In this final part of our series, Gravity: Overcoming the Weight of Our Stuff, we talk about one last, powerful way to break free from the pull our stuff otherwise naturally has on our lives. Along the way, I offer a three step process for how to begin building the practice of sacrificial generosity into our lives, an example of what generosity can do, and a chance to respond. Thanks for reading and blessings as you make your plan to break free from the gravity of your stuff.
Have you noticed that one of Disney’s goals lately seems to be to make live-action remakes of all their classic animated films? We’ve so far seen Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, Maleficent, Pete’s Dragon, and Christopher Robin, with films like Dumbo, Mulan, the Lion King, and Aladdin on the near horizon. A bit of research allowed me to discover that there are also tentative plans to redo other classic films such as Snow White, Robinhood, The Sword in the Stone, and Pinocchio.
Now, that last film, Pinocchio. Do you remember that one? I know it’s been a long time since I’ve watched it. You remember the gist of the story, though, right? A woodcarver named Geppetto makes a wooden marionette puppet to serve as a kind of object for his grief over not having a son of his own. A fairy comes and brings the puppet to life. Pinocchio brings great joy to Geppetto, but his naïve curiosity gets him in trouble. Eventually, both Pinocchio and Geppetto are in a fight for their lives against Monstro the whale. It’s a great movie with a lot of depth for a cartoon film, but do you remember the song Pinocchio sings near the beginning when he has been duped by Honest John and Gideon the Cat into joining Stromboli’s circus show?
“I’ve got no strings to hold me down; to make me fret, or make me frown. I had strings, but now I’m free. There are no strings on me.” Then the second verse adds this: “I’ve got no strings, so I have fun. I’m not tied up to anyone. They’ve got strings, but you can see, there are no strings on me.” That’s what we all want, isn’t it? It’s certainly what we’re told we should want. No strings holding us down; nothing to keep us from pursuing the desires of our heart wherever they happen to take us. But doesn’t life sometimes feel like we do? A really skilled marionette puppeteer can make it seem like the puppet is moving all on its own. But it’s all a deception. The truth is that the strings are always there. They are the things controlling the movements of the puppet no matter what it may look like. The mirage of freedom is just that: a mirage.
In order for Pinocchio to be a real boy, he couldn’t have any strings attached to him. The irony of the movie is that even when he didn’t have physical strings attached, the choices he made soon became, not just strings, but ropes—chains even—that bound him tightly to a particular path that, while fun at first, quickly became something he did not want at all. In order for Pinocchio to be free of all of the strings that were holding him down, it wasn’t just being good that was going to do the trick. He had to learn to live his life for the sake of others. He had to learn to live sacrificially.
The same thing goes for us. If we want to find freedom from the many strings that threaten and even in fact hold us bound to a path we may not want to be walking anymore, it’s going to take embracing a lifestyle of sacrifice; a lifestyle of putting others first; a lifestyle of generosity.
This morning we are in the fourth and final part of our series, Gravity: Overcoming the Weight of Our Stuff. The big idea for this whole conversation has focused our attention on how we can break free from the gravity of our stuff in order to be able to live freely in Christ. So far, we’ve talked about two powerful ways to see that happen. The first is to remember whose it is—God’s—and to develop an attitude of gratitude for His willingness to share it with us. When we’re grateful for something, it can’t own us. Last week, we saw that we have to have a plan in place to do good with it after the pattern God has already set in place for us. God uses His stuff for others; so should we.
All of that brings us to this morning. This morning, I want to unpack for you one last way to break the gravitational pull our stuff so often has on our lives. And, of the three approaches we will have talked about in this series of conversations, this one is by far the most powerful. If we can build this particular practice into our lives and not drop the ball, we can be all but guaranteed that our stuff will have no power over us again. That’s how powerful what we’re going to talk about this morning is. And, though, there are several places in the Scriptures that call us to this particular practice, nowhere do we find it so thoroughly laid out for us as we do in Paul’s second letter to the believers in ancient Corinth.
Listen to how he does this starting in 2 Corinthians 8. “We want you to know, brothers [and sisters], 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. 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 by the will of God to us.”
