Grace and Generosity

One of my favorite figures of speech is the oxymoron.  An oxymoron is where two seemingly contradictory terms appear side by side.   Some familiar examples include jumbo shrimp, old news, an original copy, civil war, and some would say government intelligence.

            I would add one more to that list.  I believe that a selfish Christian is an oxymoron.  Those two words just don’t go together.  If we really understand this thing we call grace — if we believe that God has poured out his favor on us, giving us blessing after blessing that we don’t deserve — how is it even possible for us to respond to that by being selfish?  It just doesn’t make any sense.  Those of us who embrace this message of grace should be the least materialistic, the least selfish people on the face of the earth.  

            In fact, I would go so far as to say that if a Christian is selfish, they really don’t understand the meaning of being a Christian.  And that’s what Paul wants to talk about in our text this morning. 

            Allow me to say this before we get into the text.  This morning, in 2 Corinthians chapter 8 and next Sunday morning as we get in chapter 9, I’m going to be talking about money, I’m going to be talking about giving, and I’m going to talk about a spirit of generosity.  And the purpose of these lessons is not to lay a guilt trip on anyone.  But I do want this to be convicting. 

            As a whole, this congregation is made up of some extremely generous givers.  Many of you are like the Macedonians that we’re going to talk about in just a moment who were incredible givers.  But if you’re a Christian who is not giving like you should, then I hope that the things I have to say this morning will be convicting, and that you’ll be motivated to be more generous with what God has blessed you with, not out of guilt, but out of grace.

            Just a little bit of background before we get into chapter 8.  We know from the book of Acts and we know from history that there was about a ten-year famine that took place in Judea, around the city of Jerusalem.  This letter was written toward the end of that famine.  For the people in Judea, it was a very difficult time.  For the Christians in Judea, it was perhaps even more difficult. 

            You may recall that, years before, many of the Christians in Jerusalem sold their land and sold their possessions in order to help support all of those thousands of new Christians who came to Pentecost and then stayed around for a while.  And so, they had no resources to fall back on.

            So, when this famine hit, there were Christians around the world who said, “We want to do something to help out our brothers and sisters who are going through this very difficult time.”  It was similar to what we often do, whenever we hear about Christians in other places who’ve been devastated by a tornado, or a hurricane or a flood.  We want to send relief.

            And the Corinthians said, “We want to be a part of this relief effort. Count us in.”  In Corinth, things were going well.  They were prosperous.  There was no famine, there was no persecution.  So, they said, “Let’s take up an offering.  We have more than we need and we’ll help out our brothers and sisters over in Judea.”  So that’s the background to this discussion here in chapter 8.

            Paul begins in verse 1, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia…

            Before Paul talks with the Corinthians about what he would like for them to do, first he tells them what the churches in Macedonia have done.  These would have included the churches in Thessalonica, Philippi, and Berea. 

            “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-2)

            Paul said that these churches in Macedonia had truly understood and embraced this radical concept of God’s grace.  We’re going to see that grace is a significant part of Paul’s discussion in chapters 8 and 9.  That word shows up ten times in these two chapters and Paul wants to get across the idea that for those who have experienced God’s grace (and that’s all of us), God’s grace has been shown to you so that God’s grace might be shown through you.  In other words, grace isn’t just something we enjoy ourselves.  Grace is shown tome so that grace can flow through me. 

            Now that’s a biblical principle that we find in both the Old and New Testaments.  In the Old Testament, we see that the people of God were blessed so that they could to be a blessing to the nations around them.  Earlier in 2 Corinthians, we saw that we have been comforted so that we might comfort others, we have been reconciled with God so that we can help others to be reconciled.  And now Paul says that God’s grace has come to us so that his grace might flow through us, and he uses the Macedonian churches as an example of that.

