Thursday, May 29, 2014

Giving God the Leftovers

Around Thanksgiving several years ago, radio commentator Paul Harvey shared a true story of a woman and her frozen Thanksgiving turkey. The Butterball Turkey Company set up a telephone hotline to answer consumer questions about preparing holiday turkeys. One woman called to inquire about cooking a turkey that had been in the bottom of her freezer for 23 years. That's right—23 years. The Butterball representative told her the turkey would probably be safe to eat if the freezer had been kept below zero for the entire 23 years. But the Butterball representative warned her that even if the turkey was safe to eat, the flavor would probably have deteriorated to such a degree that she would not recommend eating it. The caller replied, "That's what I thought. We'll give the turkey to our church."[1]

Sadly, that is the attitude of many who give to God. He gets the left overs of our time, talent and treasure. When it comes to prayer we may squeeze God into our schedule at the end of the day. After working all day there isn’t much energy or focus left, but we reason, “God understands my heart” as we doze off to sleep in the middle of an unfinished prayer. The church usually comes last on people’s priority list. That is why ministers are scrambling to find volunteers and have to beg people to work with children. Tithes and offerings are skimmed from the bottom of the barrel as well. Believe it or not, I have actually seen people make change in offering plate.  

This was also a problem in the prophet Malachi’s day as well. In a scathing little tirade tucked away the end of the Old Testament, Malachi spoke of Israel’s spiritual laziness, “But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord's table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1:6-8).    

Did you see the problem? The people were offering God their sick and maimed animals as sacrifices. Not all that different from giving the church a 23 year old turkey. God wants our first fruits with all we have. He wants our best in everything and He wants to be our first love so we cannot offer Him our leftovers. In the Old Testament God would not accept a blemished animal for a sacrifice; so He will not accept our half-hearted offering to Him today. If God gave His best by giving us His Son, shouldn’t we reciprocate out of a heart of thanksgiving?

In the language of the Old Testament, we would say God deserves our “firstfruits.” “Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (Pro. 3:9-10). The giving of the firsfruits made an important statement to God, “We give our first and best to you, Lord, because we recognize all good things come from you.” The firstfruit offering reminded people of God’s ownership of the harvest and placed faith in His ability to help the people raise the rest.

Giving back to God a portion of what is rightfully His is a thermometer for our faith. If we hold back the best from the Lord not only do we incur God’s judgment, but it shows that our hearts are cold toward God. On the other hand, when we give God our best He adds His blessing and true worship takes place. This is why Jesus commended the widow who gave her two mites (Mark 12:41-44). She actually gave a higher percentage of her wealth—100%--than the wealthy people who tossed their coins into the collection plate just to hear it ring.  

Augustine made a powerful observation about the nature of Christian giving and tithing when he said: "We give earth, and receive heaven. We give the temporal, and receive the eternal. We give things corruptible, and receive the immortal. Lastly we give what God has bestowed, and receive God Himself. Let us not be slothful in such a commerce as this."[2]

Somehow we never lose when we give our tithes and offerings. The Lord continually promises blessings to those who generously offer Him their support. But we don't give simply in hopes of getting. Our giving to the Lord is an act of worship, not a financial ploy. We give to Him because we love Him; and He gives to us out of His infinite love for us. When we give, we are to give cheerfully and obediently to the Lord. Giving in order to "get more" is not a biblical principle. But those who faithfully give can rejoice, knowing that as they help meet the needs of others, God will meet their needs as well.

[1] Paul Harvey daily radio broadcast (11-22-95)
[2] Augustine quoted in Turning Points, 28 August 2013, p.40. 

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