For God so loved the world that ...
I was listening to the radio a few years back when a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. came on. He read that often quoted verse, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only," and he stopped there.
I don't remember much else about the sermon and have not since been able to find a recording or a transcript on-line, but the point he was trying to make was crystal clear to me: God gave His only — the only one He had. Not His excess or His spare; He gave His only.
I had always considered myself a "giver," and a generous one at that. As I listened to King's perspective, however, I became aware that generally, I give from my extra or my excess; in fact, at the time, I couldn't think of any occasion where I actually gave from my reserves or lack of abundance.
Thankfully, God's not like me. The depth of God's giving heart can be seen throughout the Bible. God gave Noah a rainbow in the clouds as a sign of His covenant with Noah and with man. God gave Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age. God gave Joseph a restored life after his time in prison and used him to save his family during the famine. God gave us prophets like Isaiah and Hosea, to proclaim God's father heart of compassion for us, to declare how He pursues us and woos us, even when we stray.
There are also several stories where God gave in a way that might strike someone as odd or even too "soft." Elijah, having witnessed God send down fire on a soaking wet sacrifice, was terrified when Jezebel threatened his life. He ran into the desert and hid under a tree, saying "I have had enough, Lord. Take my life" (1 Kings 19:4). God could have easily rebuked him for his lack of faith, reminding him of the great victory he had just witnessed. Instead, He sent Elijah an angel to encourage him to eat; God even supernaturally supplied the food and encouraged him to rest.
When Jesus came upon Mary and Martha, mourning the death of their brother, Lazarus, He also could have reprimanded them for their lack of faith. Rather than overlook their grief, He mourned with them, weeping, even though He knew in an instant, He would give them their brother back. He didn't invalidate or declare their feelings unjustified; He shared their grief despite the knowledge that their mourning would soon be turned to joy.
God is a giving God. His heart is tender and compassionate toward His children. He is extravagant, over the top. Jesus comments on this in the Sermon on the Mount:
Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:9-12)
Jesus says that in response to God's giving heart, we then should treat people as we'd like to be treated, and do to them as we'd like them to do to us.
I enjoy giving, most of the time, as long as it's on my terms. It seems as if people are always in need. Living in a large city, I always struggle with how to respond to those people asking for money on the streets. Do I give them money? Buy them food?
I once had a friend tell me that to give money to the homeless, especially someone who might be an addict, is unwise, unboundaried and unhealthy. Huh. I don't know how to mesh that with the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reminds me to give to those who ask me for something. He goes on to say later "when you give to the needy." He actually says it twice. He doesn't say, "If you give" or "When you have extra"; He says "when you give," as if it were understood that giving is part of following Him.
I don't see any disclaimers that certain types of needy are excluded from His command. In fact, Proverbs 3:28 says, "Do not say to your neighbor, 'Come back later; I'll give it tomorrow' — when you now have it with you." James takes this one step further in 2:14-17:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
A study from a few years back from Empty Tomb, a Christian research group that puts out annual reports on church giving, found that fewer than 5 percent of churchgoers actually tithe 10 percent of their income; the average is now 3.4 percent, or 21 percent less than what was given during the Great Depression. I imagine the numbers to be even more dismal in these challenging financial times.
The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine published "The Giving Issue" during the holiday season in 2008. The cover of the issue solemnly read "Give. Now." in white letters on a black backdrop. Underneath in smaller print, it reads, "Is this really a time for generosity? More than ever." When things are the tightest is exactly when we need to challenge ourselves to help those whose situations are even tighter than our own.
Mark recounts a story in chapter 12 of his gospel where Jesus sat in the temple courts and watched as people put their offerings in the temple treasury. Quite a few rich people came through and put in large amounts. A poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
How did Jesus respond to this?
I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.
What sticks out to me and continues to challenge me to this day as I reflect on John 3:16 is that God gave His only son: not His spare, not His extra, not one of many, but His one and only. Like the poor widow, He put in everything in presenting His Only to die as the final atoning sacrifice for our sins.
How often do I find myself only willing to give out of my extra money, time or talents? Giving doesn't have to be financial. We all have some sort of skill that we could offer to those in need. I'm a serious couponer. I don't have a coupon box; instead, I have a filing cabinet full of coupons that is bursting at the seams. Lately, I've been using my couponing skills to get food to give to the food pantry, as well as personal care items to a battered women's shelter and men's addiction recovery program.
I am not perfect. I've been particularly struck by my selfishness in recent times, as we expect the birth of our second child. There are things that need to be done around the house, items I'd like to purchase to prepare for the baby, and our car is about to die. I find myself questioning where our money is best spent.
But God gave His only. God saw that people He loved were drowning in their sin. Because of His great love for His creation, because of His compassionate heart for His children, He wanted to give us a solution to the problem of sin that was separating us from truly being in a relationship with God. He knew that it would be painful for both God the Father and Jesus His Son, but He did it anyway. He spared no expense, but extravagantly gave His only; He did what needed to be done in order for us to have the opportunity to be reconciled to Him, once and for all.
I know that I, too, need to be willing to be open to how God may be leading me to give sacrificially, sparing no expense. After all, Jesus said that when we give and help the needy around us, we are giving to Jesus Himself.
Copyright 2009 Brenna Kate Simonds. All rights reserved.