Friday, November 18, 2011

Contentment in Giving

Contentment in Giving

How did Paul describe stewardship?

Paul devoted the entire ninth chapter of 2 Corinthians to the subject of giving and generosity, ending it by describing giving to others as a gift from God:

"Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!" 2 Corinthians 9:15 (ESV)

The wonderful goodness of giving to others was a gift that exceeded Paul's ability to adequately describe.

Today, I want to focus on four elements that makes giving to others a wonderful gift of God. The four elements rest upon each other, forming a triangle with four layers. Our study in God's Word today will explore this triangle, beginning at the top and digging deeper and deeper into God's Word, uncovering what lies beneath, until we see God's grace supporting it all.

At the top of the triangle is cheerfulness:

"Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." 2 Corinthians 9:7 (ESV)

Stewardship, charitable contributions, or giving to others - whatever you call it - becomes a wonderful, indescribable gift of God when it is from a cheerful heart. A cheerful giver becomes the object of God's love, with God's Spirit bringing to the giver feelings of joy and security.

First, notice that cheerfulness in giving is not automatic. Cheerful giving requires readiness. At least three times Paul emphasized being ready to give as an essential element of willing, cheerful giving:

Verse 3: "I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be.

Verse 4: "Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident.

Verse 5: "So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction." 2 Corinthians 9:3-5 (ESV)

READY (verse 3): paraskeuazo (to furnish aside); from skeuos (a vessel, implement or equipment)

NOT READY (verse 4): aparaskeuastos (NOT furnished aside)

READY (verse 5): hetoimos (adjusted); from heteos (fitness)

ARRANGE IN ADVANCE (verse 5): prokatarizo (to prepare in advance); from katartizo (to complete thoroughly); from artios (fresh); from arti (just now)

Cheerfulness in giving depends upon preparation and planning. The process of giving, deciding how much to give, and to whom to give is to be deliberate and thoughtful, giving priority to "adjusting" the gift to make it fit for the need. The planning and preparation is to be carried out well in advance of the actual transfer to the beneficiary.

Now, think with me. What is required in order to prepare beforehand a gift? If cheerful giving depends upon prepared giving, how do we "get ready" to give?

Paul describes spiritual readiness:

"I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction." 2 Corinthians 9:5 (ESV)

GIFT: eulogia (fine speaking, elegant language or commendation); from eulogeo (to speak well of, to bless or prosper)

Spiritual readiness precedes physical readiness. A Christian needs to view the gift as an important form of communication. The gift, like a speech or public prayer, must be a thoughtful, compassionate blessing for those who receive it.

How different this is! The world views charitable contributions as a tax benefit, or a social duty. Christians with cold hearts view the offering plate as a symbol of duty or a stimulus to guilt. Paul viewed giving to be a blessing, a spiritual form of communication meant to gladden and encourage others.

Gifts of money, or time, or food, or whatever, all must be carefully considered, just as a speaker must carefully consider the words of a speech or public prayer. The message must fit the purpose and the people listening. The gift must fit the need and the people receiving the gift.

Do you wish to become a cheerful giver? Get ready to give by considering the gift to be a form of spiritual communication, a blessing. Plan and prepare the gift, considering the need and the ones receiving the gift.

The tip of the triangle is cheerful giving, which is supported by physical and spiritual readiness.

Cheerfulness of heart in giving to others depends upon spiritual readiness, seeing the gift as a message or prayer of blessing, leading to physical readiness, planning and preparing the gift well ahead of time.

The next level of support to cheerful giving is not immediately obvious from Paul's writing. We can discover it by looking first at the opposite of cheerful giving:

"I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction." 2 Corinthians 9:5 (ESV)

EXACTION: pleonexia (avarice, greed or covetousness); from pleonektes (holding or desiring more, eager for gain); from pleion (more) and echo (to hold)

The opposite of a willing, cheerful heart, is one of avarice, which means greed or covetousness. Avarice, greed and covetousness are all the rotten, spoiled fruit of one dangerously deceptive mindset: discontent.

The word discontent comes from the Latin word, continere, meaning "to hold together". To be content means to look at what you hold and feel satisfied. Discontent means to look at what you hold and feel hate or regret, or to desire something that you do not yet hold.

Paul was urging the Corinthians to consider as sufficient all that God had given them. He was asking them to be willing, to regard the opportunity to give as an opportunity to bless others, to give cheerfully, because God had blessed them. Paul was warning against discontentment.

How does discontentment affect one's giving? Does it matter with what emotion one gives?

Discontentment at its root is selfishness. The discontent person wants more, regardless of the cost to himself or others.

Ananias and Sapphira were two Christians who desperately desired more admiration and praise and prestige from the community. Their discontent led them to give out of avarice and greed, blatantly lying to the church and the Holy Spirit, with fatal consequences. (Acts 5:1-11)

Discontentment destroys cheerful, willing, generous giving. Discontentment in oneself does little harm to others, but it does great harm, spiritually and physically, to oneself.

Now we can see that physical and spiritual readiness are not in themselves sufficient to make a person become a cheerful giver. Readiness to give cheerfully requires contentment.

