The law of the fist: Open hands receive; closed fists don't. This basic faith principle works whether you believe in God or not. If you live with a closed attitude, you cannot receive love. If you live with an open attitude, you can receive friendship. Building an open-handed life requires generosity as a regular practice. Our problem is defining generosity and then practicing it.
The Scripture teaches that generosity is defined by percentage, not amount. It's an old preacher riddle: When is $40 more than $100? In the offering plate. If an administrative assistant is paid $400 per pay period and puts in $40, that is more than if her boss, who is paid $2,000 per pay period, puts in $100. If you are honest with yourself, you will take a minute and come up with a percentage that represents generosity for you.
Generosity is like the keystone of an arch. When practiced, it holds your financial life in place. How do you put generosity into practice? Put these five keystones into practice:
1. Give to God first
This is where many people struggle. First, they pay their bills, then they set aside money for groceries and Wal-Mart. Then, if anything is left, they give a little bit to God. Too often, there is nothing left.
Jesus said, "Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness." Apply this to your financial life. God comes before the bank. What this requires, of course, is that you organize your finances. This is not something Americans are good at. God wants you to organize your finances not just so you can give, but also so you live within your means. Giving to God first creates a healthy soul that is generous.
2. Give what you have
Whenever giving is discussed in church, people get nervous. Is the expectation for me to give to God and have nothing left for myself? That was the expectation of the ancient gods. They demanded sacrifice and didn't care if you went hungry. That is not the Christian understanding of God.
Paul taught us two important principles: Take care of your family, and give what you have, not what you don't have.
You may need to adjust your lifestyle to be generous. Your lifestyle probably needs adjustment, anyway. You need transportation, not a car that makes a statement. Your children do not need to get more for Christmas than the neighbors. In fact, the most valuable lesson you can teach them is to not play the comparison game. The real question is not "Does God expect me to do without?" but "How do I need to live so I can be generous?"
3. Give a percentage
You live on a percentage of your income. I read the average American family lives on 113 percent of their income (ah, the wonders of credit cards). No wonder so many of us struggle. I think 10 percent of your income is a beginning point of generosity.
The best financial advice I can give you is found in the Bible and in every financial planning guide: Create margin. Spend less than you make. A financial health formula: Give 10 percent, save 10 percent, and live on 80 percent.
Could it be that God wants you to give and save so you can have margin in your financial life?
4. Give regularly
Regular giving means you pay attention to your financial life. As a couple and a family, you have the hard discussions. If you are a believer, regular giving means you acknowledge regularly that God owns it all. Regular giving means regular acknowledgement of God's blessings in your life.
5. Give to Jesus' body
If you aren't a follower of Jesus, I think it's still a good idea to give. But if you are a follower of Jesus, give to your local church. Give so God's work can be done. It takes resources to provide tools for ministry: buildings, bulletins and Bibles. It takes resources to fund vocational ministers, who lead, teach and equip.
I understand the impulse to want to direct our generosity. We want to have a direct connection to those blessed by our giving. But I believe giving 10 percent of our income to Jesus's body is a form of submission. It is a tangible way we say, "Not my will, but yours be done."
What would happen if these five keystones of generosity governed your financial life? You would be a better money manager, your soul would be healthier, and the world would change.
Small price to pay.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church.