Money: Poverty and Generosity
In Paul’s second letter to the believers in Corinth, he gave an excellent illustration of how the wonderful gift of joy touches the lives of believers in practical ways. “And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches” (2 Corinthians 8:1).
Paul wasn’t just giving a news report—he wanted the Corinthian believers to respond to God’s grace in a similar way as the church in Macedonia had. He wanted to describe for them a right and fruitful response to God’s generosity.
Paul notes that the Macedonians had a “severe trial” and “extreme poverty”—but they also had “overflowing joy” (verse 2). Their joy did not come from a health-and-wealth message. Their great joy was not in having lots of money and goods, but in spite of the fact that they had very little!
Their response shows something “otherworldly,” something supernatural, something beyond the natural world of selfish humanity, something that cannot be explained by the values of this world: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (verse 2).
This is astonishing! Combine poverty and joy, and what do you get? Rich generosity! This was not percentage-based giving. “They gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability” (verse 3). They gave more than what was “reasonable.” They gave sacrificially.
Now, as if that were not enough, “entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints” (verses 3-4). In their poverty, they were begging Paul for an opportunity to give more than what was reasonable!
This is how the grace of God worked in the Macedonian believers. It was a testimony to their great faith in Jesus Christ. It was a testimony to their Spirit-empowered love for other people—a testimony that Paul wanted the Corinthians to know about and to copy. It is something for us today, too, if we can allow the Holy Spirit to work freely within us.
First to the Lord
Why did the Macedonians do something so “out of this world”? Paul says, “They gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will” (verse 5). They did it in service to the Lord. Their sacrifice was to him first and foremost. It was a work of grace, of God working in their lives, and they found themselves happy to do it. Responding to the Holy Spirit in them, they knew and believed and acted as if life is not measured by the abundance of material things.
As we read further in this chapter, we see that Paul wanted the Corinthians to do the same: “We urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But 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” (verses 6-7).
The Corinthians had been boasting that they excelled in spiritual riches. They had a lot of financial resources to give, too, but they weren’t giving! Paul wanted them to excel in generosity, because that is an expression of godly love, and love is what is most important.
Paul knows that no matter how much a person may give, it doesn’t do that person any good if the attitude is resentful instead of generous (1 Corinthians 13:3). So he doesn’t want to bully the Corinthians into giving resentfully, but he does want to exert a little pressure, because the Corinthians were falling short in their behavior, and they needed to be told that they were falling short. “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others” (2 Corinthians 8:8).
Jesus our pacesetter
True spirituality is not found in the things that the Corinthians boasted about—it is measured by the perfect standard of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for all. So Paul presents the attitude of Jesus Christ as theological proof of the generosity he wanted to see in the Corinthian church: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (verse 9).
The riches Paul refers to here are not physical riches. Our treasures are infinitely more important than physical riches. They are in heaven, reserved for us. Yet, even now, we can already begin to experience a small foretaste of those eternal riches as we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.
Right now, God’s faithful people have trials, even poverty—and yet, because Jesus lives in us, we can be rich in generosity. We can excel in giving. We can go beyond the minimum because our joy in Christ can overflow to help others.
Much could be said about the example of Jesus, who often spoke about the right use of riches. In this passage Paul summarizes it with “poverty.” Jesus was willing to be impoverished for us. Following him, we are also called to give up the things of this world, to live by different values, to serve him by serving others.
Joy and generosity
Paul continued his appeal to the Corinthians: “Here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means” (verses 10-11).
“For if the willingness is there”—if the attitude of generosity is present—“the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (verse 12). Paul was not asking the Corinthians to give as much as the Macedonians had. The Macedonians had already given beyond their ability; Paul was only asking the Corinthians to give within their ability—but the main thing is that he wanted generosity to be voluntary.
Paul continues his exhortations in chapter 9: “I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaia were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action” (verse 2).
Just as Paul was using the Macedonian example to stir the Corinthians to generosity, he had earlier used the Corinthian example to stir the Macedonians. The Macedonians were so generous that Paul realized that the Corinthians could do a lot better than they already had. But he had bragged in Macedonia that the Corinthians were generous. Now he wanted the Corinthians to follow through. He wants to exert some pressure, but he wants the offering to be given willingly:
I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be. For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we—not to say anything about you—would be ashamed of having been so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. (verses 3-5)
Then comes a familiar verse: “Each person should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (verse 7). This cheerfulness does not mean hilarity or laughter—it means that because Christ is in us, we enjoy sharing what we have with others. It makes us feel good to give. Love and grace work in our hearts in such a way that, little by little, a life of giving becomes more enjoyable for us.
