“I wonder what would happen,” reflects author Mark Alan Powell, “if we collected the offering on Sunday morning, set the plates on the altar, and then tossed in a match, burning up everyone’s money.”
In his book Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life (Eerdmans, 2006), Powell reminds us that most of the sacrifices in the Old Testament were consumed by fire, rather than being used to sustain the priests, or help the poor, or accomplish some other practical purpose. Like the costly perfume that could have been sold to benefit the poor, the giving to God was itself the point.
This has been a hard lesson for me to learn, and I’m still learning it.
Of course we are to make the most of our talents, spiritual gifts, and opportunities. Yet how tempting it is to fixate upon outcomes: to define our careers, our families—even our charitable giving—in terms of what is accomplished, rather than in terms of the open-handed totality of our offering to God, for him to do with as he pleases.
The New Testament offers a spectrum of words to describe how Christians relate to God: sacrifice, slave, servant, friend, and child. And Paul most frequently picks the one, “slave,” that epitomizes his exhortation in Romans 12:1 to offer our bodies as “living [perpetual] sacrifices” to God.
So while effectiveness matters—as the parable of the talents reminds us, and as does Paul’s own exhortation to be careful how we build (I Cor. 3)—we must also recognize that we really can’t know the full effects of our actions and thus must not measure what we do only by what we perceive the effects to be.
As a writer, I send articles, blog entries, reviews, and books into the world and afterward I get only occasional glimpses of any good they might be doing. So I must do the best I can, and then just offer them up to God as sacrifices.
What will any of us say or do today that will make a difference, that will mark an individual or community in an important way?
We can’t know. And we don’t need to know. What we get to do instead is to render our whole selves up to God as grateful slaves, as living sacrifices. Whatever happens next is God’s gift. We are those who have already died to this world and now are living in “gracetime”—forever!
(This article is lightly adapted from the version published this month in the Wheaton College alumni magazine.)