Deferred gratification or deferred tithing?

A friend writes as follows:

“In a recent discussion I brought up the idea of students being in debt, and wondered what kind of conceptual framework they should be working through regarding tithing: they are privileged in their education, but currently do not have an income on which to made tithing-type decisions.

“I plan this semester on talking with my students a bit about the whiplash effect that students can have when they graduate and suddenly go from having lived for 4-5 years with no income (and not tithing), to suddenly making $60k and trying to make decisions about their giving. How should they begin thinking, acting, and growing generous hearts now, in preparation for graduation and their future, while feeling burdened with their accumulating debts? I expect questions about ‘deferring their generosity,’ such as ‘I could tithe from my summer earnings but then I’d have to take a larger loan … so I’ll be generous in the future.’ Thoughts?”

I think every Christian should tithe something, no matter how small his or her income. (The widow’s coins in Jesus’ parable come to mind.) There will always be good reasons not to tithe: paying off loans, starting a business, saving for the future, getting into a house, educating the kids, etc., etc.

Likewise, the reasons to tithe are as good now as they ever will be: recognizing one’s dependence upon God’s provision; refusing to allow money to utterly determine one’s outlook; doing something for someone else; maintaining solidarity with the poor; resisting self-centredness in all of this; and more.

Furthermore, habits are habits, good or bad. If I habitually give, I am much more likely to–you guessed it–habitually give. And if I habitually don’t, I likely won’t.

I can certainly imagine someone exercising responsible Christian liberty and saying that in this or that unusual case, I can defer tithing and then have more to offer others. I’m not laying down a law here–as if anyone would care if I did!

But oh, boy, I myself find it a lot easier to defer tithing than to defer gratification–my own, or my spouse’s, or my kids’.

So I tithe.

0 Responses to “Deferred gratification or deferred tithing?”

  1. Jennie McLaurin

    Thanks for raising the issue of tithing. Having been a student AND a physician for many years, I’ve seen both sides. It is easy to see oneself as without anything extra. And it is easy to look at others as rich, and think “if only I were there.” But my understanding of tithing started in med school, when I lived on $500 a month (all loans) and was deeply in debt. I have to say, the giving was always painful for me. But I also had so many unexpected surprises associated with it–the generosity of others to me, the opportunity to see God multiply my meager contribution, and a feeling of really being connected to the larger body of Christ. It was good to not just be a taker. Our pastor reminded us that all belongs to God, and we get away with being free to control 90% of what is God’s. My biggest example was my med school friend, who gave a monthly tithe the first Sunday of every month. I always wanted to wait and make sure I could. She did it before she had a chance to use it up. We moved as a family in response to what we understood as a call from God, a move that slashed our income. There was tuition associated with the loss of work. It was tempting to call that loss our tithe–after all, we gave up a lot for God! But it didn’t feel right, and we sort of grudgingly gave out of a sense of obedience. We’ve only been given more and more security as we trust God instead of our spreadsheet. Now we are considered by many to be on the rich end of things. And we still have to force ourselves to give sometimes. But it is such a blessing, and so freeing. And generosity makes us more joyful as a family. So we’re teaching our kids to tithe allowance AND gift money–to show them that money is money, no matter the source. And we’re trying to tithe our talents AND our cash. And it’s always a challenge to be faithful, no matter our situation. But don’t let anyone talk themselves out of instant gratification associated with instant tithing.

  2. Glenn Keeler

    I appreciate your thoughts on tithing as a spiritual discipline. I shuddered a little at a recent article in our local paper that emphasized a “requirement” to tithe in our growing evangelical churches. Tithing as “law” I think is antithetical to the gospel, but tithing as a means of grace being enacted in our lives has this the right way around.

  3. C. Bennett

    I whole-heartedly agree. I would add one thing, however, if I were speaking to the particular group of people in view in your friend’s commentary. It is this: we are all invited to be a part of the freedom of giving of our material wealth, even if we are not earning a salary.

    I make this assertion based on three things: 1) God really is the God of all provision. Whether I am earning a salary, or am a ‘faith’ missionary who receives financial gifts, or am on a fixed income, if I start the giving, God will make a way for me to keep giving. It’s not magic; it’s a generous God.

    2) I doubt the widow in the parable that comes to mind had a regular salary. And I’m not sure the woman who wasted an entire year’s earnings through some spilt perfume on Jesus’ feet was receiving a triple-digit paycheck. But I am sure that those of us in the West do have something financial to give.

