The Sin That Plagues God's People
In seeking "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" we should ever keep in mind two very impressive observations made in the Spirit of Prophecy writings. The first one is to the effect that selfishness is the great sin that currently plagues God's people. Please note these sentences: "The greatest sin which now exists in the church is covetousness. God frowns upon His professed people for their selfishness."—Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 194. And again: "The reason why God's people are not more spiritually minded and have not more faith, I have been shown, is because they are narrowed up with selfishness."—Ibid., vol. 2, p. 36. Statements like these could be multiplied.
The second observation from the Spirit of Prophecy writings bearing upon preparing a people for the coming of the Lord indicates that a spiritual revival and a spiritual reformation constitute the greatest need of the church. I hasten to point out that this need is not a "religious" revival, or a "religious" reformation. There is a vast difference between being religious and being spiritual—a vast gap exists between these two experiences. The one leads to legalism—the other to divine fellowship. The greatest need for the finishing of the work of the Lord is not for more men, more money, or for vastly expanded facilities—such as these are needed. Our greatest need is a spiritual need. It would seem to follow, then, that any divinely approved program of stewardship must provide a remedy for selfishness and make a profound impact on the spiritual growth of the church.
If we allow what I have said to be valid, it inevitably follows that we must keep a critical eye on our stewardship methods and our stewardship plans. We dare not employ appeals that eventuate in ulterior motives in the response of our people to our presentations. If our stewardship appeals to our people play up the prospect of greater returns and greater security in their investments in the cause, we may actually be adding to the selfishness of the people rather than eradicating it from the church. If our people are not led to make some sacrifice in the investment of their possessions in the cause of God, their response may contribute nothing to their spiritual growth. It is my firm conviction that any effective appeal to our people for deferred giving should constantly be counterbalanced by great spiritual appeals for current sacrifice. Outright giving is the great need of this crucial hour.
I was profoundly impressed, and somewhat shocked, when I discovered the following paragraph in the fourth volume of the Testimonies, page 81: "Many people selfishly retain their means, and soothe their conscience with a plan for doing some great thing for the cause of God after their death. They make a will donating a large sum to the church and its various interests, and then settle down with a feeling that they have done all that is required of them. Wherein have they denied self by this act? They have, on the contrary, exhibited the true essence of selfishness. When they have no longer any use for their money they propose to give it to God. But they will retain it as long as they can, till they are compelled to relinquish it by a messenger that cannot be turned aside.
"Such a will is often an evidence of real covetousness. God has made us all His stewards, and in no case has He authorized us to neglect our duty or leave it for others to do. The call for means to advance the cause of truth will never be more urgent than now. Our money will never do a greater amount of good than at the present time. Every day of delay in rightly appropriating it, is limiting the period in which it will do good in saving souls. If we leave others to accomplish that which God has left for us to do, we wrong ourselves and Him who gave us all we have."
Means Needed NOW
In the light of the preceding quotation it is ever well to remember Ellen White's total counsel on the making of Christian wills. Repeatedly she stresses the necessity of making a proper disposition of ourpossessions by means of a will. She lays upon the hearts of God's children the claims that God has on the possessions He has enabled them to accumulate. This counsel makes primary reference to such possessions and wealth as may be needed to provide properly and adequately for the family. A Christian will is an instrument by which such currently needed possessions can be channeled into the cause of God and provide help for needy relatives when we are no longer here. But to make a will to substitute for the current sacrifice of excess wealth to meet the increasing needs of God's work is a denial of our stewardship privileges and obligations. The needs of God's work will never be greater than they are right NOW. Our need for being prepared for the return of our Lord is a current—not a future—need. Only present sacrifice can uproot selfishness from human hearts.
It might be well for us to pause long enough to briefly examine the several types of motivation that may lead our people to respond to our appeals for means to support the work of God. The type of motivation that operates is in a large measure the result of the type of appeal that we make. Hence the long-range effect of a stewardship program is the reflection of the personal experience and philosophy of the one who makes the appeal and directs the program.
Some Gifts Unacceptable
Both the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy writings have much to say about the motives that should prompt our benevolence. If the motive is unworthy, then the gift is unacceptable and the influence upon the life is spiritually detrimental. Measured by this criterion, an otherwise successful financial campaign might actually result in spiritual harm to a congregation. I have witnessed such harmful effects. What, then, are the several types of motives to which an appeal might be made, and with what effect?
In the first place there is the motive of conformity. This results from pressure tactics. It brings some results. Everybody appears to be responding so I better get into the swing. I don't like to do it very well, but the Joneses are doing it and the Smiths are doing it, so I guess I better get into line. This urge to conform is most in evidence when the list of donors is published, or when Mr. A is confronted with what Mr. B has pledged to do. This procedure is used to induce members to dig deeper than their original intentions. The conformity motive also operates when a complete involvement of the church is the goal or when pressure of per capita giving is brought to bear upon the congregation. The motive here is not to lose face. So the response is often a grudging one, with no great spiritual side effects. We have a classic example of this in the Bible in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. What makes this case impressive is that it could take place in the full blaze of Pentecost. Having been moved to do what others were doing in disposing of their property and offering the proceeds to care for the poor, Ananias and Sapphira begrudged giving the whole. But the pressure of conformity was there and so they stooped to falsehood. The results are too well known to be rehearsed here.
