When it seemed as if every home in our community were getting an answering machine, Deb and I would affirm our mutual dislike for those machines and our refusal to ever buy one.
Two summers ago while on vacation in Minnesota, I called home to talk with our teenage daughter who stayed behind to work. I got an answering machine. I figured I'd dialed the wrong number. So I hung up and dialed again. When I got an answering machine the second time, I worried that I had forgotten my phone number after two weeks of vacation. So I rang a third time. This time Kristen answered.
She said, "Did you just call?"
I said, "Yeah, but I got the wrong number."
She said, "No you didn't." She explained that she had just bought her mother an answering machine for her birthday.
I'll admit that we've enjoyed the use of that machine the last two years. But we have laughed so many times about Kristen's idea of giving. Kristen gave her mother what she wantedan answering machine to get messages from her friends. Over the years, we've laughed a lot about our kids' perspectives on giving.
For example, our kids all agree that homemade things are not real gifts. "Don't give me a homemade thing," they say. "Don't embarrass me by sending me to a birthday party with a cheap gift. Anything under $10 is an embarrassing excuse for a gift." That's their wisdom about giving birthday gifts.
What constitutes real giving to God?
What's your wisdom about giving? In your mind, what constitutes a real gift? What do you think real giving to God is? What kind of giving pleases him, honors him, advances his work?
Elijah has just announced a G drought. People are destitute, screaming for food. Elijah has the audacity to ask this single mother to give him not just one meal; he is really looking to mooch off her for several years.
His challenging request is actually a service to her. It gives her the opportunity to give in a real way to God and to see God provide.
Real giving to God puts God first and trusts him to supply. Real giving develops our trust in God not our money. Real giving develops our trust in the God who supplies.
As we move rather quickly through a long story, I want to challenge you to evaluate your giving. Is it real? Or is it pretend? We need to evaluate that.
Whenever you find real giving, you'll always find a history of God coming through with his abundant provision.
How does Elijah's story in 1 Kings 17 illustrate real giving?
In this period, God was trying to get Ahab's attention by sending Elijah to announce this drought. As soon as the drought is announced, God directs Elijah to go to the wilderness to hide from Ahab's evil. But as he sends him in the wilderness, he promises to provide through ravens. Amazing.
Two great things happened. Number one, Elijah obeys. Number two, God supplies. I think Elijah's obedience is phenomenal. A wilderness place is a great place for hiding, but it's not a great place for surviving. Yet, Elijah obeys. He goes immediately without any question to this wilderness, and he puts himself in a place of depending on God because nobody else is going to provide for him there. God must come through. And God does.
God sends wild ravens every morning and every evening to feed this leader who obeyed. He supplies not only in abundance but with gourmet meals. He provides him with meat. Have you thought about that?
Even when there wasn't a drought, meat was a luxury, a delicacy in that area. God provides in this rich way. Every morning the ravens bring ordinary bread; every morning they bring extraordinary meat. It was the same thing in the evening. This leader obeys, and God comes through with gourmet abundance.
After this period of obedience and God's provision, the brook dries up. The need arises again. Elijah must have water. This time, God comes through with some even wilder instructions. And because of God's past supply, Elijah is ready to obey again.
Now he is to leave this area by the brook and go across Israel to a Gentile area controlled by Ahab's wicked ! He is to go to an area of great danger. These are crazy instructions from God. And here's the craziest part of it: He's supposed to go there and find one of the poorest people in the landa widow, a single mother who's already overstressed trying to feed her family. He's supposed to look to her to feed him. It is crazy, just crazy.
But Elijah does it. He immediately obeys. Why? Because of history. He's just had this personal encounter with God where God has provided for him through ravens. That personal history gives him the confidence to give himself to God again and to obey again. Off he goes without any counter proposal, without any .
If you're going to become a real giver to God, you've got to become a lover of history. You've got to look in history for God's provision to others and to you.
In a recent staff meeting, one of our secretaries shared that her husband had just been hit with a $600 bill. We prayed that God would provide the money. A week later, she announced that they had received a $600 interest payment from a bank going back to 1989. Somehow, the bank had not sent this payment, and now, seven years later, God provided.
I prayed for that couple, that they would remember God's provision for years to come. I wanted God's provision to be in their personal history to thumb through for years to come.
My own history includes memories of Ray. This guy was constantly giving away everything. He gave away his car. He was constantly putting money into people's hands; he was forever putting money in my hands.