    3) I speak personally as one of those people whom your friend addresses. Fifteen months ago I accepted an offer to do a 3-year study program, with no source of funding, even though I knew I would need $20,000 a year to see it through. Because I want to participate in what God is doing in the world through financial giving, I figured I needed $2000 more in order to tithe, making my budget $22,000. I had enough savings to see me through six months, but then something would have to happen. I recently looked at the bank account, having completed 12 months of non-earning studies. $16,500 was given to me last year, and I didn’t ask for a penny of it. So I was able to give my $2000 and then some. And I’m not earning a salary.

    How often do we take financial risks in the form of stocks or real estate or student loans? We can also take tithing risks – at least 10% of our earnings or our annual budget – and plan to give God what is our freedom to give.

  4. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these powerful comments and stories. I’m sure we all would welcome some more–stories to put up against all the stories in our heads and hearts about “practicality,” “shrewdness,” “entitlement,” and so on that keep our tithes in our pockets.

  5. jared b

    thanks for your post. Many blessing will come when we give from a cheerful heart. Although i do not believe in the mandate of tithing, i do believe we give sacrificially. Who knows, for some that might be 5% of their social security check, others it might be 50%. But in the end we honor God through our faith

  6. tracie

    Thank you for your thoughts. I would like to ask you a question. I am a full time worker with a non-profit missionary organization where we are all in charge of raising our own support/finances, ie. we don’t receive any pay and either do any of the folks we work with. Now our philosophy on tithing is…we tithe. But our understanding of church is…the body of believers rather than the building or institution. So we often give our tithe to our missionary friends and others in other countries that have zero church support. I feel that the church should be willing to support missionaries and I don’t see this too often so we do what we can where we feel the church (institution/building) is not. Any thoughts?

  7. Chuck

    Hi Dr. Stackhouse-
    I was directed towards your blog after your posting on Richard Dawkins and have been reading some past posts this morning. I’m always interested in people’s thoughts on money, giving, generosity, etc.

    I would like direction to answer a question I haven’t been able to find the practical answer to in the past few months: since we (Christians) are held to a higher standard than the Law of Moses (tithing, most popular being 10%), that standard being from the Law of Christ (sacrificial giving), what does sacrificial giving look like? Why are any of us still “well off?” Joel Osteen comes to mind, but I see 98% of American pastors living more frivolously than I think Jesus prescribed (Mark 10). I can’t help but think that we, as wealthy Christians, should all be on the same level – e.g. the net income of a missionary, say $15k/yr (not to be legalistic).

    I stumbled across a website that seemed to agree with this thought process and wondered if you mind commenting as well as throwing in your own thoughts on money.

    I read in another post about your recommendation for “Giving to God: …” book and plan on reading it.

  8. John Stackhouse

    Brother Chuck, I recommend two books in particular on this question–and notice that these are two whole BOOKS, not a simple formula! Ron Sider’s RICH CHRISTIANS IN AN AGE OF HUNGER and Mark Allan Powell’s GIVING TO GOD.

    I don’t agree that the vast majority of pastors are overpaid and living “more frivolously” than they should: I know a lot of pastors and very few of them resemble this description. In fact, many of them are underpaid, in my view.

    Furthermore, I don’t see pastors as being in any special category in this regard. We are equally called to the same standard of financial stewardship.

    As for the standard being the pay of missionaries, two things come to mind here: (1) a lot of missionaries are paid badly, so we shouldn’t use their income as a standard for everyone, and (2) income is very much a relative thing, as missionaries themselves will tell you. For example, many missionaries have considerable domestic help, because of the low cost of labour in other countries, while those of us in the West would need the income to buy machines to do the same work.

    Anyhow, books are needed, not just blog comments, so I’ll commend those good books to you!

  9. Chuck

    Thank you for your response. A quick note: I don’t think that pastors are overpaid, but I do think they have missed the mark on setting the example. I am still seeking for the answer of – what does sacrificial giving look like?

    It stems from a deeper question: what if Jesus was right in Mark 10:21-23? esp. “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Out of all the different groups of people Jesus taught, I (and like I said before – 98% of Christians I encounter) can relate mostly to the rich young man. In which case my faith will be tested when Jesus says “sell all that you have and give to the poor.”

    I will read those books. Thank you for the suggestions.


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