The Acid Test

Metallurgists test the purity and content of metals. They talk about the acid test – a test that distinguishes real gold from base metals. As Christians we are rather good at presenting ourselves as upstanding and righteous members of society, there is an acid test that often reveals what we are really like: the test is what we do with our money. In chapters 8 and 9 (which we will take together) we will see how Paul thought about money, how he handled it and how he encouraged the Corinthians to deal with it.

  1. A good example

It’s always a good thing to have an example to follow. Getting my school books out was never something I did very willingly – there always seemed to be something much better to do. But when I saw my more studious brothers getting on with it, it was a good spur to me to get on with it too – good examples are infectious. The churches in Macedonia where not the wealthiest and they were going through extremely difficult times – you might remember that Paul and Silas had spent time in prison in Philippi and in Thessalonica the Jews hired the local thugs to form a riot and round up the believers.  In spite of this and in spite of their poverty, they were joyful. They most certainly didn’t have an easy life, but they had a joyful one.  This seems to be a strong theme that runs through 2 Corinthians: joy amidst difficulty. With Christ in the vessel we can indeed smile at the storm! (as the old chorus went). Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit and if we are ordering our lives according to the Spirit we will know joy too – no matter what our circumstances. Perhaps we should pray less for alleviation of our suffering and more for Spirit-controlled lives. This joy in the Macedonians ‘welled up’ in rich generosity.

I’m rather struck by the TV evangelists who are always talking about the Holy Spirit but who always end up asking for money! There’s a free prayer or blessing on offer, but an obligatory donation! At West Street we make a point of not asking for money – I think this is right, that doesn’t mean to say that people should not give, but it does mean that the starting point lies elsewhere. The starting point is a right relationship with God. Of the Macedonians , verse 5 says “they gave themselves fist of all to the Lord”.

The Macedonians didn’t just give generously, they didn’t just give what they were able, but they gave beyond their ability. That suggests to me that in order to do this they had to make some personal sacrifices. Someone once said, don’t give what’s left, give what’s right!

I’m interested in the motivation of the Macedonians. They were made aware of a need and rather than being asked to give, they asked to give, in fact they pleaded with Paul to give for the needy cause.

The Corinthians were a superior lot! I can’t quite tell if Paul is being a bit sarcastic or not, but he says: 7But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us –see that you also excel in this grace of giving. Just how good were the Corinthians? It was time to apply the acid test. I ask myself at this stage if I’m pretty good at talking but less good at giving. Is it time we applied this acid test to ourselves?

Not only were the Macedonians a good example, but so was Jesus. Paul says of the Lord Jesus Christ,  that he though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. The Macedonians weren’t particularly well off, but they gave, Jesus was rich, but became poor. This is a tough example to follow is it not! We exert so much energy and so much of our being on accumulating material things, but we cannot take them with us – better to store up treasure in heaven where the investment will not suffer loss. The Corinthians had made a good start, their intentions were good, now it was time to deliver (v 11) – Paul says, Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. Paul’s not asking them to entirely emulate the Macedonians, they don’t need to give beyond their means, just according to their means.

  • A worthy cause?

I think it is of importance to note why the Corinthians were being encouraged to give. Paul made a point of offering the gospel free of charge. He had every right to seek financial support but he did not. Paul was not at all interested in making money or in building an organisation of paid Christian workers. There is no doubt that the church in Corinth would have needed funding, but the particular circumstances under discussion in 2 Corinthians 8 was about the need of Christians elsewhere. The need was amongst believers in Judea. The cause of this extreme poverty seems to have been the reckless way in which the founders of the early Jerusalem church treated personal property. You may recall that everyone sold their assets and they shared (and lived off) the proceeds. They seem to have done this in the mistaken belief that Jesus was going to return in the same year as the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. (for more on this take a look at our ‘Acts for all series’ chapter 4). The short term benefits of the sale of assets could not last, and now there was extreme poverty and with no means to dig themselves out of the situation. Paul saw the need, made it known and organised the new churches to provide material support. The purpose was not to enrich the Judean church at the expense of everyone else. (Take note full time Christian workers: TV evangelists are happy to live the life of luxury at others’ expense and some Christians in ‘full time’ Christian work are happy to enjoy an all expenses paid, stress free life at the cost of their hard working flock!). The purpose was to provide some equality. I have wondered at this remark and the following verse: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’ As the Israelites found themselves in the desert, homeless and without food supply, God provided. The people had to gather the manna – everyone had to gather. Some presumably were more able to gather more manna than others, but regardless of ability everyone had enough. The purpose of the collection for the Judean church was to ensure that one group did not have excess whilst one did not have enough. This is less about redistribution of wealth (‘we should all have the same’ – regardless of effort or circumstances) and more about ensuring that some people did not have more than enough whilst others went hungry.

