What About those Tithing Stories?
Record, September 22, 2001 - Dr Robert McIver
For as long as I can remember, I have always been very uncomfortable with the following kind of story:
A farmer who faithfully gave tithe was faced with a crisis. There were locusts coming across his neighbour's fields, and if they arrived at his farm, they would eat his crop and he would lose the farm. Because he was a faithful in his tithing, he claimed the promise of Mal 3:10, and prayed. In an answer to his prayer the locusts ate right up to his fences, but went around his property, leaving his crops untouched.
I didn't doubt that the story was true. But what made me uncomfortable was the possibility that there might well have been another farmer somewhere who tithed, but had his crops eaten out by locusts. I still have this concern, but over the last three years have had opportunity to talk to actual farmers and business proprietors about their experiences. They have given me another perspective which I would like to share with you.
In many ways, it is rather unexpected that I should become involved with research into tithing. My research specialty is the Gospel of Matthew, and although I branch out into other areas from time to time, I had never done the kind of social sciences research which we have ended up using as a major part of our research into tithe. Thus I started this whole process with little more than my own experiences as a tither, and my discomfort with many of the things that have been said to encourage others to tithe.
The stories I want to share with you come as a response to one of the major projects that have grown out of our interest in tithing. We have developed a survey which is taken to various churches and filled in by those who attend.1 Amongst other things, this survey is attempting to measure what is motivating Seventh-day Adventists to tithe. One of the motives we are testing is whether or not SDAs are tithing because they believe God will bless them if they do so. For it is not only me that has heard the story about the farmer and the locusts.
It has been a surprise to me to learn that most of those filling out the questionnaire disagree with such statements as: "If I tithe, God will answer my prayers." I often share this research result in my sermon, and in other conversations I have about our research.
Very early in my involvement with tithing research, one of the people I was talking to said words to this effect: "Hey, wait a minute there, Robert. I am a farmer, and I remember clearly an incident something like the one you are describing. It was at a time of serious drought, and I was in trouble, because the only water I had was becoming very salty. All of my cattle were about to die. I can clearly remember taking out my Bible, and reading aloud the promise of Mal 3:10. I then knelt and prayed, and told God that He had made a promise. I was in trouble, and needed him to honour his promise. From then until the drought broke, the cattle had water that was not salty. They all survived." It was a very moving and remarkable story, and I asked the farmer who he had told about this. He said that he had told very few people.
On another occasion I was at a church picnic held after I had preached on tithing. A businessman took the opportunity to share with me his experience. He named the year, and it was a bad year for nearly everybody in the economy, and his business was going bankrupt. At this time of worry, he said to his partner that his conscience had been troubling him that he should tithe. And so they did, despite the financial problems their business was in. Since that moment, his business has never looked back. I also asked him how many people he had told about that. He said very few.
One last real-life story: Recently, I was visiting a church to conduct the survey and preach about tithe. Soon after I arrived, I was introduced to somebody, and was told that it was the fourth time he had attended this church. Frankly, this worried me, because I had arranged to do a survey and then preach on tithing - and here was somebody in church for almost the first time. What would he think about the concept of tithing? Afterwards, at the church luncheon, I sought this person out to discover what he had thought about the sermon. "Very interesting," he said. "I think I know how it works. You see, I run a small business which until recently earned most of its money on Saturdays. I was studying with the Pastor about Sabbath keeping, and told him that I would go broke if I did not run my business on Saturday. The Pastor told me to pray about this, and to test God. Sure enough, I have been worshipping in Church on Sabbaths, and during the rest of the week I earn more than when I worked Saturdays. I think tithing probably works the same way. God blesses us if we are faithful in tithing."
Let me share with you where I am up to on all this. I am still not entirely comfortable with sharing these stories. After all, there are many reasons that small businesses go bankrupt. There may not be a market for the product or service provided by the business. There might be financial mismanagement. How can I tell a story which apparently recommends tithing as a way out of financial difficulties, when the real problem in a failing business might be financial mismanagement, for example. Perhaps there are sincere farmers who I have not talked to, and who tithed faithfully, but who lost all their cattle in a drought. Australia is a hard land on all kinds of farmers.
On the other hand, what I have shared here are real experiences that I have been hearing. In fact, these individuals have seen the hand of God work in their life because they tithe. This is a deeply held conviction. Christianity is practical for these people, because it is found in the financial and other blessings of God that they experience every day. Yet I also understand that these are very private experiences. From my own life I know that this connection is not only private, it feels fragile. All my life I have trusted God financially. While I have not had all the financial resources that I would like, I have never lacked anything I needed, and have often have had enough surplice for things that I just wanted rather than really needed. I believe in my deepest being that this has been God's blessing in my life. But this is something very private, and not something that I am comfortable sharing. In fact, I have not really shared this with anybody before writing it down here. Perhaps I should have done so earlier.
I would like to conclude with two verses from the Bible, which I find helpful in understanding the relationship between financial blessing and tithing. Mal 3: 10-12 says:
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty. 12 "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the LORD Almighty. (NIV)
This verse certainly reads as though God offers practical financial blessings to those who tithe. He even challenges us to test him on it. The stories I have shared show that this has indeed been the experience of some. In fact, in our surveys 77% of those who tithe agree or agree strongly with the statement "I know that God has blessed me because I pay tithe" 2
Many, then, have experienced a blessing because they tithing. But not all. The second text comes from Dan 3: 16-18. King Nebuchadnezzar had threatened to throw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into a fiery furnace if they refused to bow down to an image. In their final answer,
"Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."" [Daniel 3:16-18 NIV]
Yes, they say, "God can save our life. But even if he will not, we will still serve Him." Perhaps this might give us a clue to understanding financial matters and tithing. Yes God can bless us, and most often does. But there is no mechanical relationship between tithing and financial blessing. Sometimes God will not intervene to prevent us from experiencing the consequences of poor financial decisions, or some of the other poor decisions that we make in life. Indeed, sometimes disasters do not seem to be related to any decision made by humans (Luke 13:1-5). Nor should it be forgotten that God blesses all humankind (Matt 5:45). Yet, as Christians, we know that whatever our circumstances, God desires our best good, and that He walks with us not only in times of prosperity, but in times of difficulty.
1 I am working on this survey with Steve Currow and Peter Beamish, under the supervision of the College Human Research Ethics Committee and two research groups based in the NNSW and Greater Sydney Conferences resp.
2 We have not asked this question in all the surveys, and so only have responses from 348 people. Of these 289 tithed 10% or more of their income. 222 of these 289 tithers agreed or agreed strongly with the statement.
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