And I noticed that every time he turned around, money was falling into his lap from the strangest places. I saw Ray giving and giving and giving, and God pouring and pouring and pouring back into Ray's life. If you're going to become a real giver, you've got to become a lover of history who sees the history of God's provision.
In the story of Elijah and the widow, real giving came in a series of steps.
Trusting God to supply is frightening. In this story, real giving comes in steps. The first step toward real giving is to get to belief. The woman believed in the God of Israel long before she thought of giving her last meal to him.
In her first conversation with Elijah, she utters a vow in the name of Israel's God. She says, "As surely as the Lord your God." She lives adjacent to Israel, but she's not a Jew. Yet, she believes that Israel's God is real and true and holy and present. She makes a declaration under his holy, watchful eye. In other words, she evidences a belief in God. She knows that this guy standing in front of her is an Israeli and he's intimately connected with God.
Before God commanded this woman to give, God had won her heart. She believes in the God of the neighboring nation. Before real giving happens, God wins our heart. That's where it starts.
When Elijah arrives, he immediately sees this woman alone gathering sticks. Is this the woman God sent me to? The second step is to test her by asking for a smaller need first: "How about a drink?"
Now water is scarce because of the drought. But it is more plentiful in her life than food. So he starts with a lesser need. Instead of ignoring him, this Gentile woman immediately goes off to get this foreigner a drink of water. She knows he is a man of God. And she goes off to serve God by getting the servant of God a drink.
The third step of her journey toward real giving is the greatest one. When she's on her way to get the water Elijah says, "Oh, by the way, could I have some bread, too?"
I can just hear her heels digging in and see the dust flying. She begins to object. She didn't object about a drink of water, but now she digs her heels in because, as she says to him, "Your God knows, he's watching me. I don't have much. In fact, I'm down to just a handful of barley flour, and a little oil. In fact, I've got just enough for one more meal, and then we're going to cash it in. We're done; we'll die." She finds this kind of courageous giving more than she can do. She's afraid.
In Elijah's response, we understand the nature of real giving because he challenges her, in spite of her fear, to give to God first and watch God supply. He knows it's a challenge for her, but because of his own history of seeing God provide, he gives her the opportunity to giveand he says to her, "Go and do what you were planning to do. Go and bake some bread, but bring some to me first. And then go make some for your family."
He encourages, even provokes her toward real giving by reminding her of the promise of God. And the promise of God is "Your flour will not run out. Your oil will never run out the whole time of this drought. Others will struggle, but God will take care of you."
Do you see what options are against her now? She can trust what she sees, hoard it, make a final meal for her family, then die. Or she can do the courageous thing of trusting what she can't see yet, believing the promise of God, giving her food away to God, believing that God will yet provide in a miraculously abundant way. That's the challenge.
Do you see it? If we're going to become real givers, it's going to take a series of steps. It's going to take giving our hearts to God. It's going to take giving to him in smaller ways until we get to the point where we'll give to him first in a radical way, where we're forced to depend on him to supply. It's a process.
During World War II, Ernest Gordon was a prisoner along the Thailand border held by the Japanese with several hundred others. He didn't have any relationship with Christ until he was in what they call the death house where prisoners were sent to die. There was really no hope. Some friends pulled him out of there, and he managed to recover. After recovering, he began to trust Christ and give his whole heart to God.
It was several months later that an old friend of his named Dodger, who was just months from dying, came to visit Ernie. Dodger came very hopeless, very depressed. Ernie wanted to do what he could to encourage him. They talked a while, and as Dodger was getting ready to leave, Ernie felt as if he hadn't yet really helped him. He remembered a novel he borrowed from another friend and asked if Dodger had anything to read.
Before he gave the novel to him, he took the only Thai bills he had, a few botthe only money he hadstuck it in the pages of the novel and gave it to Dodger. Ernie gave so courageously. He needed the extra nourishment that would come from those few dollars to live. He chose instead to put himself in a place of depending on God to supply for him. That's courageous giving.
When we give courageously, it unleashes and frees God to do amazing things.
That's the kind of giving that unleashes God to provide in his own miraculous way. When we give courageously, it unleashes and frees God to do amazing things. This is an amazing combinationwhat Elijah did and what the woman did. Through their joint faith, God began to shine in that whole Gentile region.
