This sermon is part of the sermon series "Unbreakable". See series.
We've been considering what it means to be jars of clay—ordinary, fragile people living in a difficult and dangerous world. The message of 2 Corinthians is that we're unbreakable as long as we have Christ living within us. No matter what life does to us, no matter what the world dishes out, the life of Christ sustains and strengthens us so that we can offer His life to others. When life is difficult—when we find ourselves cracked, knocked over, or turned upside down—the life-giving power of Christ flows out of us and into others. When life hurts, God's comfort is more than enough to get us through; it's enough to give away. In 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, Paul addresses the issue of material need, and what it means to be unbreakable in the face of financial pressure.
A crop is a crop.
As tedious and tiresome as it can be, there's something soothing about the sound and smell of leaves as you rake and something satisfying about seeing them all bundled up when you're done.
What is it about raking leaves that's so satisfying? It has to do with the harvest. Human beings have a primal urge to sow and reap, to gather a crop, to bundle the fruits of their labor. To a farmer, the harvest represents a year's worth of planting and tending, of watching and waiting and wondering. When the last sheaf is bundled and the storehouse is full, the farmer feels a sense of satisfaction and gratitude.
Most of us are not farmers, so raking leaves is about as close as we'll come to bringing a harvest home. But the satisfaction we find in gathering that weightless, worthless crop is an expression of our God-given longing to do something with our lives: to sow and reap a harvest of significance. When we come to the end of a year, or to the end of our lives, we want to have something to show for our efforts. We want to gather the fruits of our labor, and we hope for an abundant harvest.
How can we manage our resources in a way that yields an abundant harvest? According to Paul, the answer is to give generously. Paul writes in verse 6, "Remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously." That seems to have been a popular saying of Paul's day. Something like today's "what goes around comes around." But Paul takes it to new level of meaning.
It's often called the law of the harvest: you reap what you sow. If you sow barley, you reap barley. You'd have to be pretty foolish to sow barley and expect wheat. Not only that, but the more you sow, the more you reap. If you sow 10 acres of barley in the springtime, you can expect 10 acres worth of barley at harvest time. But don't expect a harvest of 40 acres if you only sowed 10. It doesn't work that way. The more you scatter, the more you gather. Paul applies that simple principle to finances; the more you give, the more you gather. In the same way that a farmer who sows generously reaps generously, a person who gives generously is blessed generously. Put another way, the more generously we give, the more abundantly God provides.
One of the reasons Paul wrote 2 Corinthians was to follow up on a fund-raising campaign he began in a previous letter. The believers in Jerusalem were being persecuted and were suffering financially. Paul recognized this need as an opportunity for the Gentile churches around the world to come alongside the Jerusalem church, so he started a collection from churches around the empire. In response to his earlier letter, the Corinthians had pledged to support the Jerusalem church by taking an offering and sending it on to Jerusalem. But as of yet, they had not followed through on that pledge. So Paul wrote this letter, in part, to remind them of their commitment. We don't know why they hadn't followed through. Maybe times had gotten tougher in Corinth, and they were concerned for their own financial needs. Or maybe there was no hardship, and they just wanted to keep the money for themselves. Whatever the reasons, they were reluctant to part with the money they had committed.
Several years ago, Ted Turner created a buzz when he pledged to give $1 billion to the United Nations over the course of 10 years. At the time, it was the largest philanthropic gift ever given. When his financial empire ran into trouble, he was not able to fulfill the pledge, though he still promises to do so. On a somewhat smaller scale, we all know what that feels like; we want to be generous, but it's not easy to part with our money when it comes time to do so. This is the situation the Corinthians found themselves in. For whatever reasons, they had not yet come through with their financial gift.
In order to encourage them, and to address their fears, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the law of the harvest: the more you give, the more you gather. If they would be faithful, God would not only provide all that they needed to keep their commitment, but he would ensure that their gift accomplished good things in Jerusalem.
There's more going on here than a fund-raising letter. Paul's talking about a lifestyle and not just a one-time offering. According to Paul, the best way to deal with financial pressure is to give generously. That feels counter-intuitive—that the more generously you give, the more abundantly God provides. If I'm in need, shouldn't I hang on to what I have? Not when you factor in the law of the harvest. If you want to be unbreakable in the face of financial pressure—if you want to have something to show for your life when it's over—give generously.
Every Christian is to give generously.
The word "generous" appears four times in these six verses. In English the word means "to be liberal in giving or sharing; magnanimous." In the original Greek it literally meant "openhearted." Generosity is the opposite of fear and stinginess. I think we all understand the principle. But what does it mean in dollars and cents? What makes for generous giving?
First of all, according to verse 7, generous giving is personal. Paul writes, "Each of you should give," which indicates that he expected every believer in Corinth to contribute something to the offering for Jerusalem. There were all kinds of people in that church—slaves, working class, and wealthy persons. Some had much and some had little. Paul didn't expect them all to give the same amount, but he expected them all to give something. They couldn't be considered a generous church, and they couldn't look for an abundant harvest, if some of them refused to give.
The same is true for the church today. Generosity begins with you. Every Christ-follower is invited to give, and there are no exceptions. While it's likely that all of us would agree that each person should give, the research suggests it doesn't happen. According to one survey, about 31 percent of church members give little or nothing to their churches or to charities of any kind. Sometimes in a large church, people feel as if their gifts don't matter, but they do. They matter on a practical level; every gift helps the church continue its work. But they also matter spiritually. If a church or household is going to experience the blessing of God, its people must give generously.
