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09.25.11 What is Extravagant Generosity? 2 Cor. 8:1-15

by on September 26, 2011

Of all the passages in the Bible giving guidance on giving, this one is the best in my opinion. Nearly every verse offers something practical to consider. But at its core, giving is a spiritual issue.

Summary Points

  • Should the church talk about money?
  • The relationship between giving and grace.
  • Giving as a spiritual issue.
  • Giving on a sliding scale.
  • How giving ministers to us.
  • Questions to ask when giving to the church.

Some people wish the church didn’t talk about money, as if there was something unspiritual about it or that the church didn’t have people to help and bills to pay. But the Bible itself talks a lot about money, and if biblical scholars are right about 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 being fragments of two lost letters of Paul, then he found it necessary to talk about money on several occasions (in his letters to the Romans, Corinthians (3 times), Galatians, and in Acts).

For Paul, giving is foremost a matter of grace. For many churchgoers, “grace” refers to God’s unmerited favor or the power to do God’s will or the very presence of God. But this reduces grace too far. Paul uses the Greek word for “grace” several times in this passage and translators have rendered it as grace, blessing, generous act (of Christ), the privilege and generous undertaking (of giving).

This use of “grace” in relationship to giving reveals the complex meanings of grace. It causes us to reflect upon the relationships between grace and gratitude: God’s gift to us is grace; our response to God is gratitude. But beyond mere gratitude, or perhaps as an example of active gratitude, Paul expects God’s grace in our lives to initiate generosity.

This understanding of grace is well illustrated by the fact that Paul uses another Greek word, koinonia, to describe the mutual sharing among the churches for the sake of their ministries. Paul uses this same word to describe our spiritual union with Christ and with one another, and especially in relation to the Lord’s Supper. At the Table, where we receive grace, we have communion with all the saints. Paul expects that communion to generate generosity towards one another.

This understanding of grace underlies why the Macedonians, whom Paul describes in verse 2 as enduring severe affliction and extreme poverty, nonetheless experienced abundant joy and gave generously.

If giving is a matter of grace, then necessarily it is also a spiritual matter. In fact, generosity in giving is a mark of spiritual maturity and among the fruit of the Spirit. Paul commends the Corinthians for their excellence in faith, speech, knowledge, eagerness, and love. He urges them to add the spiritual excellence of giving (verse 7).

As is characteristic of much of the spiritual life, Paul does not issue commands with regards to giving. Instead, he offers a diagnostic in verses 8-9. Our giving reflects our love for others. First, Paul compares our giving to that of Christ, who gave up his riches and became poor so that we could be rich. Then he compares the Corinthian gifts to those of the Macedonians. The point to be taken here is not the question, How does my giving compare with others. The question is, Does my giving reflect my gratitude for God’s love for me, and my love for others?

God made us with a need to give. Of course the church gives money away and has bills to pay. But if the church loses its building to the bank or to decay, God would still call us to give because we have a spiritual need to give.

How much of our dissatisfaction in life, our jealousy and envy, and our debt is the result of our unwillingness to trust what God provides and promises? The best way to extricate ourselves from the cancerous consumerist culture that depletes us spiritually is to give generously. Extravagant generosity exercises and develops faith. Hoarding is antithetical to faith and diminishes us spiritually.

Practically, then, how are we to give generously, even extravagantly? It begins with intention. Paul commends the Corinthians because they were the first to desire to give and to begin giving—over a year ago (verse 10). In many churches, we have pledge campaigns to estimate the support of the congregation for the ministry the upcoming year. Perhaps Paul would endorse this intentional practice—thinking ahead a year, desiring to give and spending the year giving.

But Paul also says the Corinthians are to give according to their means (verse 11), which eschews a specific number or percentage (like the 10% “tithe”), and at the same time recognizes the changing circumstances in which we all find ourselves. What makes the gift acceptable, according to Paul, is the intentional desire to give and the giving out of our real means. This perspective protects us from guilt for not tithing, or pride if we do. The standard is not 10%, but giving according to our gratitude, our love, and our means.

One final perspective. Paul is not interested in taking from the rich and giving to the poor. His concern is koinonia: fellowship, communion, and mutual ministry. He identifies a balance or equality between those who have abundance and those who have need. But read verse 14 carefully. The Corinthians have abundance of money; the church in Jerusalem (the likely recipients of the offering) have an abundance of need. Both congregations, Paul says, minister to one another out of their abundance.

All people have a spiritual need to give. But we who have financial abundance have also a spiritual deficit, and that deficit is met by someone with abundant need. By receiving from us, they minister to our spiritual deficit out of their financial deficit.

So these are the questions to ask ourselves when giving to the church:

  • How does my giving reflect my gratitude for God’s grace in my life?
  • How does my giving reflect my love for others?
  • How does my giving bring balance and equality to others as we mutually minister to one another?
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