So, what’s going on here? He’s talking about a special offering he was taking up from the various churches he visited on his third missionary journey for the believers in Judea who were struggling mightily under the weight of a severe famine. What he’s doing here is offering a preface for his request to give that, frankly, feels a bit underhanded at first. He essentially uses the offering of the believers in Macedonia to cajole the believers in Corinth to matching, not just their gift, but the generous spirit behind it. Culturally speaking, the comparison would have been a bit like a traveling preacher going to a congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and saying, “Well, you know, those believers in Appalachia have already blown the doors off the place with their generosity. They gave way above and beyond what they could afford. I can’t wait to see what you guys are going to do…” Regional biases and rivalries would probably leave the much wealthier Manhattanites honor-bound to go way, way above and beyond in their own giving so as not to be out-done by those poor, uncultured, mountain people.
But, just in case there were a few folks who smelled the hook here, Paul changed tactics a bit in his next appeal. Start back with me in v. 8: “I say this not as a command…” He’s careful to note that he’s not commanding them to give. A gift made merely in response to a command does nothing for the heart, and as Paul indicated when he talked about the Macedonian believers giving themselves to the Lord first before they gave to the Jerusalem offering, while he really does want them to give generously, the condition of their hearts mattered a great deal in their giving.
Continuing, “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 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.” In other words, the proper context of all of our giving is Jesus’ giving of Himself to us—kind of like we talked about at the end of our conversation last week. He stepped down out of glory so that we could have the opportunity to have the life that is truly life—a treasure beyond any this world has to offer.
But it’s not even just the pattern of giving started by Jesus that should drive them to the offering basket. It’s their own prior commitment. Look with me now at v. 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.” Are you with me? He’s basically saying, “Look, you got all excited about this offering last year. Harness that excitement and direct it toward following through and finishing what you started.”
You know as well as I do, though, that some people are cynics. Perhaps you’re one of them. I know I can be on occasion. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve been to more than one event where one of the sponsors was a group like Compassion International and sat there rolling my eyes through the presentation that I knew was going to be one giant example of an appeal to pity which is a logical fallacy. If you want me to support something, give me reasons, don’t just try and play on my emotions. It seems there were some folks like this in the Corinthian church and Paul knew it. He knew there were folks who at this point were starting to think, “Well, that’s great Paul. Here you’re trying to convince us in every way you can to give, give, give. What? Am I supposed to impoverish myself just because these other folks are struggling? How is that fair?” Not so, Paul counters. Verse 12: “For if the readiness is there [to give to this offering], it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.”
Got that? Paul’s saying, “Look, I don’t want you to give what you don’t have. I don’t even want you to put yourself in a bind.” Verse 13: “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness, your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.” The point isn’t for you to give until you can’t make your own ends meet. The point is that you have more than you need while they have less than they need. Let’s make those two ends meet so everybody’s needs are covered. Share with them now and when or if the situation ever reverses itself, they’ll be able and willing to share with you. In this way, God’s resources get moved to where they’re most needed.
His last appeal here before shifting gears to talk about giving more generally is to their pride. Jump down to chapter 9 with me: “Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them.” In other words, Paul did the same thing with the Macedonian churches as he is here with the Corinthian church. He boasted about the planned generosity of the Corinthians to get the Macedonians to pony up big, and now he’s boasting about the Macedonians’ gift to get the Corinthians to do the same. At least he’s honest about it, though, right? But here is where Paul springs the trap on them: “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.” That is, I don’t want you to let me down here. More than that, “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. 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.”
Paul really wants for the Corinthians to give to this offering, but more than that, he wants them to want to give to it. An unwilling gift may very well meet a need, but it’s not a net gain for the kingdom. An unwilling gift is usually given begrudgingly and in such a way as to decrease the likelihood that there will be any future acts of generosity, much less the development of a lifestyle pattern of generosity. And that’s the goal here: Not just giving generously to this one cause, but embracing the spiritual discipline of sacrificial generosity in such a way that will transform not only us, but the world around us for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Paul points out all of this at the end of chapter 9. Look at this with me starting in v. 6: “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” Paul is giving us some really key principles for developing the discipline of sacrificial generosity here. The benefits of the giving —spiritual, material, and otherwise—will be proportionate to the generosity of the gift. Giving should be something that happens without any kind of impetus driving it other than generosity or else it doesn’t so anything for us. Whether the goad is something internal, like guilt, or external, like compulsion of some kind, if our giving is not a totally free act, it’s not what God wants. And here’s the thing: Because we’re giving away God’s stuff (that is, because the goal is using it the way He wants it to be used), He is perfectly capable of making sure we’ve got enough to do it. He’ll make sure we have all that we need to do all the good He calls us to do with it.