Remember what he [Elijah] did. He is a leader who comes to a destitute woman and challenges her to give in a courageous way. I'm sure that wasn't easy for him to do, but he knew God would provide. He leads by calling her to give, knowing that God will come in on the back side and provide and reveal himself to her. Then she does something too. She courageously gives. She goes off and bakes and takes the first bread to the man of God, believing that God will yet provide. Then just look at the results:
First, the man of God, Elijah, has food to eat every day. This is a great provision of God. This was not a safe place for him to be. He is trying as the leader of God to call the Israelites back from their terrible idolatry. But if he's going to hang in there and do that, he's got to eat. So for twelve to eighteen months, God takes care of his needs through an impoverished, single mother. God provides.
Here's the second great result: The woman and her son have food through that whole period of drought. In ancient lands like this, every widow was poor by definition. A widow had no provider, no protector. They were always terribly poor. But this woman and her son were just on the brink of death because the drought was hitting them so hard. She obeys, and every day for twelve to eighteen months her bread supply triples. She has enough for him, enough for the family, enough for the next day to start over again. God supplies for her as well.
I want you to see that this unleashing of God came not by her hoarding what she had, but by spending it, by giving it. She gave in response to Elijah's challenge, and God provided in abundant miraculous ways.
I often think of this when I'm in this room. From 1990 to 1993, a hundred families gave a dollars to pay for most of this building. In the last three years, hundreds of people have been touched by God's power in this room. Hundreds have been touched by God because a hundred families courageously gave. That's amazing to me. It's beautiful.
After Ernie gave that book and money to Dodger, Dodger became a new man. He only had a few months to live. But he somehow found the energy to volunteer in their hospital, helping the orderlies. He volunteered for the dirtiest job in that whole place. Every day he went and collected the rags that the orderlies used to scrape off the skin ulcers of dying patients. Ernie would take these rags and scrape them, boil them, clean them, take them back for use on other patients. He'd find eggs for people who were starving and needing the extra nourishment. He'd make a mess kit for somebody who had lost his. He made a bucket for somebody who didn't have a bucket to wash himself.
Ernie gave in a courageous way, and it transformed Dodger into this amazing servant of God. And through Dodger, God provided help for so many others. Where did it begin? Just a few bot slipped in the book that Ernie gave to him. Our courageous giving unleashes the miracle provision of God, if we're willing to trust him.
This story appears to end on a note of tragedy, but really ends on a note of more giving and more faith. Even the most courageous givers are not exempt from tragedy. It was a few months later that this widow's son died.
She thought it was because of some sin in her life, but Elijah thought, This isn't due to sin. He viewed it as an opportunity for God's glory to shine in that Gentile region.
He took the boy up to his room. He cried out to God with amazing honesty. He took God to task, didn't he? He says, "Wait a minute, God. You saved this boy from starving and then you let him die? Come on!"
Then he prayed in a most fervent way by stretching his body on top of the boy's breathless body and asked God to restore him to life. And God, for the first time in the Old Testament record, brought somebody back to life. Why?
The closing sentence of the chapter tells why. God did this miraculous provision of raising the boy back to life that he might deepen her faith and touch that whole Gentile region with the glory of his provision for those who trust him. She began by giving her flour and oil to God, and God provided. Now she gives her dead son to God, and God raises him back to life.
Now I'm confident that, because of the miracle of the flour and the oil multiplying, this woman had a faith in God that would last her whole life. It would have gotten her through the loss of her son. But God in his goodness touched her and stabilized her faith to the whole region.
The chief end of real giving is trust in God on a deeper and deeper level. That's the real end of real givingthat we would trust him all the more.
On Dudley's birthday, there was a pilot in his small town who offered to take Dudley for an airplane ride. Dudley accepted. So for about thirty minutes, they flew over this small town in West Virginia. When they landed, one of the old man's friends asked, "Were you scared, Dudley?" With some hesitation he said, "Well, no, but I never put my full weight down."
When we take our most valuable possessions and give them to Godour money and our children and our spousesour faith in God grows, and we increasingly put our whole weight down on God.
Last weekend we visited Kristen at school for Parents' Weekend. When we arrived she gave us a gift. She gave each of us our favorite candy. It was simple, but it was real. We appreciated it.
Real giving. What is it? I think it's giving to God in a way that causes us to be more dependent on him. So when you're afraid, realize that the only way to have enough is to give courageously to God. Understand that real giving comes in steps. Give a little as he asks. Then we grow to the point of giving to him first and radically. Don't be afraid. Trust God to supply, and this week, this month, take a step toward becoming a real giver to God.
John Casey is senior pastor of Blanchard Road Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.