The greater blessing
In this passage, Paul also speaks about rewards. If we give willingly and generously, then God will also give to us. Paul is not afraid to remind the Corinthians of this: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (verse 8).
Paul is promising that God will be generous to us. Sometimes God gives us material things, but that is not what Paul is talking about here. He is speaking of grace—not the grace of forgiveness (we receive that wonderful grace through faith in Christ, not through works of generosity)—Paul is speaking about the many other kinds of grace God can give.
When God gave extra grace to the Macedonian churches, they had less money than before—but more joy! Most people, if forced to choose, would rather have poverty with joy, than wealth without joy. Joy is the greater blessing, and God gives us the greater blessing. Some Christians even get both—but they are also given the responsibility to use both to serve others.
Paul then quotes from the Old Testament: “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor” (verse 9). What kind of gifts is he talking about? “His righteousness endures forever.” The gift of righteousness outweighs them all. The gift of being counted righteous in God’s sight—this is the gift that lasts forever. God gives us the best possible gift.
God rewards a generous heart
“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” (verse 10). This last phrase, about the harvest of righteousness, tells us that Paul is speaking metaphorically. He is not promising literal seeds, but he is saying that God rewards generous people. He gives them more to give.
To the people who are using their spiritual gifts to serve, God will give more. Sometimes he gives in kind, grain for grain, money for money, but not always. Sometimes he blesses us with joy immeasurable in return for sacrificial giving. He always gives the best.
Paul said that the Corinthians would have all that they needed. For what purpose? So that they would “abound in every good work.” He says the same thing in verse 12: “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.” God’s gifts come with strings attached, we might say. We need to use them, not hide them in a closet.
Those who are rich are to become rich in good works. “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-18).
What is the reward for such unusual behavior, for the people who do not cling to wealth as a thing to be grasped, but willingly give it away? “In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (verse 19). As we trust God, we are taking hold of real life, life that will last forever in love, joy and peace.
Friends, faith is not always an easy life. The new covenant does not promise a comfortable life. It offers more than a million-to-one return on our investments—but it may involve, for this temporary life, some significant sacrifices.
And yet there are great rewards in this life, too. God gives abundant grace in the way he (in his infinite wisdom) knows what is best for us. In our trials and in our blessings, we can trust our lives to him. We can trust all things to him, and when we do it, our lives become a testimony of faith.
God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us even when we were sinners and enemies. Since God has already demonstrated such love for us, we can surely trust him to take care of us, for our long-range good, now that we are his children and friends! We do not need to have anxious thoughts about “our” money and our future.
The harvest of praise
Let’s go back to 2 Corinthians 9 and notice what Paul tells the Corinthians about their financial and material generosity: “Your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (verses 11-12).
Paul is reminding the Corinthians that their generosity is not just a humanitarian effort—it has theological results. People will thank God for it, because they understand that God works through people. God lays it on the hearts of those who have, to give. That is the way his work is done.
“Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, people will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else” (verse 13). There are several noteworthy points in this verse:
- First, the Corinthians were able to prove themselves by what they did. They showed in their actions that their faith was genuine.
- Second, generosity not only causes thanks but also praise to God. It is a form of worship.
- Third, accepting the gospel of grace also requires obedience, and that includes sharing physical resources.
Giving for the gospel
Paul was writing about generosity in connection with a famine-relief effort. But the same principles apply to the financial collections we have in the church today in support of the gospel and ministry. We are still supporting an important work. It allows workers who preach the gospel to make their living from the gospel, as best as we can distribute the resources.
God still rewards generosity. He still promises treasures in heaven and pleasures forevermore. The gospel still makes demands on our finances. Our attitude toward money still reflects our faith in what God does both now and forever. And people will still thank and praise God for the sacrifices we make today.
We receive benefits from the money we give to the church—the donations help pay for a place to meet, for pastoral support, and other benefits. But our contributions also help others, to provide a place for people to come to know a fellowship of people who love sinners, to pay for the expenses of a body of believers that creates and nourishes a climate in which newcomers can learn about Jesus and salvation.
These people do not (yet) know you, but they will thank you—or at least thank God and praise him because of your living sacrifices. It is a significant work. The most significant thing we can do in this life after accepting Christ as our own Savior is to help the kingdom grow, making a difference as we allow God to work in our lives.
Let me conclude with the words of Paul in verses 14-15: “In their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
Author: Joseph Tkach