I still remember the first time I took issue with the IRS.
I was a college freshman and learned that my scholarship was “income” and, therefore, taxable. “Vultures,” I thought.
I was tempted, I admit, to leave my scholarship off my tax form. It simply wasn’t fair. Why should the government make it more difficult for me to do the very thing it encouraged — getting a college degree?
It’s a temptation we face every April. Do we “fudge” on our taxes — underestimating or “forgetting” income like tips or freelance work? Or maybe we “adjust” the value of that 1980s sweater that we sent off to Goodwill to bump up our charitable giving?
According to a recent poll by the IRS Oversight Board, Americans claim to be very honest — only 10 percent of us admit we think it’s OK to cheat on our taxes. But, according to a bankrate.com poll we don’t think our neighbors are — most of us guess that around 49 percent of “others” fudge on their taxes.
Whether it’s us or them, somebody’s cheating. The government estimates that Americans underpay their taxes each year by over $300 billion — almost the size of the annual national debt.
Very often cheaters will try to rationalize their guilt away — just like I tried to do over my scholarship. Sometimes we argue that the “rich” are getting away with it, so why shouldn’t we? There’s a “cynicism of ordinary people who think the system is stacked against them,” writes David Callahan in his book, The Cheating Culture.
Then there are those fiscal conservatives among us disgusted by government waste. “They don’t deserve my money anyway! They’ll just use it for more pork projects!”
Or maybe we try to claim the moral high ground. Since the government supports immoral activities — abortion, sex education, homosexual marriage, the list gets rather long — we have a “duty” not to fund it.
But as I worked with God through my IRS issue, He showed me a couple of things.
First, the Bible is clear on this issue. “If you owe taxes, pay taxes,” Paul wrote in Romans 13. That’s about as crystal as it gets. It’s my duty to pay taxes, case closed. And there wouldn’t be any problem with stopping right there.
But God took me a little further, showing me why I pay taxes and why, in the end, it’s really good for me.
“It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience,” Paul explained. “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants who give their full time to governing.”
So the authorities are God’s servants and I’m to honor them out of honor for the Lord. I got that. But what if the authorities are not serving God? What if they are corrupt or immoral?
Here’s where a study in WDJD (What Did Jesus Actually Do?) was helpful.
In Matthew 17, Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum only to be confronted by Jewish officials collecting the annual two-drachma temple tax. Seems tax collectors in those days were just as tenacious as those today.
“Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” they demanded of Peter.
“Yes, he does,” Peter replied concisely. No ifs, ands or buts. No speeches demanding “away from me you tax-hogging hypocrites.” Does He pay? You bet! Jesus then did the old “four-drachma coin in the fish” miracle to pay their debt.
What really struck me about this situation was that it happened in the context of two things. The first is that Jesus’ view of the temple was clear — it had been turned into a den of thieves, corrupted by commerce. Second, Jesus knew, and had told his disciples, that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Paying the temple tax not only supported the corruption at the temple, but would go into the same pot, in essence, from which the Jewish leaders would later pull the thirty pieces of silver used to fund Jesus’ betrayal. Despite this, Jesus orders Peter to pay these officials their tax “so that we may not offend them.”
In another instance, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking if it’s right to pay taxes to Caesar.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Christ answered.
Here, Jesus expressly told believers to pay their Roman taxes, even though Rome was the epitome of corrupt officials and immoral behavior.
I, too, have a duty to pay my taxes. Not because the authorities are moral or responsible or even right. Not because income tax was or was not the original intent of the founding fathers. But because God has placed these authorities over me.
This submission is seen over and over again in the Word. A wife is to submit to her husband, even if he is an unbeliever. Children are to submit to their parents, slaves to their masters, and all of us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
This doesn’t mean that I can’t fight evil or scream at the top of my lungs if I feel the government is wrong. Jesus himself cleared out the temple with a whip.
But I can’t use government immorality or irresponsibility as an excuse to not pay my taxes or to fudge on my tips, because my duty is not dependent on their action.
Beyond my duty, however, the Lord taught me something about myself.
For all my lofty arguments about fairness, I begrudged paying the IRS because I wanted to keep the money. Money was tight in college. Really tight. Each Sunday, I would hit the local Mexican restaurant for free queso and chips with purchase. I’d buy my Dr. Pepper and there was my meal for a total cost of 95 cents. My scholarship was my lifeline. If I needed the money so badly, I was sure that God wouldn’t want to take it away and that the IRS shouldn’t.
I was wrong. I should pay to Caesar his due and God His due. The money wasn’t mine — it was theirs. I was coveting — a word we don’t use much nowadays but do all too often.
Instead, I needed to let go of my desire for money.
Paying taxes, though it may never be a joyful experience, teaches me many of the same things that tithing does. First, that money is just that — money. It is a temporary means to an end, not the eternal end. Second, that the Lord will provide what I need, and I don’t need to worry about it. And, finally, that submission is good for me and good for my soul. If I can submit with my money, it makes submitting my heart and my life just that much easier.
This month, I won’t pay one penny more than I owe, but I won’t pay one penny less. I think that’s just how He wants it.
Copyright 2006 Heather D. Koerner. All rights reserved.