Our dog Molly is a West Highland white terrier with a cute and yet infuriating trait. She has learned the art of bartering. Not barking, which she already does well, but bartering. It goes like this. She will grab one of my wife’s shoes, the newer and nicer the better, and race off with it. No coaxing gets her to return it. In fact, she relishes it when you lunge after her and she gallops off at high speed around the furniture and under the bed with her contraband. She’ll chew on it, but mostly she lives for the thrill of the chase. However, she has learned to barter with us. If we come back to her with a squeaky toy or some tasty dog treat alternative she thinks is attractive, she will trade the valued shoe for the offered item.
Some people have taken a Bible verse to mean that they can barter with God. Malachi 3:10 says, “ ‘Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.’ ”
Here it is, they think. God has guaranteed success and prosperity to everyone who returns a faithful tithe. They treat this verse like a barter system. I give God 10 percent, and He is supposed to bless me with abundance. They treat it like a quid pro quo—God owes me.
Do we return a tithe because of what we think we will get at our end of the bargain? Does God owe me?
The prophet Habakkuk taught a different joy than the prosperity gospel espoused by some well-known ministries today. He points out that our service to God is based on something better than a spiritual quid pro quo.
“Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:17, 18).
Our joy in returning to God His tithe is not built around some kind of divine barter system. We return His tithe and our offerings because, prosperity or not, He is our Savior. We are the recipients of His grace. And in gratitude we recognize that all things belong to Him. We hold them only in stewardship.
There are many Christians who are faithful to God in returning His tithe and their freewill offerings. And yet they never become wealthy, outshine all their neighbors with the largest house or the latest vehicles, or have a “special” touch with their finances. While they are faithful, they don’t seem to be getting ahead in the world. And yet, God has not forgotten to bless them. As the psalmist promises: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread” (Ps. 37:25).
Even as God promises a blessing to follow our faithfulness, the fact of the matter is that there is a blessing that has come first, and our returning His tithe is an acknowledgment that we already have been blessed. Returning God’s tithe is more than a duty or the fulfillment of a command. It’s more than a divine transaction. It’s an expression of gratitude for blessings already received that we didn’t bargain for.
GIVING TO GET
When I first began in ministry, I had the privilege to attend some presentations by Mel Rees, then the premier Seventh-day Adventist teacher of stewardship and fund-raising by local churches for capital campaigns. Rees described a condition that he observed in human nature he called “giving to get.” He said you saw it in places like some Christian churches conducting raffles, bingo games, and other fund-raisers where the concept was that you might walk away with something of value, perhaps even more valuable than you “contributed.”
That same concept goes even further, when individuals donate to a cause, expecting public recognition, perhaps even getting a building named after them, or being motivated to see their name on a wall display, or receive an award at a public gathering. Those are not bad in and of themselves unless the motive to give was to receive some type of reward instead of the altruistic desire to serve and help others. Rees told a story a little closer to home of the time a devout church member, who was a quiet and otherwise reserved middle-aged lady, approached her pastor one day. She stated that she resented every dime of tithe that she paid because she would like to spend more of her income on the kind of clothes she liked. In fact, she resented the offerings she gave as well, because she felt that kept her from being able to afford to go to the kind of places she wanted to travel to. But she was staunchly dutiful and wanted to follow the rules.¹ It would appear that rather than having a spirit of gratitude and recognizing that she was already blessed, she was “giving to get,” in order to fulfill the divine requirements and hope to gain heaven, even though she resented the appearance of a sacrifice here.
In speaking about God’s people of today and the blessings that they have already received, Ellen White goes on to say, “They are to pay tithes of all they possess, and to make offerings of that which he bestows upon them. His mercies and blessings have been abundant and systematic. He sends down his rain and sunshine, and causes vegetation to flourish. He gives the seasons; sowing and reaping-time come in their order; and the unfailing goodness of God calls for something better than the ingratitude and forgetfulness that men render to him. Shall we not return to God, and with grateful hearts present our tithes and offerings?”²
There is the key. Instead of seeing our actions of stewardship as some kind of barter, we recognize they are an expression of grateful living. Like Habakkuk we can rejoice even if there few resources in our pockets. We experience joy in the God of our salvation. And when we get to heaven and the new earth, it will be because of the bountiful grace of our heavenly Savior, not because we were such shrewd, grasping negotiators, like my dog Molly with my wife’s shoe.
¹ Adapted from Melvin E. Rees, God’s Plan for Social Security (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1970). ² Ellen G. White, in Signs of the Times, Jan. 13, 1890.