            Paul said that these churches were “in a severe test of affliction.”  We know that there was persecution of Christians in these citieswhich was probably part of the reason for their “extreme poverty”.   But, in spite of that, these Christians had an “abundance of joy” and a “wealth of generosity”.  They may not have had much, but they wereextremely generous with what they did have.

            Verse 3, “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints — and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” (2 Corinthians 8:3-5)

            Paul said that these Christians in Macedonia gave “according to their means”, or as some translations put it, they gave “according to their ability.”  Now, that wording is important — “they gave according to their ability” — and it’s going to come up several times in these two chapters.  God always asks us to give according to our ability.  God doesn’t measure your gift by comparing it with someone else’s gift.  Giving is not a competition. 

            But God does measure your gift on the basis of what you have the ability to give.  Some people ought to give more than others because they have more ability to give.  Others have less ability and are not expected to give as much.  But what that means is, as our ability increases, our giving should increase as well.  And so, the question for all of us as Christians should be this – am I giving as much as I have the ability to give?

            But Paul says that the churches in Macedonia not only gave according to their ability, they gave beyond their ability.  They gave what they could reasonably afford to give, but then they turned around and gave even more than that. 

            And then Paul says they gave “of their own accord”.  Or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “they did it of their own free will.”  There was nobody pressuring them to give, nobody telling them they had to give more.  Giving to this need was their idea, it was something they wanted to do.

            And here’s the really incredible part – they actually begged Paul for the opportunity to give to help out their brothers and sisters.  I find that remarkable!  There haven’t been many times over my years of ministry when I’ve heard Christians say, “Please, please take this money and use it for this good cause.”  But that’s what these Christians were doing.  They were begging Paul, “Please let us participate.  We want to help!”  And then they not only gave according to their means, but beyond that! 

            This was extraordinary generosity!  And Paul says, “It was so much more than we expected.”  They gave, even though it wasn’t easy for them to give because they were afflicted and they were poor.  But they did it joyfully, even beyond the amount that they were comfortably able to give.  They gave more.  They gave sacrificially.

            But then Paul says, “The reason they did that was because they first gave themselves to the Lord.”    And that’s the real key to being generous. You have to begin by giving yourself to the Lord.  If you find that you’re not being very generous with what you have, that may be an indication that you haven’t yet fully given yourself to the Lord. 

            Because once you give yourself to the Lord, then you understand you belong to him.  And that means that everything God allows you to use in your life is his, and you are simply a steward of what God has placed in your hands.  God has access to everything you own.  Everything.  And so, we’ve got to begin by giving ourselves to the Lord. 

            Because the Macedonian Christians understood the concept of grace, they were able to say, “God, my life is yours!  Everything I have is yours!”  And they gave themselves to the Lord and then they gave what they had to this good work that Paul was doing.  So, Paul celebrates this remarkable group of churches in Macedonia.

            Then Paul says in verse 6: “Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace.” (2 Corinthians 8:6)

            While he was in Corinth, Titus talked with the Corinthians about giving to this need.  And now, Paul wanted Titus wanted to go back to Corinth and say, “Hey, you guys said to wanted to help out with this plan to send help to Judea.  Let’s finish what you started to do and then we can take that offering to those brothers and sisters in need.”  Notice again that Paul describes their giving as an “act of grace”. 

            And he does it again in verse 7, “But as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you — see that you excel in this act of grace also.” (2 Corinthians 8:7)

            Paul says, “You guys are going such a great job in so many areas of your Christian life – you’ve got faith, you’ve got a lot of knowledge, you’ve got love.  Make sure that you’re doing a good job with your giving as well.

            Verse 8, “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.” (2 Corinthians 8:8)

            Paul said, “I’m not going to tell you how much you have to give.  I’m not even going to command you to give at all.  I just want to give you an opportunity to express your love.”  We all know how important love is, but Paul says the way you show that your love is genuine love is by your willingness to give.

            The apostle John put it this way, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (I John 3:17).  To selfishly hold on to what we have and to not be willing to give to help others in their time of need is the exact opposite of love.