And do you want to know what happens when we get all of this right? Righteousness happens. We get right with God and we get right with people. Listen to this: “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” I love this. When we sow the seeds of a right relationship with God and people using our stuff, the same God who has been providing for His people since there were people for whom to provide, will make sure not only that we have plenty of seeds to continue planting, but that those seeds will grow healthy and strong. When we get into this pattern of generosity, it tends to create a cycle of blessing that leads to more generosity. “You will be enriched in every way…” Why? Is it so we can enjoy the fruits of our labors like the Prosperity Gospel folks like to proclaim? Nope. It’s better. “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way.” When we commit to using God’s stuff the way He wants it used, He’ll be able to trust us with more of it, knowing that we’ll just keep on using the overflow in the same way.
The result of all of this is this incredible cycle of blessing and worship and the glorification of God by all of His people. Check this out now in v. 11. Paul says that this giving on their part “will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”
Consider, then, the full weight of everything Paul is saying here. Developing the spiritual discipline of sacrificial generosity in our hearts leads to an expansion of the kingdom of God both in our hearts and in our world more generally. And listen: When we live more fully in the kingdom of God, the pull that our stuff otherwise naturally exerts on our lives weakens to the point of powerlessness. The more generous we become, the less our stuff is able to control us. Instead, we become more fully the stewards God intended for us to be in the first place when He gave us His stuff to manage. In other words: When we are generous, our stuff can’t control us. Its power is broken. We become free. When we are generous, our stuff can’t control us.
Everything we’ve been talking about for the last four weeks has led us right to this point. The fact is, our stuff has gravity. It pulls on our lives. Sometimes it pulls on our lives when we don’t have very much of it. Someone who has developed a mindset of scarcity can even be pulled around by stuff she doesn’t have. And again, as we have said over and over in this series, if we’re not careful, that pull can become strong enough to keep us from a meaningful relationship with Jesus. Now, hear me well: I am not saying that someone who is being pulled around by his stuff is suddenly going to renounce his faith and walk away from anything having to do with a relationship with Jesus. To the outside observer of a person in this position nothing may change at all. But on the inside, there’s a distance from Jesus the pull of the stuff has created and it’s going to slowly get bigger and bigger until it’s broken. There’s just one way to break this and it comes in three steps: Acknowledge all the stuff you have is really God’s, make a plan to use it like He would, and embrace a lifestyle of sacrificial generosity. When we are generous, our stuff can’t control us.
And that sounds really good, but it’s not very practical. So, let’s finish up this conversation by fixing that. I’m going to give you a three-step approach to begin building the practice of sacrificial generosity into your life, then I’m going to show you an example of what this can do that you caused to happen, and then I’m going to give you the opportunity to step out and take a small, but intentional step of generosity to set you on your way. Sound good?
If you are going to build the practice of sacrificial generosity into your life, here’s how you can get started. First, make your giving the priority. If giving is not your top priority when it comes to your stuff then something else is. What is it? Survival? Jesus was clear that God can and will meet all of our needs when we trust Him. Is it meeting some image you want to project? If a social image becomes a god you’ll not only never meet it, but you’ll bankrupt yourself trying. Is it saving for the future? That’s wise, but remember what Paul said for Timothy to tell rich people to do: Don’t put your hope (that is, your confidence in a better tomorrow) in your stuff. It will fail you. No matter what your priority actually is, if it’s not sacrificial generosity, then your stuff is going to be pulling on you and harder all the time. When giving, when sacrificial generosity is your priority, though, that pull weakens. When we are generous, our stuff can’t control us.
Second, become a percentage giver. What I mean is, stop giving a set amount every week or every month to the church. Instead, decide as a family the percentage of your income you are going to commit to the Lord through the church and to the Lord through various other organizations you want to support. Giving a percentage allows your giving to be more accurately reflective of your current financial realities than does a set amount. As you are figuring out what your percentage is going to be, 10% is a great guide in getting started, but the picture that emerges from the various New Testament authors who talk about giving is that it is more important for your giving to be sacrificial than it is for it to be 10%. And, you know you’ve hit the mark of sacrificial when the giving hurts a bit. You feel it. You miss it. You’re not totally sure you’ll be able to make ends meet without it. When you find that mark, start there.
