who had the stage persona of a miser, illustrated this in a famous skit. He was accosted by a mugger who demanded his money or his life. Benny hesitated so long that the mugger, exasperated, finally said, “Well, what’s it going to be?”
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking … ,” Benny replied.
Human beings love to be independent, to call the shots. Money facilitates this, and our culture reinforces the myth that our worth is defined by our material assets. Money is seen as power, and acquiring it often motivates criminal behaviors. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), downswings in the economy, such as we are now experiencing in the United States, show how fragile this illusion really is. In addition, natural disasters can wipe out all that people have acquired in the blink of an eye. God, not gold, is our only unwavering source of security.
If through tithing we learn about God’s providence and the benefits of sacrifices, we are greatly blessed. John D. Rockefeller Jr. said: “I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.”
Stephen R. Covey in The 8th Habit defined sacrifice as “to give up something good for something better, so that in a very real sense, when your vision is strong about meeting a particular need, you would not call it sacrifice, even though an outside observer would … .” Sacrificial givers I know would agree with both of these men.
There is a sense of excitement, surprise and romance attached to tithing. Just as Merriam-Webster’s defines an adventure as “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks,” the same characteristics can apply to tithing. Things happen when God is in charge that will surprise and delight you as well as help you grow spiritually. Pray for trust as you cross the threshold into a God-created world of love, compassion, generosity, abundance and adventure. Let the Holy Spirit transform you into a cheerful giver.
Principles of Msgr. Joseph Champlin’s Sacrificial Giving Program
1) Pray about how much money you should give. Ask God to give you a guideline percentage (1 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent, etc.).
2) Give half of the amount you decide to the parish and the other half to the world’s poor.
3) Write checks off the top of your income (in other words, not from the leftovers after the other bills
4) Put your contribution in the parish envelope; it helps the staff plan and budget.