            And then, Paul gives the Corinthians the ultimate example of someone showing their love by giving, and that’s Jesus.  Verse 9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:8-9)

            Jesus was so generous that he was willing to give up everything to come to this earth.  So, how can we possibly understand what Jesus did for us and then come away selfish?  What sense does that even make?  Paul says on the basis of grace, if we understand what Jesus did for us, then our response ought to be generosity.  The more we understand God’s grace, the more generous we should be.

            Let me give you an example.  Suppose you’re having a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner and you have invited me to cover over and share that meal with you.  So, I come over to your house where you’ve prepared a magnificent meal.  But, as I’m going into your house, I happen to notice that there is a homeless man outside and it’s obvious that this man hasn’t eaten for days.  And so, you say to me, “We need to invite him in and share what we have.”  And my response is, “Whoa, what are you talking about?  No!  There might not be enough food!  This meal is for me!”  And even though you assure me that there’s plenty of food, I say, “There might not be enough!  I might want to take leftovers home and have them later!  Don’t share your food with that man out there.”

            We would never do that……or would we?

            If we accept the grace of God in our lives and we consume that grace on ourselves, but we become selfish and we’re unwilling to share what we’ve been given with others, how is that any different?  The more we understand God’s grace, the more generous we should be.

            Verse 10, “And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it.  So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have.” (2 Corinthians 8:10-11)

            One of the things I love about the scriptures is how relevant they are.  This is just so practical.   A year before this, the Christians in Corinth came up with an idea: “Let’s take up an offering.  Let’s help out our brothers and sisters down in Judea who are suffering in a famine.”  That was a great idea!  They had really good intentions!  But apparently, they hadn’t followed with that plan.  How many times has that been true for all of us?   We’ve got great ideas, maybe some great plans about being generous.  But we sometimes don’t carry through on those plans.  Paul is urging the Corinthians to finish what they’ve started.

            You’ve heard the old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  “Hey I thought about being generous.  I just didn’t get around to it.”  In the New Living Translation, Paul says, “Here is my advice: It would be good for you to finish what you started a year ago. Last year you were the first who wanted to give, and you were the first to begin doing it.  Now you should finish what you started.  Let the eagerness you showed in the beginning be matched now by your giving.”  (2 Corinthians 8:10-11, NLT)

            I think most of us would like to be generous.  The reason I say that is because I hear so many Christians say, “You know, if I win the lottery, I’m going to give a whole bunch of money to the church.”  We love to make plans for all the money we don’t have, but God is more concerned with what we’re doing with the money we do have.

            So why do we sometimes struggle with being generous?  Why are we sometimes reluctant to help someone who is in need?  Why does God sometimes end up getting our scraps when the collection basket comes around?

            And you may not like the answer to that question, but I think the answer is this – we struggle with being generous because we’re selfish.  I am reluctant to take my money that I worked hard for, money that I need for all the stuff that I need, money that I need for all the stuff that I want, and just give it away.

            If I gave more to the church, I wouldn’t be able to eat out at nice restaurants all the time.  If I gave more to people in need, I wouldn’t be able to afford my cable bill.  If I was more generous with others, I wouldn’t be able to fill my house with all this nice stuff and get all these nice clothes and drive this nice car.

            Most people, including many Christians, spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need.  And then we say, “I’d love to be more generous with my money, to support the work of the church and to help people who are in need, but I just don’t have any left over.”  And I ask you to be honest, how is that not being selfish?

            Once we give ourselves to the Lord, we understand that it’s not my money to spend on what I want, it’s God’s money to spend on what he wants.  And the more we understand God’s grace, the more generous we will be.      

            Verse 11, “Give in proportion to what you have.  Whatever you give is acceptable if you give it eagerly.  And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have.” (2 Corinthians 8:11-12, NLT)

            Again, give according to what you have.  God is not asking you to give what you don’t have.  You may say, “I’d love to give $10,000 to help pay off the classroom pod we just purchased, but you don’t have $10,000.  Don’t worry about it.  God isn’t asking you to give what you don’t have. 