Third, let that percentage be a progressive one. In other words, over time, gradually increase how much you are giving. I’m not talking about monthly or even necessarily annually. What I’m saying is that over time, that percentage you initially chose, and which represented a meaningful sacrifice in the beginning isn’t going to anymore. You’ll get used to it. You won’t miss it. It will become automatic. When that happens, you’ll stop trusting God with your giving, and it will become a religious checkbox item. To avoid this, regularly evaluate your percentage with all the spiritual realism you can muster, and, when necessary, progressively increase it. This will make sure you are always living in the realm of generosity with your stuff which means it will never own you. When we are generous, our stuff can’t control us.
And the thing is, when we do this, God uses our faithfulness to accomplish His kingdom ends. Remember VBS this past summer? I certainly do. I’m down a shirt because of it. At last count, over 1,000 people watched a whole bunch of us take pies to the face. Do you remember why so much pie was being smashed in so many faces? Because I challenged the kids to give $400 and with your help, they tripled that goal. And do you remember what the money was going to do? It was going to build a meeting place for a church in Ghana, a place where the church is growing like crazy. Well, it got built. Want to see?
These pictures were all taken during a women’s meeting, and that building they are in exists because of your generosity. You built that. And because that building exists, and because of the faithfulness of the believers who are worshiping there, people are going to come to know the Lord who may not have done so otherwise. There are going to be people you meet one day in the kingdom of God who are there because of your generosity. And that was one event. Imagine what the results could be if this sacrificial generosity became the driving force of your whole life. Why wouldn’t you want to do that? Why wouldn’t you want to be in such pristine control of your stuff that you were a part of that happening again and again and again? When we are generous, our stuff can’t control us.
That’s all for you to take home. Here’s what we can do this morning. This morning, as we have already talked about, we are kicking off our partnership with the Operation Christmas Child Shoebox program. For the next month, you are going to have the opportunity to do something generous for someone else in a way that has the potential to transform his or her life in ways you could never imagine sitting where you are now. By your taking the time—and money—to fill a shoebox (or two…or three…or five), you are putting God’s stuff to work in ways that fall perfectly in line with how He has always intended for it to be used. And we have made it as easy for you as we possibly can. For the first 100 shoeboxes we fill, you don’t even have to go searching through your closets or to the Dollar Store for a container. We have them for you, already made up and ready to go, with instructions on how to fill them right inside the box.
Here’s what we’re going to do. In just a minute I’m going to pray. Then Catherine and Debbie are going to play some music and we’re going to have a time of response. This is going to be your opportunity to respond to what we’ve been talking about for the past month. It’s going to be your chance to take some intentional action in the direction of breaking the gravity your stuff has on your life. There are several things you’ll be able to do during this time. You can make your way to the front here and pick up a shoebox or three (or five or whatever…) so that you can take them home and fill them between now and November 4th. (If you want to do this, check out the Operation Christmas Child website to find instructions on how to fill them and a drop-off location near you.) As you pick up your boxes, though, don’t just grab them and go. Pause for a minute and say a prayer for the child who will receive it. Whether you pick up a box or not, though, there’s more you can do. For some of you, it may be that you have recognized the pull your stuff has on you and you need to do something radical about it. You need to write a check to give more of it away than you have been. In addition to boxes, there are a couple of baskets up here where you can leave that if you need to. And, by the way, remember: We missed a week. If you’re someone who gives weekly, you missed a week to exercise your generosity. (You can do that electronically from our website here.) This is a great chance to make up for that if God is so leading you. For some of you, you need to confess the pull you’ve allowed your stuff to have on you. You are welcome to just come to the front and pray. Nobody will bother you while you do it, but you can rest assured that folks will be praying both with and for you as you do. And, there may be something you need to do that I haven’t mentioned. Do that as the Spirit leads. This is your time. And when it seems like everyone is settled in just a bit, I’m going to pray again, and we’ll hit the road. For now, though, listen well to the Spirit, and move as He leads. Let’s pray.