Another motive to which an appeal can be made is the sense of responsibility. This operates most effectively when one—as a member of a group—is made to feel a sense of responsibility for some existing need. Nov this is a worthier motive than that of conformity, to be sure, and it often results in generous giving. The goals are usually met with this approach. The difficulty here is that benevolence is spasmodic. When the need has been met the springs of generosity cease to flow. So with every recurring need there must be new pressures, new approaches, new promotion. There seldom is a surplus in the treasury when the motivation is simply a sense of responsibility for an existing need.
True Christian Motive
Now the difficulty with a sense of responsibility as a motive in Christian stewardship is the fact that it is not distinctively Christian. Any political party can use this type of motivation. Since you belong to the party, therefore you are under obligation to help meet the expenses of the party. Any non-Christian group can use this type of motivation. Responsibility is not, in the truest sense, a Christian motivation.
The true Christian motive in stewardship is something totally different. It does not concern itself with what others are doing or are not doing. It does not operate only in the presence of an existing need. The true motive in Christian stewardship is gratitude, and gratitude is our response to the daily manifestations of God's love for us. The heart that senses the goodness of God spontaneously cries out, "What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits?" I like the following lines: "True Christian benevolence springs from the principle of grateful love. Love to Christ cannot exist without corresponding love to those whom He came into the world to redeem. Love to Christ must be the ruling principle of the being, controlling all the emotions and directing all the energies. Redeeming love should awaken all the tender affection and self-sacrificing devotion that can possibly exist in the heart of man. When this is the case, no heart-stirring appeals will be needed to break through their selfishness and awaken their dormant sympathies, to call forth benevolent offerings for the precious cause of truth."—Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 396. (Italics supplied.)
Spiritual Revival Necessary
So it becomes evident that if we would keep the springs of generosity forever flowing in the church, we must lead our members into an ever deeper and more satisfying fellowship with the Saviour. Often, together with our people, we must climb the slopes of Golgotha and have our hearts cry out—"Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God." Yes, our primary need in this critical hour is not for more money; our great need is a vital spiritual revival. Such a revival will deepen the springs of gratitude and gratitude will overflow in a generosity such as has not been witnessed since the days of Pentecost.
My brethren, this seems to me to be our only hope. If we would meet the ever-mounting material needs to finish the work of God, and if at the same time we would lead our people into an assured preparation for the coming of the Lord, we must have a spiritual revival of primitive godliness.
A remarkable illustration of how this whole process works is related by the apostle Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church. You remember it is found in the eighth chapter, the first four verses. He commends the churches of Macedonia for their generosity in helping to meet the needs of the suffering saints in Jerusalem. He hastens to point out that their unusual generosity did not stem from their abundance. Their own poverty was exceedingly deep. Dr. Phillips, in translating this chapter, says that the Macedonian churches were "down to their last penny." That is amazing, isn't it? It was the abundance of their joy, coupled with their deep poverty, that abounded unto the riches of their liberality. They were not limited in their gifts by per capita statistics. They gave far beyond their power, so the apostle testifies. And what was the secret of this remarkable experience? We find it in the fifth verse: "And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God." They had a spiritual revival and that revival resulted in unprecedented generosity. Here is the divine formula—the divine order that eventuates in spiritual growth and spiritual preparation: fellowship—gratitude—generostty. Stewardship thus becomes a way of life—a life lived in close partnership with God.God Is Our Partner
I was greatly impressed some months back when I had occasion to go to the college market where I met a friend, the widow of one of our workers. She shared with me the fact that she had just received a slight increase in her Social Security payments. My response was spontaneous —"That is wonderful—it will help to take a bit of the strain out of life." A bewildered look came into her eyes as she responded, "No, it will help me to be more generous with the church."
Then she began telling me of her experience. "When I first became an Adventist I learned of the tithing system and adopted it. I found it to be such a blessing that when I heard of some people who were setting aside a second tithe I began to follow the practice too. This brought a precious experience. Then I heard of some people who were devoting a third tithe to their church work and this became my practice. One day it occurred to me that God and I were partners and as partners, so it seemed, we should surely go halves. I have been using 50 per cent of my income for the Lord's work ever since."
There you have it! This is the spirit that will finish the work and hasten our preparation for the return of our blessed Master. This is generosity that springs from gratitude—and the Lord loveth a cheerful giver. The language of the redeemed heart is not how little but how much I can give to Him who gave His all. The heart that is in tune with the Divine does not give "grudgingly, or of necessity" but cheerfully and joyously. When we have come to know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty might be rich—then the language of the heart will be:
"When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
"Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a tribute far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my soul, my all."
* Presented as a devotional study at the Estate Planning and Investment Meeting, Denver, Colorado, September 19-22, 1966.