Considering what God has given you, are you content? When you look at what you hold, right now, is there something you despise or look upon with dissatisfaction? Or is there something you lack which you greatly desire, no matter the cost to yourself or others? If so, you are discontent, and discontentment will destroy any chance of giving cheerfully, and it will likely bring great spiritual and physical harm to you.

Another example of a Christian facing conflict between discontent and contentment is the apostle Paul. More than simple discomfort, he was experiencing pain. He called it "a thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7).

THORN: skolops (something withered at the front, a point or prickle, an annoyance or disability); from skello (parched)

Thorns surely cannot glorify God? A thorn means something soft and alive has become dried up, painful and dead. Loss of life is never good and death is the furthest thing from perfection. How can God allow this?

In this turmoil of pain and loss Paul was not content. He wanted something different - he wanted something more.

Three times Paul asked Jesus to remove the pain. Three times Paul came to Jesus as the Perfect One, the Complete One, The Only Source for Every Need. Every time, Jesus refused to remove the pain. Paul never experienced relief from this lack in his life. A perfect, completely sufficient, all-powerful God allowed Paul to suffer lack. An utterly content God allowed loss and suffering in the life of one who loved Him. How can this be?

Are any of you discontent? Do any of you lack something? Are you experiencing pain instead of pleasure? Are you experiencing poverty instead of plenty?

Jesus did answer Paul. Jesus did care about the pain Paul felt, and Jesus said something that completely changed Paul's attitude. Without relieving Paul of the painful thorn, Jesus provided a way for Paul to become completely content, even in the midst of suffering painful loss.

What did Jesus say?

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." 2 Corinthians 12:9 (ESV)

Now we see the deepest layer supporting cheerful giving. The foundation of giving is God's powerful, sufficient grace.

GRACE: charis (graciousness, as gratifying); from chairo (to be "cheer"ful, calmly happy or well-off)

SUFFICIENT: arkeo (to ward off, to be satisfactory); related to airo (to lift, take up or take away, to raise or sail away)

PERFECT: teleioo (to complete, accomplish or consummate); from teleios (complete); from telos (the point aimed as as a limit); from tello (to set out for a definite point or goal)

Let's clearly understand what Jesus said:

"Everything I give you, including what you may consider loss or pain, is given to gratify you - it is intended to give you happiness. What I give you will ultimately lift you up and protect you from something worse, something eternally harmful or evil. Every situation in which you find yourself feeble or inadequate or uncomfortable is part of my ultimate goal of demonstrating My power in your life."

Discontentment says that my loss or pain demonstrates the weakness and inadequacy of God. Contentment says my loss and pain demonstrates the strength and sufficiency of God.

Discontentment says that the answer Jesus gave to Paul is a lie. Contentment says that the answer is completely true.

Remaining in discontentment is rejection of Christ, naming him liar and imperfect. Exulting in contentment is a joyful glorification of Christ, naming Him Lord and Savior.

Discontentment defines the one who lives without Christ. Contentment defines the one who lives in Christ.

Paul chose contentment:

"Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV)

To boast or speak vaingloriously is considered a bad thing for civilized people, and it is bad to brag about being great or superior about something that is not true. But Paul's boasting was in something true: Christ is a great Savior and I am a great sinner! Christ is strong and I am weak! I'm glad I'm weak because then I'm strong, in Christ!

The assurance that every pain and loss that Jesus allowed was meant for Paul's happiness and protection brought a radical change. Where once Paul resented his pain, he now boasted of it. He bragged about his weakness. He looked at his loss and discomfort with pleasure. He enjoyed being weak!

We must, however, be absolutely clear on two things: First, pain and loss are good, only when they point to the power of God. Without seeing His power, pain and loss are bad and without purpose.

Second, it's okay to pray for relief from pain and loss. In fact, it glorifies God to come to Him as a needy child, asking Him for what you want and need. It glorifies God as the One Who Provides, and the Only Source of Life and Healing. But we are to be willing to be content with whatever God does. Jesus did not rebuke Paul for praying for relief, but He told him to be content with His will. Jesus Himself prayed three times, asking His Father for release from certain death, but in the midst of every passionate prayer Jesus was willing to be content with God's will.

So now we see the key to changing discontent to contentment:

I see God's power and it makes me happy!

Paul did not suddenly become happy and content because God used His power to relieve Paul's pain. Paul's pain was never relieved, yet still He saw God's power in his life. How did God demonstrate power in Paul's life?

"So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited." 2 Corinthians 12:7 (ESV)

God powerfully protected Paul from a danger worse than any thorn: conceit.

CONCEIT: hyperairo (to raise oneself over, to become haughty); from hyper (over) and airo (to lift, take up or take away, to raise or sail away)

Paul had become higher and higher in his own estimation. His heart had become like a tower, rising high above all others. The wicked, carnal, fleshly part of Paul's heart rejoiced in the same conceit that controlled the builders of the Tower of Babel.

Unrestrained conceit ultimately leads to a desire to reign as god, to control one's own life if not the lives of others. The devil was showing Paul glimpses of glory that could be his: influence and wealth, unchallenged superiority in knowledge and reputation.