There is a lesson for us here too. Churches should take care what they ask people to give money for. Paul was careful not to ask for self serving reasons (he worked part time in order to offer the gospel free of charge for the Corinthians) – but he had no hesitation in asking for money to support people in dire need.

  • Beyond criticism

If you are giving money to a good cause you want to be absolutely sure that those receiving and administering the money are above reproach. No one wants to give money to a worthy cause only to find out that someone is helping themselves to the cash – the damage to reputation and morale is enormous. Paul was clear on this he says in verse 20: We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. There were no private jets and no fancy gimmicks and no self serving commercials! It’s of interest that Paul did not appoint the person to take care of the cash, he gave that responsibility to the people giving the money – that makes good sense, and would have given those donating the money great confidence that everything would be done above board. They chose Titus. Titus had a good reputation and was not only known by the churches, but was trusted by them. It was important for Paul to do what was right before God’s eyes, but he was keen to do what was right before the eyes of men. The gospel is just too important! Titus was not to work alone, but was to be accompanied by a fellow worker. Oddly enough, Paul doesn’t name the fellow worker – it might have been Luke, but whoever it was it was another trustworthy person who was known to the churches.

Paul had another motive for sending these two trustworthy brothers to Corinth. It seems that the Corinthians were big on promises but had the potential to fail on delivery! Paul had been telling the Macedonians about the plans of the Corinthians to provide a gift for the Judean church, but in spite of his ‘boast’ he harboured some real doubts. Would this just be all talk and no action? How embarrassing for Paul (and the Corinthians) if their big promises failed to materialse. Titus and his companion would be a useful reminder to the Corinthians and would help them prepare for the gift. The Corinthains had the money and they apparently had the will, but they needed some help with the execution! 

  • Giving is good for you

Giving is like sowing crops. It feels like you are chucking your hard earned resources into the dirt, never to be seen again. But the amazing thing is that the more you sow, the more you reap! It’s not just the amount that we sow, but it’s the way that we do it that is of importance. Don’t give through gritted teeth, don’t give grudgingly or because you have to – God loves a cheerful giver!

It’s good to have some motivation and I think that’s way Paul is so keen to emphasise that there are benefits in giving cheerfully. The returns however are different in quality to the ‘seeds’ that are sown. In verse 8, Paul says, And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. The return comes in the form of ‘abundant’ blessing which is not limited in time or scope. The benefit is realised in all needs being met and an excess of good works! The pull of material wealth is just so strong though! I want this sort of house, and that sort of car and that sort of holiday and this sort of life style. If we could just see ourselves in the mirror! What sort of person would you like to spend time with?: the sort of person who is never satisfied, who always wants more and who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves?, or the sort of person who is satisfied with what they have and who abounds in good works?

Giving money away is good for you! Paul says,  Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. Note two things here, firstly the resources that we have are provided to us by God. We are just stewards of these resources for about three score years and ten and then they pass to someone else. Let’s have a light grip on this worldly wealth and a firm grasp on eternity. As we learn to give we will read a harvest, the harvest seems to come in the form of righteousness. Giving is indeed good for you!

Interestingly some psychologists in California studied the attitude and behaviour of people driving expensive cars compared to those driving cheap cars. Those driving expensive cars were more likely to break traffic rules and disregard the rights of pedestrians than those driving cheap cars. The authors of the study concluded that as you moved up the ladder of wealth.. you are more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others. Is that the sort of people we want to be?

The Lord indeed loves a cheerful giver.