Generous giving is personal, and it is thoughtful. Paul instructs that each person should give "what you have decided." In other words, don't give impulsively or haphazardly; think about what you'll give. Consider your income and assets. Talk it over with your spouse or a Christian friend. If your pattern of giving is to wait for the offering to be announced and then see what's in your wallet, you're probably not being generous—that is, unless you're in the habit of carrying around $100 bills. Even then, the person who gives thoughtfully and consistently is likely to give more over the course of a year than the person who tosses in $100 every few weeks.
How do you arrive at a commitment? Interestingly, the New Testament never tells us how much to give. The fact is the New Testaments doesn't discuss tithing because people were already doing it. Remember, the early believers were all Jews. They'd been tithing for their whole lives, and they certainly would have brought that practice with them into the church. In other words, when Paul challenges believers to give generously, he has in mind a gift greater than 10 percent. What the New Testament teaches is proportionate giving. In his previous letter to the Corinthians, Paul instructed them to set aside a sum of money in keeping with their income. Studies reveal that the average Christian gives about percent of their income. I don't think that's what Paul had in mind.
Third, generous giving is passionate. Paul continues in verse 7, "Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give." Certainly we should be thoughtful and reasonable about our giving, but we ought to give passionately as well. If our decision is simply a cold calculation, it's doesn't qualify as generous. Remember, "generous" means "openhearted;" it should be an expression of your heart as well as your head. You want your gift to make a statement about your love for God and for his work. You should feel something when you write the check or put the money in the plate, whether a feeling of gratitude for God's goodness, of compassion for the people or cause you're giving to, or a twinge of anxiety about the amount you're giving away. If you don't feel anything when you give, you're probably not being generous.
Finally, generous giving is cheerful. Paul says that we are not to give "reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." If you're simply giving out of a sense of duty, because the pastor made you feel guilty, or for fear that God will punish you, then you're better off not giving. God loves a cheerful giver. The truth is you can't be both generous and grumpy.
Sometimes you'll hear people say you should give "till it hurts." They're talking about sacrificial giving, and there are times when we should give that way. I once heard a pastor say, "Give till it feels good." I like that. Give until it feels like you're really making a difference. It really does feel good to be generous!
God supplies all our needs.
Remember, we're jars of clay; we're only capable of holding so much. Our fear is that if we give too much away, we won't have enough. The wonderful thing about jars of clay is that when they run out, they can be filled again—and again and again. As long as you have an adequate supply of water or wine, there's no danger of running out. How adequate is God's supply? Paul puts it this way in verse 8: "And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times having all that you need, you will abound in every good work." Ask anybody who gives generously if God has ever failed to supply their needs. Ask them if they've ever regretted giving something to God.
Notice that God promises to provide what we need, not what society tells us we must have. This is not a health-and-wealth formula whereby you give seed money with the expectation that God will reward you with more. It's not a guarantee that you'll never have financial challenges, or that you'll never have to go without something. Rather, this promise assures us that God knows what we need, and that he will provide all we need so we can do all he asks us to do. He might provide you with abundant financial resources, or he might provide you with wisdom and discipline to manage the limited resources you have. His blessing might take the form of a raise; it might take the form of a second job; it might take the form of a spirit of contentment when things are scarce.
Remember, we're not talking about a harvest of stuff, but a harvest of significance. We're not gathering material goodies, but spiritual fruit for ourselves and others. This isn't about meeting a budget shortfall; this is about being unbreakable in the face of financial pressure. This is about emptying your jar of clay again and again, so that God can fill it again and again, so that you can be generous on every occasion. This is about inviting God to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine—so much that it flows over our arms and into our faces.
Giving generously means giving personally, thoughtfully, passionately, and cheerfully. You may ask, "How can we afford to give like that?" The simple answer is that God will provide all you need so that you can give all he asks you to give. In verses 10 and 11, Paul puts it this way: "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. You will be made rich in every way." The law of the harvest simply says that when you give generously of your money, you find that you have everything that you need. When you give generously of your time, the time you have left becomes even more productive and meaningful. When you open your heart to others, people open their hearts to you. The more generously you give, the more abundantly you receive. When you give generously, other people are blessed: their needs are met, their spirits are encouraged, the Kingdom of God advances. When you place money, time, or talent in God's hands, it always bears fruit. When you are generous, God is praised. The more generous you are, the more he is praised—that's the law of the harvestHere's the catch: In order for the law of the harvest to work, you have to give first and receive later. The farmer goes out and buys seed and puts it in the ground, anticipating that the rain will fall, the sun will shine, the seed will sprout, and many months from now, the harvest will come. Sowing seed is an act of faith.
Remember that this is a letter written to Christians living in the city of Corinth. Corinth was an affluent city, a cosmopolitan center of trade and culture. There would have been all kinds of people in the Corinthian church—slaves, working class, and wealthy people. Remember, too, that Paul is no stranger to financial need. He insisted on paying his own way as a missionary by working as a tentmaker. As a result, he often went without food or shelter. In other words, financial issues are nothing new. The same principle that was true then is true now: you get as much as you sow, and never more.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.