Put God First

Here we are. “It’s that time of year, again!” It’s time to talk about money. It’s time to talk about giving. Some of us dread it. Some of us think we should just “skip it.” Some believe it is an invasion of privacy to talk about what they give to the church; “That’s between me and God, Preacher!”

Those last people are exactly right! It is between you and God. Giving to God through the church is never a financial matter and always a spiritual matter.

Think about this – when the book of Genesis speaks of bringing an offering to God, there were no buildings to maintain, no staff to pay, no “building projects” needed. Why did people make sacrifices to God?

In the Old Testament, there were no checkbooks, ATM cards, IRAs, 401k, no cash – just cattle, grain, wine. Wealth was computed in grain, livestock, wine, oil, crops. When Old Testament people burn offerings and sacrifices, they were offering their wealth to God in the same way as when we make regular tithes, or put money in the offering plate.

We are giving that which sustains our life, that which is most valuable to us.

Everything the Old Testament says about giving puts it in the light of sacrifice and devotion to God. There was no option. They looked around at the majesty and wonder of their world – nature, harvest, sun and moon, children – and knew they must pay homage to God, who made it all.

Every idea, every practice, every act of worship was designed to put God first. Putting God first brought many benefits. Priorities, peace, order, worship, everything in its right place – “Shalom,” as the ancient Jews called it.

Today, we are tempted to put many competing idols, many gods, at the top of our priority list – and we wonder how our life seems “out of whack,” chaotic, and out of order. Many times, when we do give to God through the church, we even mis-prioritize the reasons we do so.

In the “olden days,” when “everyone” went to church, when everybody was a member of our “club,” we could take the easy way out and talk about giving to support our “club.”  Now, we are being forced to reevaluate the basics of our faith.

Stewardship basics are:

  1. God made everything, so everything belongs to God.
  2. When we give, we put God first.
  3. We give because we love God.

Our giving to God through the church (or, as we call it, stewardship) is always about our relationship to God, and never about “paying the bills,” “keeping the doors open,” or “balancing the budget.” Giving to God through the church is always about ministry, not money.

The only truly Biblical approach is to address giving as a matter of relationship to God.

Herb Miller, one of the most prolific writers and teachers about Stewardship, says, in a publication called Full Disclosure:

Every encouragement toward financial giving stands on the foundation of Jesus’ Great Commandment and Great Commission:

  1. Grow spiritually in your relationship with God (Acts 2:41-46) as you share resources with one another.
  2. Love your neighbors in church, community, and world (Luke 10:25-37) as we help others in need. (Good Samaritan – showed his commitment)
  3. Offer Christ to people outside your church’s walls (Matthew 28:19-20) as we share our faith with others.

Financial giving increases our spiritual health by “encouraging discipleship behaviors” like sharing resources, helping others and sharing faith. As we grow in discipleship behaviors, we more closely and fully accomplish our purpose as a church – “to discover, develop and deploy spiritual leaders for the transformation of the world” or, put more simply, “to make disciples.”

The way we give to God through the church shows whether or not we give God the highest priority. There are other ways we show that we put God first – the way we act, the relationships we have, the way we think. But, how we give shows our “willingness or unwillingness to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God’s guidance in all our lives.”

How we give shows what is important in our lives. How we give to God is an “essential element in helping us form, retain, and grow in our spiritual connection to God.”

The very first time the Bible mentions anyone giving to God is the story of Cain and Abel – the world’s first brothers:

Genesis 4:3-7 (CEB)

Some time later, Cain presented an offering to the Lord from the land’s crops while Abel presented his flock’s oldest offspring with their fat. The Lord looked favorably on Abel and his sacrifice but didn’t look favorably on Cain and his sacrifice. Cain became very angry and looked resentful.The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why do you look so resentful? If you do the right thing, won’t you be accepted? But if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.”

Scholars have long debated why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was not. If we compare this story with the many other mentions in the first five books of the Bible (The Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), we conclude that Cain’s offering was somehow insincere and selfish. Maybe Cain gave God the “leftovers” while Abel put God first and gave the firstborn of his flock. Every other book of the Pentateuch – and many other sources – give the same kind of warning. God wants more than money, more than stuff, he wants our hearts.

This first story holds such truth! Be sincere with your gifts. When you are insincere, or give with an eye toward your self, rather than the recipient, you could become jealous and resentful of those who give generously.

When I first started in ministry, I heard experienced pastors say that those who complain the loudest about a preacher preaching about money are those who don’t give; and, every time you preach about giving, they are convicted. That gets painful!

I doubted them, when I was young and stupid. But, guess what? They were right. Jealousy is a powerful emotion – it lead to the first murder, and the murder of many church’s ministries.

In this Genesis passage, there were no buildings to maintain. No temple. No ministry. There was only devotion to God. When our devotion to God is insincere and self-serving, we’ve got more problem than our pocketbook!

We find a similar story in the Book of Acts:

Acts 5:1-11

However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land? Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!” When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified. Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.

About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband. Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”

She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”

He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.” 10 At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband.11 Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.

Needless to say, “trepidation and dread” would seize us, too, if the same thing happened.

Notice that Ananias and Sapphira were not question about the size of their gift. How big it was, how small it was didn’t matter. What mattered is that they lied. They lied to God and they lied to the community of faith. Once again, priorities matter! There is no place for selfishness in the heart of a true disciple.

Clarity of devotion leads to generosity in giving – and vice versa. Resentment in giving betrays a lack of faith and trust in God. I wonder, if Ananias and Sapphira had told the truth, would they have died? Peter condemns the lie, not the gift.

Jesus himself lifts up, not the amount, but the motivation in Mark’s famous “Widow’s Mite” passage:

Mark 12:41-44

41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[g] 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44  All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

Many rich people were throwing in lots of money.” It was noisy as they threw in lots of coins. Everybody knew they were rich! Jesus praised the widow to the surprise of his followers. They were accustomed to favoring the wealthy. Jesus favored the devoted.

I could go on. In the Old Testament, “offering” and “sacrifice” are used interchangeably. In each instance, it was a matter of worship, or devotion. It was an act that sought forgiveness, that atoned for sin.

The financial giving of our day should be no different. It should never, if it is to be biblical, be based on arm-twisting, guilt-inducing appeals from the outside. Good stewardship should come from the heart of the believer, as we seek to devote our dearest, most precious resources to God. Not all of those resources, just some. And do it first. Put God first in your giving. Learn to prioritize your devotion as you prioritize your giving.

Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The converse is also true – if we want to know someone’s heart, look where they put their treasure.

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