The Generosity Matrix

There seems to be two extremes when it comes to how Christians view their relationship with their possessions.

The first one is that God wants 10 percent, often called “the tithe.” This is based on an Old Testament principle that the first 10 percent of what God gives us goes back to him. For this group, after you’ve paid your tithe, you’ve essentially fulfilled your duty and you can do whatever you want with the rest. It’s like a God-tax. After you pay it, you’re done.

At the other end are those who constantly feel guilty, no matter how much they give, because they assume that as long as there are poor and lost people in the world, God’s only purpose for our money is to get the gospel to them. John Wesley famously took down all the pictures on his walls, calling them the “blood of the poor,” because he felt like each picture was another orphan he might have brought in from the cold.

If I had to choose between the two, I’d prefer the latter position to the former. But both are out of balance. We don’t have to choose from these two extremes.

Instead of giving us a universal rule, the Bible teaches us to view our possessions through a matrix—not the Keanu Reeves kind, but “matrix” as a set of principles—that we should hold in tension.

Any one of these principles, taken alone, will lead you out of balance. And there are times when obedience means leaning into one principle more than others. But as a general rule, if Christians can hold all seven of these principles in reverent tension, it will help them fulfill the will of God in regard to their money.

1. Jesus’ generosity is the model for our own.

Paul tells the Corinthian believers that ultimately, they should think about how much Jesus has given up for them and respond accordingly: “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 8:9 ESV).

Jesus did not merely tithe his blood, after all; he gave all of it (100 percent). That means our responsibility is not just to give our 10 percent and go on our self-serving way, but to offer 100 percent of our lives back to him and pour out our lives recklessly for him and others, just as he did for us.

Where would you be without Jesus? At exactly the same place people in the world are without you. People can’t be saved until they hear about the gospel, and it is only through our giving and going that they can hear.

2. God gives us richly all things to enjoy. In fact, he is glorified when we enjoy them.

That’s a quote from 1 Timothy 6:17, in which Paul reminds his readers that God delights to take care of his children. The whole Bible speaks to God’s abundance toward his creation and toward his children. We misstep when we begin to ascribe to God the concept of scarcity.

Jesus might have been poor, but ironically, he also lived out of abundance. In fact, his critics accused him of being a glutton and a drunk. He wasn’t a glutton and a drunk, but the reason they said it was that Jesus loved a good feast (Luke 7:34). In fact, biblical scholar Robert Karris points out that at just about every point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is either coming from a meal, going to a meal, or at a meal.

My kinda guy.

Paul said that he himself knew how to be brought low and how to abound: “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13).

Sometimes Christians are good at doing one of those but not the other. But Paul is saying that, in Christ, you can be faithful in both abundance and need.

3. God gives us excess so we can share it with others.

During the Israelites’ wilderness journey, God covered the ground every morning with bread from heaven. There was so much of it that everyone could eat their fill. But it went bad every night, so if they tried to stockpile to make sure they had enough for the next day, it would stink up their house.

One of the reasons God made the manna go bad every day was to discourage stockpiling. Those who collected more were responsible to share with those who collected less.

God provides for us in the same way today, by giving us everything we need, and sometimes more than we need. According to Paul, however, the primary reason God gives us excess is not to increase our standard of living, but our standard of giving: “Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:14–15).

Those of us with a lot—and that’s nearly everyone reading this—should give freely to those with little.

4. It can be wise to build wealth.

If you held this principle alone and not in tension with the others, it would lead to the hoarding of wealth, something Scripture clearly condemns (James 5:1–5). But God gives clear instructions in passages like Proverbs 3:9–10, 6:6–8, 13:22, 14:24, and 21:5 that it is wise to save and invest; he commends it and even rewards it.

Saving money and building wealth can actually increase your ability to be generous later. Jesus himself commends wise investment: for instance, in the parable of the talents, he praises the man to whom he gave five talents and who then turned them into 10. While there is no sin in building wealth, God is also looking at how you use your talents to serve him and others.

5. Treasures in heaven are better than treasures on earth.

Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19–20).

Having a lot of material wealth on earth is like possessing a bunch of Confederate money at the end of the Civil War. You know that soon all that currency is about to be worthless, so logic tells you that you should be trading in as much of it as you can for something you can keep.

All your stockpiled treasures here on earth are about to be worthless. You can’t take any of it with you to heaven, but you can send it on ahead by investing in people. When you realize this, you’ll stop asking, “How much do I have to give?” and instead you’ll ask, “How much of this can I go ahead and transfer into eternity?”

6. Look to God, not money, as your primary source of security and significance.

A lot of people give money first place in their hearts because they look to it for security and significance. In Matthew 6, Jesus says to find those things first in God.

When we do that, we’ll start to notice that God gets the first place, and sometimes even the biggest portion, in our budget. We’ll set limits on both spending and saving so we can invest in the kingdom of God.

We’ll live sufficiently and give extravagantly, rather than vice versa.

This is not about paying the 10 percent God-tax and moving on. It’s not about throwing in a $10 or $20 tip when the offering bucket comes by. God doesn’t want to be tipped; he wants to be worshipped as first and best in your life.

7. Follow the Holy Spirit.

Most of us are not quite sure what the Holy Spirit does. He’s kind of like our pituitary gland—we know it’s in there somewhere, and we know it does something important, but we don’t really relate to it.

But in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is indispensable in guiding individual church members into what role they should take and what sacrifices they are supposed to make, and he does the same with us today. Otherwise, how are we supposed to ever know what God wants from us? The mission is too big for any one person.

There are a lot of worthy causes in the kingdom of God, and you should be sacrificially involved in some of them. As my friend Larry Osborne says, “Not everything that comes from heaven has your name on it.” God hasn’t called you to everything, and that’s why you need the Holy Spirit.

Like the others, this principle by itself is insufficient, because you can use it to justify a selfish lifestyle by saying, “Well, the Spirit isn’t putting anything into my heart.”

You have to join this principle to the other six. The Spirit only guides a heart that is overflowing with Christ’s love and eager to give to others as Christ has given to us. If that’s your heart, the Spirit will guide you.

So, How Much Should I Give?

Even after all these points, I know what you’re still thinking: Shoot straight with me, pastor: How much should I give?

We love laws and rules and boxes to check. I can’t give you any of those, but I can point you to God’s Word. While in the Old Testament the minimum was the tithe—and that’s a great place to start—the New Testament gives us these principles instead and focuses on our hearts.

So, the primary questions to ask are:

  • Is God getting your first and best? What does your giving say about what is first in your heart?
  • What does your money reveal about what you love and trust most and what kingdom you are living for?
  • Have you surrendered all of your resources to the Holy Spirit and listened for his voice?

If you take all seven principles into account, I believe you’ll find yourself living sufficiently and giving extravagantly. Use these matrix principles as a road map as you let the Holy Spirit guide you to radical, joyful generosity.