Visions of self-glory collapsed in humility when Paul realized that his painful thorn would never be taken away. This small but unrelenting discomfort was sufficient to bring Paul back from the edge of self-destructive pride. This gracious gift of pain and loss brought health and happiness back to Paul. The power of Christ was sufficient to save Paul from himself.

That is what turned discontent into contentment. That is the key to our happiness. That is the key to becoming a cheerful giver whom God loves.

What do you lack? How are you hurting? Where is your discomfort or frailty? How is your discontent affecting your relationships, with God and others? How is it affecting your giving to others? Believe the truth that your pain and loss is a tool in the hands of a gracious and sovereign Savior. Pray for deliverance from discomfort, loss and suffering, but pray also for eyes to see God's power behind the pain. What danger might God be lifting you up away from? Could it be conceit? What greater joy might God be leading you up to? Could it be humility and dependence upon God?

This is the triangle of cheerful giving. All of it - the cheerfulness, the readiness, the contentment - it all rests upon the grace of God. Undeserved blessing, the power of God upon a humble heart: God's grace!

Christian, you are walking on a road called Grace, which is undeserved favor meant to gladden your heart. This is the right road for you - it is the road that protects you and lifts you up. It is the road on which you are given opportunities to give to others and show them God's love. At every turn of the road, however, you will face your own frailty and lack of strength. Remember, your weakness is an opportunity to rejoice in the ultimate destination of the road: the power and glory and honor of God. God intends for His people to reach the end of His road: Himself.

In this we will boast all the more gladly!

What does the road look like? Can we get down to the nitty, gritty dirt? The hard pavement of our real life? In what real-life examples of loss and pain can we catch a glimpse of God's greater purpose of happiness and power?

1. "I don't have enough money. Every month I have to choose something to do without, something that others enjoy, something that I know that I would enjoy - something I really want. I really do not feel like giving to others."

That makes me happy! That reminds me to depend upon God every month! Lacking something makes me aware of what I do have. I have so much that others do not have. So much of what I have is the result of God working through others, all to benefit me. So much of what I have could be lost in an instant without God's continual protection and providence. I know God is protecting me from treasuring temporary wealth rather than eternal relationships. I can cheerfully give to others because God's grace is sufficient for me!

2. "I cannot get over this temptation. My mind is constantly pursued by conflicting emotions and desires, things I don't want, but things I do anyway. I hurt those close to me, I allow fear to waste good opportunities, I am overwhelmed at times with bitterness and resentment. The thought of giving to others fills me with guilt over my own pitiful condition."

That makes me happy! God's Spirit is surely within me, else I would be completely happy with evil things. My struggle with temptation and relationships is proof that there lives within me something better: the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Jesus is a great Savior because I am a great sinner, there is no doubt of that! Glimpses of what I would be without Christ give me reason to rejoice in His sacrifice for me. Jesus is alive, and He reigns supreme, and nothing, not even my flesh, can defeat His plans for me! Jesus is working within me to soften my heart with compassion for people caught in sin and self-destruction. I can cheerfully give to others because of God's merciful forgiveness and love for me!

3. "I am sick. Much of my monthly income goes toward medication or insurance for health care. I miss out on fun weekends with family and friends. I can't travel, I can't relax, I can't work. I can't imagine giving anything of worth to anyone else."

That makes me happy! Every moment is communion with God. I am filled with prayer: prayers of sadness, pleading for release, sympathy for others who are sick, sharing in the suffering of Christ Himself. I am one of the few people in the world not distracted right now with television, recreation, business or politics. Every fiber of my being right now is concentrated on God: How can I get through this next hour? Why are You allowing this? For what shall I pray? Sickness has brought me to my knees, and all I can do right now is talk to You, and that is all I need! I can cheerfully give because I am content with what God is giving me!

Those are just three general examples of what you might be enduring right now. Contentment is not just a thing that Christians ought to demonstrate. Contentment is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, resting in the grace of God.

Let's close with an encouraging note from Joni Eareckson Tada, from her book, A Place of Healing, written in the midst of terrible chronic pain. Here is what Joni wrote, describing the miracle that God provided when He refused to heal or take away her pain:

"A ‘no’ answer has purged sin from my life, strengthened my commitment to Him, forced me to depend on grace, bound me with other believers, produced discernment, fostered sensitivity, disciplined my mind, taught me to spend my time wisely … and widened my world beyond what I would have ever dreamed had I never had that accident in 1967.

"My affliction has stretched my hope, made me know Christ better, helped me long for truth, led me to repentance of sin, goaded me to give thanks in times of sorrow, increased my faith, and strengthened my character. Being in this wheelchair has meant knowing Him better, feeling His pleasure every day.

"If that doesn’t qualify as a miracle in your book, then-may I say it in all kindness? I prefer my book to yours."

Source: Joni Eareckson Tada, A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty, p. 55-56.

Image of gift courtesy of Christmas Stock Images.

Image of thorn courtesy of PLANTS Database, United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Image of winding road courtesy of Horia Varlan