“Therefore, as you abound in everything, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that you abound in this grace also.” – 2 Corinthians 8:7
There is no letter of the Apostle Paul where his severity has more weight and heat and energy than in his second letter to the Corinthians. Yet there is no letter where his tenderness is more sensitive and more penetrating and more exquisite. The severities of this letter are like the biting rigours of Alpine heights; its tendernesses are like the Alpine flowers. They are both part of the same moral landscape. They have their explanation in the same fundamental truth.
In this letter there is stern indignation against anything and everything that would befoul the purity of Christian fellowship. There is also a most affectionate craving that every believer in Christ might attain unto a spiritual completeness of character that shall be like some noble and symmetrical tree.
Indeed, the Apostle watches the growth of these Corinthian disciples as a gardener tends the varied growths in his garden. The gardener prunes one thing, and he restrains another, while to others he gives stimulus and encouragement. In one place the gardener’s ministry is like a nipping frost, in another place it is like a wooing sunbeam, but all the ministries are directed to the one purpose of leading the growing life into full-orbed maturity. It is even so with the Apostle Paul and these believers in Corinth.
He is watching their life with prayerful eagerness, and he is ceaselessly busy enticing grace after grace into visible strength. And here we find him cherishing yet another grace, and seeking by its development to still further enrich their character. “See that you abound in this grace also.”
The Lack Of Generosity
What is this particular grace which is suggested in the phrase, “this grace also,” and which he wishes to appear like bountiful clusters of grapes upon a vine? There is a sore famine in Jerusalem. There is a great dearth over the land. There is much suffering. The Christian believers in Jerusalem and elsewhere are sharing the pangs of want. Their necessity has gone out in a cry for help. The appeal has reached the Apostle Paul, and he brings the cry to Corinth.
What kind of people are these disciples in Corinth to whom the apostle has to make his appeal? Their Christian character is marked by much moral and spiritual distinction. The Apostle mentions some of the excellencies in which they abound.
They have “faith” which is a wealth of spiritual confidence and venture; it has a strength of trust in God which sends a man over rough roads on difficult journeys. And they have “utterance,” power of expression, power to take truth and embody it in words, power to convert experience into testimony. And they have “knowledge,” power of spiritual understanding, power to penetrate and interpret spiritual secrets. And they have “diligence,” speed of ministry, readiness of apprehension, quickness of movement. And they have “love,” which is just a central fund of goodness, a moral vitality, not soured by cynicism or chilled by meanness.
Surely this is a very rich and bountiful character, and surely these are people to whom any appeal may be made with serenest confidence. Paul makes his appeal for help for the needy folk in Jerusalem. We are in no doubt about the issue. We confidently anticipate the outpouring of a plentiful beneficence, a spontaneous overflow of sacrificial bounty.
Yet there is an uncertainty in the Apostle’s tone. He is not quite sure of these people in Corinth. He reiterates his appeals. He repeats them with added emphasis. He recurs to it again and again, as if the stream of beneficence was not flowing with the fulness of healthy consecration. The appeal has run through chapter eight and chapter nine and chapter ten. He is greatly concerned that these fellow-believers should be distinguished by “this grace also.”
What can be the explanation of this seeming reluctance, this apparent restraint, in a character so full and radiant as theirs? I can only think of one explanation – they did not give much thought to the matter. It was not lack of heart; it was lack of attention. The position is by no means rare and unusual.
People can be devotees of their religion without being very thoughtful. Men and women can be philosophers without being practical. They can be controversialists, and discuss a thousand things without being inwardly considerate. And there is nothing that so demands the pioneering work of sensitive attention, there is nothing to which thoughtfulness and chivalrous consideration is so essential as the grace of beneficence and the spirit of sacrifice. There must be clear thinking if there is to be fine feeling, and there must be clear thinking if our generosity is to be as a cup that runs over.
It was true of the Corinthians, and it is equally true of us and of all men, that if we are to have “this grace also” – the grace of a wise and plenteous beneficence – it will have to be made a matter of deliberate culture. It is not a thing that can be left to itself. It is because the work of beneficence is so clamorously needful, because the reaction of beneficence in life and character is so fertilising, and because the absence of beneficence is so destructive and so unfriendly to the purpose of God that I am venturing to give it this prominence.
Limitations To Beneficence
Now let us lay down three judgments in which I think we shall all be agreed.
The first judgment is this: We are apt to be gravely deceived about the extent of our beneficence, and we vastly exaggerate the amount of money we give away. The majority of people have no idea of the range of their beneficence. It is not governed by any definite purpose. It is not a piloted enterprise. It does not follow any pathway of appointed ministry. It is not a crusade. It is a thing of chance and caprice. They do not know how much or how little they give in the course of a year.