            But, if God blesses you, he expects you to turn around and give back in proportion to what you have.  But again, this is where we sometimes get stuck.  You go home, you do your budget and you say, “You know, I’d love to give more, but I just don’t have it, I just can’t afford to give.”  Which may be true.  But if the reason you can’t afford to give is because the lifestyle you’ve chosen to live closely resembles the materialistic, selfish world around us, then maybe it’s time to do some re-assessing.  The only way we’re ever going to be generous is if we learn to say “no” to the materialism and the selfishness of our culture and choose to live at a different level so that we have the freedom to be generous with what God has given to us.

            Verse 13, “Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality.  Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need.  Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.  As the Scriptures say, ‘Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough.’” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15, NLT). 

            Now, it’s important for us to understand that this is not a biblical justification for socialism.  That’s not what Paul is saying.  For starters, we’re talking about the church, not the government.  Secondly, this is a willful, joyful giving.  This is not a tax that’s required.  And thirdly, Paul isn’t saying that everybody has to have an equal amount of money in the bank, that everybody has to have an equal size house and car and all that. 

            What he is saying is there ought to be an equality in the church in regard to the basic needs of life.  If God has blessed you in such a way that you have more than you need and there are other Christians who don’t have the basic necessities of life, why wouldn’t you share what you have to make sure that those others are taken care of?

            And Paul makes this case by quoting from Exodus, chapter 16.  When the children of Israel were in the wilderness and God provided for them by delivering manna from heaven every day, and every day they would go out.  Some would collect a lot of manna and others would collect a little bit of manna.  But, at the end of the day, they all had enough, they all had exactly what they needed and nothing more. 

            Incidentally, if you want to know how God feels about hoarding, go back and read Exodus 16.  If any of the Israelites thought, “You know, I’m not sure if God’s going to give us manna tomorrow.  Even though he’s been faithful every day, he might sleep in tomorrow.  So, I better collect a little extra today just in case God doesn’t show up tomorrow.”  God said, ―Every time you do that, I’m going to spoil your manna.  It’ll turn rotten.  Nobody needs to saves up from one day to the next.  You trust me every single day and I will always provide what you need.  Don’t hoard what you have.

            Next week, we’re going to see in chapter 9 that one of the reasons we give generously to God is because God will be generous to us in return.  We’ll talk about that next week.  But, in this chapter, Paul tells us that we need to be generous with others because God has been so generous with us.  When we think about how much Jesus gave up to come to this earth, when we think about how many blessings God has filled our lives with, how can we possibly be selfish?

            Try to imagine the conversation you’re going to have with God when you stand before him to give an account.  You’re not going to give an account to me.  You don’t have to explain anything to me.  You don’t answer to me.  But you are going to answer to God.  What do you plan to say when God asks you, “What sort of steward were you?  How did you use all that money that I gave to you?”    When you try explain to God where all your money went taking care of all your needs and all your wants, and how you didn’t have anything much left to give back to him, or to others who were in need, what do you plan to say that will cause God to say, “Oh, now I get it; you weren’t being selfish at all”? 

            We are a blessed people, but God expects us to be generous with what we’ve been given.  And I would have to say that if you’re not a generous person, you really don’t understand grace. 

            As I close the lesson this morning, I don’t want to close with a plea for you to be more generous with your money.  Rather, I want to close with a plea for you to give yourself to the Lord.  Some of you here are not Christians and you have never given yourself to the Lord.  But, unfortunately, there may perhaps may some Christians here who haven’t given themselves to the Lord.

            Once you give yourself to the Lord, then you understand you belong to him.  And that means that everything God allows you to use in your life is his, and you are simply a steward of what God has placed in your hands.  God has access to everything you own.  Everything.   And so, we’ve got to begin by giving ourselves to the Lord. 

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