Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3)
There are really only about five things necessary for physical survival. First, we need nourishment in the form of food and water and we need clothing and shelter for protection of the body. Since none of us can produce everything we require, we also need to form associations and cooperate with others in a society. Finally, we need some sense of purpose that makes survival worthwhile. All of these except the last deal exclusively with material need. Because our most basic and strongest instinct is to survive, from an early age we are driven by the need to acquire these material things. This knowledge ultimately leads to the belief that the more material things we acquire, the better the chance of survival, and life becomes a never ending quest to acquire and consume. Even our sense of purpose gets transferred into this quest. Many people eventually consider their job or career as fulfilling their sense of purpose. In other cases, a search for entertainment and luxury becomes their purpose. A life without want and filled with luxury and pleasure is what so many consider "the good life."
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul (Mark 8:36)
There is a big problem, however. By the time we reach adolescence, we will encounter some form of death and will come to realize that everything dies. This realization creates an almost unsolvable problem in the mind of man. Our strongest instinct drives us to survive, yet we know that we will ultimately fail in that quest. No matter how much material wealth we acquire, there comes a point where it becomes useless. We all die.
I have said at times, somewhat facetiously, that because of this dilemma, the whole human race is fundamentally schizophrenic. We can deal with the inevitability of our death if we don't think about it too much. Every now and then, the reality of death intrudes, and the desire for material things seems quite vain indeed. Some people seem to be able to believe that the work they do in this life, or the offspring they leave behind, will carry what they were forward into the future. They fell that this provides some ultimate purpose to their life. For most, however, something more is needed and it is most commonly provided by a belief in a religion that promises a continued existence, or afterlife. If you live the right kind of life, they are taught, your death won't be the end. This seems to resolve the conflict in the mind and allows people to return to their continuing quest to accumulate material wealth. It becomes a game of, live well here, do more good than evil, and then you get to go on to paradise. Or, perhaps, you get to reincarnate in some better material existence.
Given this as a premise, I think it's easy to see why most Christian teachers concentrate on the message of salvation. It's the thing that most motivates us to seek God and a promise of salvation is the easiest way to get people converted. But, I have to ask, then what? Is all of God's plan, his effort to save mankind, so that we can go back to the way we were? I don't think that it is God's intent to give us salvation just so we can go about the business of accumulating material wealth without worry. So, I came to the conclusion that there must be something more to understand about God's plan than just eternal salvation as a reward for doing good in the world. In fact, I know now there is much, much more. One of the things I learned has to do with giving.
Now talking about giving is a surefire way to put people off. As I already pointed out, our very existence is dependent on acquiring material wealth. The moment you start talking about giving money and other things, that natural instinct for survival kicks in. The desire to have enough to survive in this world tends to quickly displace in most people any thought about eternity. They haven't yet really understood, I think. They still retain the notion that religion is about the future while wealth is about now. So long as religion only asks them to believe and maybe do some nice things for other people, they can handle it. The moment you tell them they will have to also change their attitude about material wealth, then they turn very defensive very quickly.
So, it's best if I just come straight out with it. You cannot come to God's salvation unless you are willing to let go of all dependence on material wealth for your survival. That means, learning to give it away and trust in God instead of your ability to accumulate material wealth. Until you can break free of the stranglehold of your instinct to acquire material wealth, you cannot reach spiritual maturity. It's as simple as that.
Many mature Christians come to realize this and accept it. However, this association of material things with satisfaction of physical need still gets carried over into their spiritual life. They still retain the idea that the purpose of wealth, and therefore the purpose of giving money, is to satisfy some material need. The consequence is that preachers often will resort to some scheme to get people to give. These schemes are usually for some beneficial purpose, such as funding the ministry, maintaining the Church building, paying the staff, sending out missionaries, feeding the starving children, sheltering the homeless, or any one of a number of very needful things. Unfortunately, these schemes are often very perverse. The preacher goes so far as to claim that by giving to his ministry, the giver will automatically receive back much, much more. That type of teaching plays directly on people's desire to insure their material wellbeing. It seems that Christians are quite content to give so long as they can be convinced that there is some material need that can be met by their giving. In so doing, they still haven't broken the link in their mind between money and survival.
My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
From my study of the Bible, I have come to the conclusion that God's ideas about giving are very, very different than man's. I suppose it makes sense when you consider that God can simply speak and create entire worlds. With that type of creative power, He probably looks at material things is a very different way that we do, wouldn't you agree? So, let's look at how God sees it.
And this is the thing that thou shalt do unto them to hallow them, to minister unto me in the priest's office: (Exodus 29:1)
And thou shalt slay the ram, and thou shalt take his blood, and sprinkle it round about upon the altar. And thou shalt cut the ram in pieces, and wash the inwards of him, and his legs, and put them unto his pieces, and unto his head. And thou shalt burn the whole ram upon the altar: it is a burnt offering unto the LORD: it is a sweet savour, an offering made by fire unto the LORD. Exodus 29:16-18
That is about as far away from the world's view of wealth as you can get. Here we have God asking His people to take their best things, place them on the alter, and burn them up for no other reason than that it is pleasing to Him. There is a good reason it is called a sacrifice you see. It was something that was simply given up. They aren't asked to do this so that some material need of man will be met. There are places in the Bible where that type of giving is talked about and at some point I hope to talk about that type of giving. For now, though, we have to understand this. It would be absurd to think that God is hanging around the alter so that He could get a whiff of burning animal flesh. The claim that the burnt offering is a sweet savor to God must have some deeper meaning. I would say, it is that His pleasure comes from our willingness to let go of our vain attempt to rely on our ability to acquire material wealth for our own survival. The burnt offering, the highest form of offering, is done by man solely to please God and not because of any desire to fulfill a material need. It is worship of the highest order, done solely to please God.
Isn't the burnt offering just an "Old Testament" type of giving? Some will say that the burnt offering is part of the Old Covenant and has been done away with. Others, strong believers in the idea that you must still keep the Torah, will have to hem-and-haw to come up with some excuse why the sacrificial offerings don't have to be done. My opinion is that the burnt offering is an archetype designed to teach a spiritual principle that is as applicable today as it ever was. To begin with, God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is described as a "burnt offering." That says to me that this type of offering existed before Moses was given the Law on Mount Sinai. Consider also what the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians.
For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity. Not because I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account. But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God. But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:16-19)
Paul does indicate that the gift was give to him "unto my necessity" but then quickly points out that it wasn't that he desired the gift. He was well pleased that they gave because of their desire to give. What I find most important is that Paul considers the gift of money sent to him to be the same as a burnt offering, pleasing to God. He then completes the thought with that statement, so often quoted out of context, that God would supply all their need.
The greatest act of giving ever done was when Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to the cross as a sacrifice for man's sin. True, we can say that this was done because of man's need for redemption. But, Jesus didn't need it and it wasn't done to satisfy man's material needs. He gave His life for us because His Father asked Him to, and we need to learn how to do the same type of sacrificial giving.
Understood this way, giving should take on a rather large place in our lives. This understanding also completely turns around every wrong notion about giving that we have learned from the world. We have to learn that we do not give because of some need. We may very well give to a need, but we never give because of the need. This is a subtle distinction, but one that I have found to be very important. If there is any need involved, it is only this: we need to give in order to please God. We have to discard the world's notions about material things, take on our Father's attitude and rely solely on Him for our survival. That is what I mean by "needful giving."