But the bias of their estimate is always on the side of generous judgment. The people who do not know how much they give always give less than they think they do. Indeed some people’s memories are of a very perverted order; they lead them to estimate their giving by the number of appeals that they hear rather than by the number of responses which they make to the appeals. And so it happens that they esteem themselves to be generous when in reality they may be mean.
The second judgment is this: There is a strangely paralysing power about money; it so restricts the heart that the more we get, the less we are inclined to give. This is surely what the Lord meant when He spoke of “the deceitfulness of riches.” Riches can make a man think that he is growing bigger when all the time he is growing less. He estimates his size by the inlet of income and not by the outlet of beneficence. While the inlet is expanding, the outlet is contracting. But the deception is frequently more deadly still. His growth in riches is often accompanied by a corresponding growth in fear.
It is one of the pathetic ironies of life that men who are growing in wealth have an increasing fear of poverty. The fear puts them into bonds, and they are afraid to give of their treasure lest none should remain.
I went to see a very wealthy man in New York to ask him to help an exceedingly noble cause. His fear immediately answered my appeal, and he spoke as one who was on the verge of poverty: “I really cannot give any more!” The word was apparently sincere, and it was accompanied by a sort of sigh that confirmed its reality. “I really cannot give any more! What with one thing and another I do not know what we are coming to!” Fear seemed to haunt the man. It determined his thought and his speech and his services. A few weeks later he died, and his will was proved at over $60 million!
I wonder; I wonder if at the end of the day he heard the messenger of the Lord saying to him, “You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you, then whose shall these things be?”
The third judgment is this: That conscience in the matter of giving is apt to become less sensitive as the appeals come from the necessities of the soul. Many a man will give generously in response to a cry of material hunger who is numb to the cry of spiritual hunger. Many men will give a large contribution to relieve the hungry children in Eastern Europe who feel no urgency in the cry of those who are spiritually hungry in Mongolia or >Tibet. They would hasten to succour a fainting body but they are careless to the needs of a fainting heart.
Well, all these are personal chills in the service of beneficence. They are personal limitations; they are personal antagonisms, and they assault us all. We are compelled to take a very strong and deliberate course if we are to overcome them and rise into possession of a soul which is nobly distinguished by “this grace also.”
How are we to meet these enemies of beneficence? What course can we follow to make beneficence a spontaneous issue in our life?
Cultivating The Grace Of Giving
First of all we must cultivate a sense of stewardship. We must cultivate the sense as assiduously as we have cultivated the sense of ownership and possession. If we want to know how to do it let us patiently give time to considering how we train and develop any other sense in our life, and then apply the teaching to this particular one.
How do we cultivate a sense of reverence to the Most High? How do we cultivate a sense of loyalty to one’s country? There are modes of doing these things, and if we follow the method of culture, then sense and discernment will be formed. A sense of stewardship is the recognition of the ultimate Fountain of our life and strength; it is homage paid where homage is due. The Lord puts this homage very early in the prayer that He taught His disciples.
The prayer first of all moves in mighty orbits: “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Then from these vast movements it touches the commonplace of daily life. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Our dependence is unveiled, and we are seen to be beneficiaries of the holy grace and love of God. It is not merely our bread but all our necessities which are brought near the altar and placed within the light of the great white Throne. “When you have eaten and are full, then beware lest you forget the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:11-12).
In that way does the word of God reveal to us our dependence upon the Lord for all our possessions, and it is in the recognition of this dependence and obligation that we cultivate the sense of stewardship. All that we have is ours in trust; and we are to bow in homage before the Lord and say, “Not my will but Your will be done.”
Another essential way of cultivating a really healthy spirit of beneficence is to exercise our conscience in the matter. Our beneficence is frequently determined by our emotions and not by our conscience. It is governed by the feeling of what we like to do and not by the imperative of what we ought to do. Government by the emotions is always a perilous and unstable kind of sovereignty. The emotions may be enfeebled; they may be dull and sluggish, and then the motive power becomes impotent.
A religious life that is ruled by the feelings has a very faint initiative if the feelings are dried up. And so it is in the matter of beneficence. It is probably true of the majority of people that before their beneficence is active their feelings have to be excited and their emotions have to be fervid and boiling. So the appeals are commonly directed to the feelings, and time after time speakers have to play upon the emotions in order to elicit support for such ministries as hospitals and Home and Foreign Missions. The consequence is that the giving is as uncertain and spasmodic as the movement of the emotions.
