The Stingy Religious?

According to a highly publicised 2015 paper in Current Biology, children who have been brought up religiously are less generous than their religion-free peers. The good news, if you can call it that, is that only in the last couple of months and some four years after the event, it’s now reported in Psychology Today that the paper has been formally retracted (you can see the retraction here).

According to a highly publicised 2015 paper in Current Biology, children who have been brought up religiously are less generous than their religion-free peers … four years after the event, the paper has been formally retracted

Better late than never. The paper had actually been corrected by another researcher a year after its initial publication. But of the original eighty media outlets that reported on the ‘stingy religious’, only four had noted this correction. Subsequently, and after the retraction, the original paper continues to be reported as true!

Be a Cheerful Giver

Whatever we make of this, it is certainly true that no-one, Christian or otherwise, is by nature generous. Surely this lies behind Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 9:7 (as he raises money for his collection for the Jerusalem saints) that “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” We don’t like having things taken away from us, and that dislike is often reflected in our grumpy attitude to giving.

How much, Paul?

One observation we might make is that Paul makes no mention of a specific dollar amount. ‘If 40 Corinthians gave just 50 denarii each, we would be half-way towards our target!’

No, the Corinthians themselves are to decide individually what constitutes a good amount “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Whether such a target-free approach would pass muster in a modern church or mission organisation is a question for others to ask. But we must not imagine that it represents any reluctance from Paul to call for the money. His clearly-stated motive is to help the poor “that there may be fairness” (2 Corinthians 8:15), especially for the poor suffering a famine in Jerusalem. Spiritual benefit has flowed out from the Jewish saints. It is only right that material benefit flows back. (Romans 15:27)

Paul’s five concerns in the matter of generosity

Paul has at least five concerns when it comes to generosity, whether for the Corinthians, for himself, or for us:

First, in the previous chapter (2 Corinthians 8:17-22), Paul wants to be completely transparent and honourable in his dealings with money, and so sends two trusted brothers (including Titus) to be responsible for the safe carriage of the gift. Such transparency and security are vital, especially at a point in Paul’s ministry where some have apparently accused him of weakness, insincerity and falsehood (see for example 2 Corinthians 11:1-15).

Similarly today, many insist that Christian organisations or individuals are only in it for monetary gain. Our behaviour in matters financial must take its cue from Paul’s example. It must reveal such accusations to be obviously false (compare 1 Peter 2:12).

Second, in 2 Corinthians 9:1-5 he wants the Corinthians to keep their promise to give to the poor. Like Paul’s concern for transparency, this too is a matter of personal integrity for the Corinthians. They need to follow through on their God-given desire to help, and the promises they have made.

Third, (verse 5) Paul wants the gift to be completely voluntary. Hence he gives fair warning that he is on his way, so that the Corinthians won’t be caught by surprise and so feel pressure to give when they don’t want to.

Fourth, and as we’ve noted from verse 7, cheerful giving is of far greater importance than the amount in question.

Fifth, and most significant of all, in verses 9 to 15, Paul is at pains to tie the giving of money to the very character of God.

Giving and the Character of God

God in his wisdom has ordered both the physical and spiritual reality of this world. Just as a farmer appears to be liberally throwing away his seed onto the ground (verse 6), but will in the fullness of time gain a great reward (or not, if he has sown sparingly)—thus it will be with money given to the poor.

Again, this giving is only of value if it is cheerful giving (the Greek word for cheerful, hilaron, gives us our words ‘hilarious’ and ‘exhilarating’). We are to be happy farmers as we distribute our seed/money, just as the Lord Jesus Christ freely gave everything he had for us (see 2 Corinthians 8:9), and just as also God the Father “is able to make all grace abound to you.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)

You will Reap a Great Reward

The believer who gives generously will reap a great reward.

The surprise in the final verses of chapter 9 is that this great reward is spiritual in nature. It is not, as some prosperity gospellers want to say, that we will gain great material wealth (especially if we give money to the prosperity gospellers!)

Rather, the generous believer will abound in every good work (verse 8). His righteousness, says Psalm 112:9, will endure for ever (verse 9). The harvest of righteousness will increase (verse 10). Thanksgiving will overflow to God (verses 11-12). The needs of the saints will be supplied (verse 12). Those who benefit from the generosity of others will glorify God (verse 13) as they see the clear evidence of his gospel and surpassing grace at work (verse 14). Indeed, all will give thanks to God for his indescribable gift (verse 15).

The generous believer will abound in every good work. His righteousness will endure for ever. The harvest of righteousness will increase. Thanksgiving will overflow to God …

Whether your church needs to hear this message, and so become generous, or whether you are a gospel worker or supporter who needs to be reminded to be generous yourself, the content of the encouragement is exactly the same: the grace of God overflows to us in Jesus Christ; who, through his death and resurrection, now pours out the eternal gift of his Holy Spirit; who, in turn, causes us to live lives of abundant grace and generosity.