We require a moral momentum that will create a bountiful beneficence even though our emotional moods are dry. We want to have even dry giving that is governed by the impelling action of the conscience. And so we must bring the appeals into the light of the conscience, and settle them by a sense of rectitude, even though we are not thrilled by appeals that are couched in eloquent and moving speech.
But we must do more than this. We must not only put homage and conscience into our beneficence, we must put method into it. We cannot fight the enemies of magnanimity and beneficence by thoughtless and spasmodic warfare. We must have a scheme of action. There must be method in the enterprise. We must have a plan of campaign. There must be some designed strategy if we are to overcome the deadly attacks of the grim army of selfishness and meanness.
I am sure that part of this sane method must be the assignment of a certain minimum proportion of our income to ministries of beneficence. The minimum must not be less than a tenth. Even the Pharisee could boast of that attainment; “I give tithes of all that I possess.” It was no dull virtue when we compare it with the general giving of the members of the >Church of Christ. If we all followed the Pharisee’s example, and gave a tenth of all that we possessed, the appeals that call to our beneficence would be met with overflowing wealth and sufficiency.
But we must fix the minimum, not only for the sake of the bounty, but for our own comfort and peace. There is nothing more irritating than to encounter appeals when we have no plan, and when we do not know how much we are giving or how much we have given. There is a great sense of power, and satisfaction, and peace when we know just where we are, and what we are doing and what we are able to do. The method orders our beneficence and gives a feeling of readiness, and we are partly on the way with our response even before the appeal is made.
But I would advise young people who adopt the method of minimum proportion not to drivel their tenth away in small and insignificant contributions. Let them go in sometimes for the giving of large sums. If you have ten pounds a year to give away, have the satisfaction now and again of giving a five-pound note to something. If you do it you will know the reason of the counsel. It seems a big sum, and it challenges your powers, and there is a bracing influence in the endeavour. The subsequent experience will give you the needful justification. It is like a fine drive at golf; it is a good send off and the lesser strokes will come in its train.
If you find, as the year goes by, that the tenth is exhausted, you may take a dash past your minimum and break all your records. You will do it just to prove that you are not the victim of your own minimum. It will be like a plunge into deep cold water and you will emerge with a very healthy glow, not the fever of silly pride but the satisfaction of healthy manhood. You will rejoice in the health of God’s countenance for you are a willing co-operator with the Lord.
It is surely well to train our young children in these methodical ways. If they begin early and are taught to regard their little possessions in homage, and with conscience, and with method, the fine habit will become fine instinct from the very beginning of their days.
The Need In The Church Today
I confess I am very much concerned about this grace and virtue of beneficence in the Christian life and character. The generosity of our people during the First World War was manifold and amazing. Every appeal was met with fervour, and our folk were strengthened by the energies of their own beneficence. But beneficence that flows freely in days of conflict may dry up again in the quieter days of peace. The necessity may seem to be over and the fountain goes to sleep. That is one of our dangers.
The other equally imminent danger is this: We are surely living in a day of extravagance. There are signs of wasteful and even prodigal squandering on every side. We have the example of Governments that are not taking the lead in wise economy. We have Governments steadily and obstinately proposing that we spend millions in decking up militarism in glaring and alluring attire. This is the kind of evil leadership that acts contagiously upon the whole country.
Think of what is being spent in pleasure. Look at the crowded theatres and the cinemas with their long waiting queues. I do not object to these things, and I appreciate the reasonable reaction after all the strain and the fear and the terror of the War. But it is unhealthy when we spend a large proportion of our income on amusement and have no reserves to meet the demands of noble necessity. Millions of professedly Christian people give more money to see one performance in a cinema than they give to the cause of God’s kingdom in a whole year.
I do not attribute this lack of beneficence to meanness, or to a stinginess that locks up its resources; it is explained by want of thoughtfulness, and by lack of method and conscience and piloted devotion.
The Motivation And Example Of Jesus
The constraints that ought to move us are great and manifold. There are the needs themselves. Let us direct our thoughts and our imagination to play about the realms of necessity. Let us make the dead facts live by the breath of our own life. Let us vitalise them with living thought so that far-away necessities come and stand and breathe at our door.
And then let us walk with Jesus Christ. Let us talk with Him. Let us ask for His counsel. Let us hear what He has to say about things. Let us consult Him about this, that, and the other, and our hearts will burn within us as He talks with us by the way.
His own example will be our abiding constraint. “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). When we follow the young Prince of Glory from His Throne to His Cross, the springs of sacrifice are unsealed in our own hearts, we have the fellowship of His sufferings, and in the realm of beneficence we become ready and cheerful givers.
J.H. Jowett (1922)